The global pandemic of 2020-2022 will (eventually) offer us case studies in leadership during a time of extreme anxiety. While the definitive books about this season in leadership haven’t been written (yet), I think a key element will be that the pandemic acted to pull back the curtain on leadership at all levels. Gaps and vulnerabilities were often made worse, and where there was leadership and institutional health, those things stood in sharp relief. But nearly everywhere we saw the effects of anxiety in a living system.

In this blog post I’ll share one small example of how that anxiety manifested itself in my local church community, and how our leadership responded by listening in a time of crisis.

An Anxious Living System

During a period of surging infections in late 2021, the church on which I serve in a volunteer leadership capacity had to grapple (once again) with how to navigate corporate gatherings. As we processed the concerns of the community, it was clear that there was no consensus on what constituted “best practice.” Opinions differed widely on what was appropriate, safe, and accommodating of the needs and concerns of others. While some in the congregation were concerned that we were not doing enough to safeguard the vulnerable, others felt our policies were too stringent or lacking a solid basis.

In our particular church structure we follow the guidance of our diocesan leadership, and we seek to honor those in the civil arena entrusted with authority on public health matters. But in this instance no new guidance was forthcoming from either of these religious or civil institutions. Anxiety in our community was high, and relationships between people who deeply care for one another were strained.

Return to Values

Despite challenges along the way as our community learned to adapt to several new “normals” throughout the pandemic, we did two things in that particular moment of high anxiety that I believe were significant.

First, our leadership team reflected on our core values as a community. And then we began to communicate multiple times, in multiple ways, how our practices of in-person gatherings with specific accommodations for those with a high risk/ high concern perspective and a low risk / low concern perspective were aligned with our values as a community. It was important to name those values again, and to demonstrate that our policies weren’t arbitrary but were tied to institutional guidance and reflective of the values that make our community unique.

Listening in a Time of Crisis

The second thing we did was to create a streamlined channel for concerns to be heard and taken into consideration by our leadership team at regular intervals. I believe this decision to communicate how (and by whom) concerns would be heard was a game changer for our church. We know that our anxiety decreases when we feel heard and understood, and by dedicating ourselves to listening in a time of crisis, we found that it worked to across our community as well.

Absent new guidance from our diocese or public health officials, we ultimately made no significant policy changes around our corporate gatherings. Those who felt our policies didn’t go far enough, and those who felt they went too far still felt that way. But people felt heard. And they knew that their concerns would be taken seriously by the leadership team.

Don’t just do something. Stand there.

In a crisis, there will be a chorus of voices urging leaders, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” But it takes a  lot of discernment, and I think reflection on your values to know when, in fact, we need to “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

Standing on your values, and really listening will help bring down the level of anxiety in a living system. It’s a gift that every leader can give to their community, even if they’re not in a position to change policies.

More on Listening from our Leadership Coaches

For more insight into how to listen effectively, check out The Three Ears of Great Listening from Jeff Boersma. In Leadership Toolbox: Listening, Meredith Nieuwsma offers eight insights into what you can accomplish when you take the time and exercise the humility needed to listen well.