By Reverend Claire Dobbs, First United Methodist Church, Gulfport, MS
Every leader has her own story and approach. I wanted to explore the wisdom of two clergy friends by asking them to respond to the same questions. This is the first of two articles. Please enjoy and learn.
Leaders Need Leaders
In this COVID crisis, I have been reminded of how much leaders need leaders. We never outgrow the need for a mentor. I am grateful to Prudence Bushnell for her guidance and support during this challenging season. She has invited me to share some lessons that I have learned while leading a church community during COVID 19.
My computer screen saver currently reads, “Take care of your people, and the rest will take care of itself.” In a crisis, Pru has advised me to make this my mantra. It has become the lens through which I have to make every decision and act as a community leader. People matter more than money, more than efficiency, and more than keeping up appearances. People matter more than what other churches are doing or not doing. Put people first!
3 Lessons I’ve Learned About Taking Care of People:
1. STRATEGIZE AND STRUCTURE
I serve a congregation that includes around 350 on our active directory. For one pastor to care for that many people is impossible. Caring means showing up and being present, physically & virtually. As senior pastor, I spend most of my time with trusted friends and family who help ground me and hold me accountable for being my best self and leader. Then I spend my time pouring into the lives of strategic leaders in the church: around 35-40 people. These are the drivers of the church. The ones who make the church run and hum. That leaves about 25% of my time to care for people in need in my congregation and community.
This lesson is related to lesson #1, Strategize & Structure. In times of unknown and uncertainty, people need clarity. They need to know what is happening and how our story is unfolding. As senior pastor, I have become the chief storyteller of the church. This includes public announcements, preaching online worship productions, and internal communications within our congregation. Since the pandemic, I have devoted 60% of my time to how our church tells our story. Our associate pastor has taken the lead in congregational care. She spends most of her time developing teams and caring for our congregation. We’ve learned that people need to see our faces and hear our voices. So visits through a window or on an outside porch, FaceTime, Zoom, and phone calls have become the best ways to connect.
Change is the one thing we can all count on, which is especially true in times of crisis. As a leader, I quickly learned that we could not plan too far out in advance. 14 days! That’s about as far as we have been able to plan. Even then, we better be prepared to adapt to the constant changes. Taking care of people means staying nimble.
2 Challenges I Have Found Difficult to Overcome:
1. NEGATIVE. SELF-TALK
When the novelty of online worship waned (2 months in), our engagement significantly decreased, which was true for most churches. When we worship again in person, we predict our attendance will be 25% of what it was before COVID-19. With these challenges, my mind gets clouded with negativity and doubt about what will happen to our congregation. What will we look like a year from now, five years from now? The mind is powerful, and what we think grows. I struggle with turning off my inner critic. Prayer helps, and so does focusing on small successes.
2. PROLONGED CRISIS
We have heard it over and over about this year’s crisis, “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” I am a sprinter by nature. Learning to pace myself is very challenging. I have borrowed an acronym from the recovery community: H.A.L.T. I try to catch myself when I am Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired and practice self-care, which is critical for leading well. I try not to make any important decisions when I am hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
What is one community achievement of which I am most proud?
I am proud of the inner work, soul development, and self-leadership that I had done for many years leading up to this crisis. American social activist and nun, Sister Joan Chittister, says: “Heroes are those who are free enough internally to face any amount of external pressure for the sake of the greater good.” Prayer and meditation, deep reflection, knowing my core values, and practicing self-awareness have served as my rudder in this crisis. Our lives are not determined by what happens to us externally; they are shaped by how we make sense of them internally.
What have I learned about myself as a leader during COVID?
Ultimately, leadership and taking care of people is all about trust. If I want to be trusted as a leader, I need to learn to trust God, others, and myself. There is a metaphysical teaching that says, “The Universe will support your integrity.” Living a congruent life, where my “yes means yes and my no means no” is the best way to lead and care for people.
I am grateful for my friend and mentor, Prudence Bushnell, who models such leadership and reminds me daily that Leaders Need Leaders. Thank you, Pru!
About the Author
I met Claire Dobbs through a mutual friend who raved about her new pastor. On my next visit to the MS Gulf Coast, I met Claire socially and also visited her church. We quickly bonded over our interest in leadership, leadership development and women in leadership. Claire was raised in Amory, MS and received degrees from University of Mississippi and Duke University Divinity School. She served as Associate Pastor at United Methodist churches in Columbus and Oxford, MS and now is Lead Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Gulfport, MS.
- What role have you played in your community over the past six months?
- What has been most challenging and how did you confront the challenge?
- What have you done in the community of which you are most proud?