Moses and the Red Sea: Leadership in times of crisis

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Rev Dr David Ferguson, Presbytery Officer for the Uniting Church WA, shares some biblical reflections on leadership during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 outbreak we are currently experiencing.

A number of years ago, I preached at the induction of a friend.

The Old Testament text for that day was Exodus 14. I thought it might be good to remember this particular passage for our current situation, with compulsory physical distancing due to disease having such a profound impact upon the people we lead, and as age old practices and ways of connecting with God and each other have been lost. It is certainly more appropriate than it felt saying this in a church that was inundated a year previously.

The story of Moses at the Red Sea is one of great drama. The people are caught between the rampaging armies of the Egyptians on one side and the feared depths of the sea on the other. Yet, still God provides a way through – not by withdrawing either threat but calling Moses to lead his people into the very heart of the chaos of the sea.

The first steps the initial leaders took in their passage through the sea must have been the most difficult of their lives. It must only have been their trust in God and in Moses, largely in part to their lived experience following Moses in other cases, which gave them the impetus to step into the watery chasm.

We have a way through this COVID-19 pandemic. It has been provided for us by the doctors and scientist whose gifts God has used for centuries to bring health and well-being into our communities.

It is essential that we see this work as a gift from God even if we (probably, like the people of Israel and our Lord at Golgotha) are praying that there may be an easier way.

If we, as leaders, wish to serve as shepherds keeping our people (and their families) safe from physical harm and great grief among their families and communities, we have to lead by example and provide the best support we can to the medical experts and our leaders.

The walk across the Red Sea, surrounded on both sides by the water, must have been a terrifying place. The temptation to lose faith as individuals, and a group, and take the chance of facing the known threat of the army must have always been in the minds of the people.

There were three key factors (apart from fear) that kept the group from turning back: the clear vision from their leaders, the presence of their leaders with them and the sense of being a community on the move together. Note the focus of the leaders was on leading ‘through’, not ‘into’.

It is therefore essential that our leaders work hard at both visioning and pastoral care.

At times like this we are all stressed, and it is vital that our leaders come up with simple clear strategies of how the community may not just hold together, but move forwards to a new future through this catastrophic event. This needs to be accompanied by lots of work on the part of key leaders to show that they are showing personal care to their communities, but they cannot do it all by themselves – the need for systematic and accountable systems of pastoral care within congregations has never been more critical.

So, they made their way through. In summary, the practices of leadership that helped most in this situation were:

  • maintenance of their own faith life
  • clear, simple and concise vision statements
  • support for people, acknowledging they are in a place of fear
  • not thinking they can do it all alone; using the space created by the clear, accepted vision to organise, empower and release their teams and communities.

There are many ways our situation is not like the Red Sea, but I hope this provides people a chance to reflect on their own ministry experiences at this time and encouragement for the way to come.

We are all going to be changed by this experience, but we will also need to acknowledge that people will always want to rebuild the security of the past. This can only be done by faith, not in the clarity of a pillar of flame but rather the one who says Follow me” into the messy reality of incarnational, sacrificial ministry and “I will be with you always.”

My prayers are with all who have accepted the responsibility of leadership in these difficult times.

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