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Leading In Crisis: Reflections on a Stressful Youth Ministry Moment

On the return from our last student ministry event, some of our younger students got dehydrated and overheated. It resulted from a combination of 2+ days of walking around in the sun and intaking only caffeinated beverages and fast food, as well as the air conditioning going out on the charter bus in the California desert. In a somewhat dramatic turn of events, we had to pull over off the freeway and call 911 for the dehydrated folks. Six students ultimately were driven to the hospital, while the rest waited at a truck stop for two hours to get a new bus.

To put it mildly, it was a stressful situation. Firefighters, paramedics, parents at home, and students on the bus all had questions they wanted answered. In the midst of it all, at one point I found myself carrying one of the dehydrated junior high girls off one bus to the other, walking along the side of a freeway in the middle of the California desert, offering words of comfort as she cried into my shoulder.

In that crisis moment, I had to lead. I didn’t really want to–it would have felt easier to run or pretend it wasn’t happening or panic. You might find yourself in a similar crisis moment, having to make quick decisions and wise choices in the midst of ever-mounting stress. Two weeks later, here are some of the leadership ideas I’m still processing from the experience:

Leaders define reality. A good leader can assess a situation and see what is really real. Was the situation scary and concerning? Yep. Was it life-threatening to all involved? No way. I don’t want to negate the severity of the situation–dehydration is something we needed to take seriously–but leadership requires stepping back, taking in the whole situation, and make wise decisions and timely decisions based on what is truly needed in the moment. If I panic and make fear-based decisions, it sets a tone. If I prayerfully and calmly process the decisions and take decisive and loving action, it sets a remarkably different tone. (I think this idea of “leaders define reality” originates from Max DePree.)

Crisis or memory maker? When the six students were picked up from the hospital, they all had cheery dispositions and plenty of stories to share. Only hours before they were freaking out; now they were a cadre of friends who had survived a scary experience together. Despite everything else that happened on the trip, they will remember this as the event where they rode in an ambulance and went to a hospital. Curiously, conflict and crisis can create a sense of community and camaraderie that goes beyond any programmed environment we construct. I will never forget carrying that junior high girl off the bus; I doubt she will either.

Technology as friend and foe. Smart phones and 3G networks allowed us to make 911 calls and update parents while in the middle of the California desert. It also allowed for teenagers to send out alarming text messages and Facebook statuses. When a student texts their parent, “the bus pulled over and an ambulance is here,” it isn’t false information, but it also isn’t the whole story. We typically don’t allow students to bring cell phones on trips and events. Instead, we notify parents and students that if they need to get a hold of each other, all the leaders will have cell phones and will be with students the entire time.

Lead together. If I was by myself as the only capable leader, I would have drowned in the stress of the moment. But there were numerous other leaders doing their best to navigate a difficult situation. Our junior high pastor, Dylan, did a fantastic job of making the tough decision to call 911 while also getting his volunteer leaders to take care of students, going to the hospital with the sick kids while I stayed with the buses. Volunteers were getting water, calming students, talking with firemen, praying, and very helpful overall. I could trust them, knowing they had my back. That couldn’t have happened without the investment into them as leaders prior to this moment–they felt empowered and capable without us having to hold their hand and walk them through it because Dylan and I had already been walking with them. And I haven’t even mentioned our student ministries pastor, executive pastor, and lead pastor, how they all were incredibly supportive and encouraging both during and afterwards. To know that I have advocates and fellow leaders who love and trust me is deeply empowering.

The illusion of control and the value of trust. Despite all our planning and thinking and cautions and boundaries, sometimes bad things happen that you can’t plan for. This is especially true for us parents, who may believe that our proximity to our children automatically makes them safer. Perhaps this is true in some ways, as parents are inherently more protective of their own. Yet our control over our lives is truly quite limited. So we have to trust the Lord, actually trust Him, knowing that He is in control and worthy of our trust. Proverbs 19:21 says it best: Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

What leadership lessons have you been learning lately?

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Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and film critic. The author of three books, he has written for numerous ministry publications, including Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, Leadership Journal, YouthWorker Journal, Immerse Journal, The Youth Cartel, and LeaderTreks. You can read his musings on film, theology, and culture at his personal blog, www.joelmayward.com. For his film reviews and essays, check out www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.