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Driving on Ice: A System in Times of Crisis
Driving on Ice: A System in Times of Crisis

Think about a group of people riding in the car together. You are going along the highway and suddenly the car starts to skid on black ice. Let’s use this as an analogy for what happens to a congregation when there is an unexpected crisis. Maybe the beloved minister resigns due to a medical problem or there is a nasty conflict that splits the congregation in two.

  1. The first thing that happens, as the car starts to slide on the ice, is that everyone braces themselves for impact and becomes very stiff. This is a natural reaction to fear. A system under stress becomes more rigid, and so do individuals within that system. People don’t tend to think creatively at this point, but just “batten down the hatches” to reduce the possible negative outcome. This also happens in a congregation facing a crisis. Innovation and change is unwelcome in a crisis and folks rush to old and well-worn patterns of behavior and roles that feel safe and reliable.
  2. People may scream. Unfiltered emotions may come spilling out. People can say things they would normally keep to themselves. This might include yelling at the driver. In a congregation in crisis, members may look for someone or something to blame and share their opinions widely about what went wrong. They can start to take sides and gossip. This can often take the form of blaming the leaders. Or folks will make dire predictions, “If this keeps going, all our good members will leave.” This just increases the anxiety.
  3. Hands on the steering wheel become key at this time. If passengers in the car have a feeling that the driver is not competent, they may try to grab for the wheel to try to save the day. The trouble is that people all grabbing the wheel greatly increases the chance of running off the road, rather than decreasing it. It happens in congregations as well. If a leadership void is felt, anxious people will jump in and try to “take control” of what they believe is an out of control or poorly managed situation. It may happen even if there is no actual leadership void and those who jump in to save the day are often not authorized to take charge.

So, what can we do to avoid a crash when the car slides on black ice? What can the congregation do in a crisis to avoid a crash as well? The solution mostly falls to the work of the driver of the car or the congregational leaders.

  1. The drive must stay calm. Breathe. Remember your training to turn into the direction of the skid. Do not let go of the wheel as the car is skidding, but turn the wheel in a fluid motion as needed. Keep your eye on the road in front of you and not on where the ice may have come from.  The congregational leader is well served to stay calm in the face of a crisis. Maintain a sense of self-differentiation, knowing what voices you should be listening to and what is just venting anxiety. Stay mission focused, rather than reacting to the people around you.
  2. Communicate clearly. Assure the passengers in the car that “you’ve got this” and that you know what to do in the ice. This will help reduce their anxiety. Congregational leaders in a time of crisis should keep the congregation well informed of what is going on. Distribute information about how the search for new minister is progressing or when the next listening session with the board will be held. You should aim for transparency about the process you are using to face the problems. You might want to avoid transparency about your own fears.
  3. Self-care. After a nasty slide on the ice, the driver may be tired. After a few miles, maybe you want to switch drivers for a while. In a congregation, it is good to rotate leadership. Keeping the same president for too many years tends to reinforce the way things have always been and sends a false message to the group that you are the only one who can lead. This is not a good message for them to hear, or for you to hear either. Help the group choose a good leader to take the wheel for a while. And this might be a good time to check the tires and see if the tread is still good. Maybe a change in tires will help prevent future skids. Maybe a change in some bylaws or a new personnel policy can help avoid future congregational splits. It might have been the wakeup call that was needed to make this needed change.
  4. It is important that the group in the car remember that black ice is out there and to be careful. They may tell stories about that near-miss for years. But eventually they need to let go of the anxiety and go back to the more flexible and relaxed way of being together. Same is true for a congregation. Tell the stories about the bad times, but let them be stories and not your ongoing culture.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr began as Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region in July of 2016. Prior to working for the UUA, Sarah was a parish minister specializing in congregations who were new to ministry, most recently West Hills UU Fellowship in Portland,...

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