by Rt Rev Dr Eleanor Sanderson
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We never really know when a crisis is going to happen, or what the nature of that crisis might be, so how can Christian leaders prepare ourselves to lead communities through crisis?
March 15th 2019 was described as New Zealand’s darkest day, when a man killed 52 people at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, live-streaming his atrocity. This horrific racial and religiously motivated attack was unprecedented in its scale and shocked our secular country to its core. But as a Bishop of the Anglican church in New Zealand, I had to step up.
That Friday was my Sabbath and I was weeping and speaking with God. had been one of those kinds of weeks. I was sad, but I was also frustrated in my struggle to share some of the softer wisdoms of my heart into the more institutional corners of our church. The presence of God fell around me. I felt a deep affinity with my tears and then a voice, “let me take this pain from you”. A weight instantly lifted. Again, I heard God’s Spirit speak, “check your phone”. Sabbath days are phone free days for me, so this was an unusual prompt. As I turned on my phone, I saw the very beginning of the events in Christchurch unfolding.
The next few hours happened very quickly. Our key church leaders swung into co-ordinated action. Our central inner-city church, with a strong ministry to a politically active younger generation, initiated an ecumenical prayer vigil. Another leader connected with the New Zealand Abrahamic Council of Faith and the National Islamic Centre and organised for us to immediately visit their Mosque. We were welcomed in, walking past armed police in full combat gear with the unknown threat of whether this was a nation-wide attack unfolding. On behalf of our church, I shared our deepest sadness and offered our support. Right there in the mosque, I was invited to pray, which I did. We then drove to our prayer vigil, where news reporters waited to interview me while a packed church prayed. I spoke about our visit to the mosque and about prayer as a posture of love and non-violence. More TV cameras arrived. Only as our prayer service ended did we find out the full scale of the attack!
Throughout that night, as new stations ran an updating commentary on what had happened, our interview and vigil were part of the ‘good news’ signs of hope amidst the horror. That night, my brother Bishop and I wrote a pastoral letter to our people. We spoke into the trauma of the event, into the reality of hate and into the reality of love. We called our people to three things: first to pray; secondly to reach out in friendship to our Muslim brothers and sisters; thirdly to be active as people of love through acts of kindness and hospitality.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them (1 John 4:16)
A crisis often involves tragedy. As leaders we must help make sense of what is happening for our people so that we can locate ourselves in the movement of God. In this case, it was so important that we connected ourselves as people of compassion. We need leadership in both words and actions of love. To lead through tragedy, we need to have done our own hard work of processing pain and suffering so that we can stand authentically on God’s promise that “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38). My own afternoon of tears and then release from tears was a beautiful foundation for what followed. Crisis leadership knows how to find the momentum of God’s love in all and any situation, because we have done that for ourselves and we are not afraid of sorrow or suffering.
[we are called] to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:12)
A crisis reveals the leadership and the community that has already been built. In a crisis, you don’t have the luxury of doing that long-term leadership building, community building work. That work must have already been done for it to be mobilised in a crisis. As leaders we had intentionally prioritised fostering healthy leadership models and mobilising our diverse communities to work together for good. We can lead a community in crisis because we have a community to mobilise and leaders to coordinate. That is our everyday call in God. We can then mobilise with simple, practical steps that provide focus to counteract the overwhelm that crisis can create.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27-28)
To lead in a crisis, we must be led ourselves by God. Again, there is no short-cut to learning this responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. We can lead a community in crisis because we ourselves are constantly, humbly, learning how to be led by the Holy Spirit.
Doing all this deep day to day work with God, every day, is the strongest foundation for the critical day when a crisis comes.
As the prayer vigil ended, a woman leader in one of our church-based community organisations, came to me and placed her hand on my heart. “Thank you for your leadership”, she said. As she encouraged me, in depths she couldn’t have known. Jesus’ model of leadership is one of deep empathy and love. In a crisis, speaking and acting from a foundation of authentic love can provide a profound and peaceful stability, radiating beyond our church walls and bringing hope to our communities. Right now, in a world experiencing overwhelming darkness, let’s keep vulnerably leaning into the light and hope of loving leadership for our church and world.
Eleanor Sanderson serves as Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Wellington, New Zealand and is a Research Associate at Victoria University of Wellington School of Religious Studies. She lives as part of a residential intentional community for tertiary students, The Community of the Transfiguration, with her husband Tim and two sons Zac (age 11) and Joe (age 10).