the shape of leadership

How to Handle Disruptions

Don’t let the unexpected throw you off

Kristi Northup on August 14, 2019

Anyone who grew up in church has at least a few crazy stories about things that went wrong in a service.

I’ve seen smoke machines that wouldn’t stop, flying toupees, and people slipping in the baptismal tank.

Some disruptions aren’t funny, like heretical prophetic words, a medical emergency, or protesters interrupting a service.

With an infinite number of things that can go awry, it helps to have some systems and methods in place so you can respond appropriately. Here are several basic guidelines for dealing with the unexpected in a service:

Be a shepherd. First, whether the issue is big or small, the goal is to shepherd people. We don’t want to shame or embarrass them. At the same time, we don’t want to jeopardize the trust or security of the congregation. This principle should always guide the decision of how to handle whatever is going on.

Rely on teamwork. Inevitably, strange things happen. Several members of your ministry team need to be ready to handle a disruption at a moment’s notice. Prepare staff members, worship leaders, head ushers, elders and deacons to help manage the situation when appropriate.

It releases the tension from the room if everyone can laugh a little.

De-escalate. The fastest way to intensify a problem is for a leader to approach it loudly and aggressively. It’s best for an usher or deacon to step in quietly and calmly, with a kind and gracious offer to help. Transitioning a disruptive person to a quieter area, like a lobby or side room, may be enough to resolve the issue.

Let the music cover it. Sometimes, a disruption affects only the people immediately surrounding it. A poised worship leader knows how to use music to cover many such disturbances. Chances are, most congregants won’t even realize anything happened.

Keep going. After an awkward moment, it’s sometimes best just to move on. Stopping can draw more attention to it. This is often the case when someone accidentally says something inappropriate from a microphone.

Acknowledge it. If it’s too obvious to ignore, go ahead and acknowledge whatever happened. It releases the tension from the room if everyone can laugh a little.

Address it. Sometimes the situation calls for shepherding. You may need to offer some explanation of what happened, and possibly a theological correction. In these moments, it’s important to share a Scripture to provide some context. This helps congregants understand that you’re not just giving your opinion, and that church leaders rely on something greater than themselves for guidance.

Laugh about it later. Laughter really is good medicine. Even difficult situations are easier to assess when you’ve had a chance to see the humor in them.

It can be awkward and tricky to know how to handle some situations in the moment. Love your people. Don’t let the unexpected throw you off. Protect them when the situation calls for it. Laugh later when crazy things happen. Someday, it will be an exciting story.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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