Leading in a Crisis: Lessons from Nehemiah

Mũndara Mũturi is Associate Executive Director for Regions and Director for Leadership Development. He lives in Kenya.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our entire world like nothing in living memory. What does it look like to lead God’s people in his mission in such times? Nehemiah’s example provides valuable lessons, especially in a crisis like ours where the information load has no boundaries and it is difficult to discern what to pay attention to and act on.

Collect credible information

In times of crisis, leaders may be tempted (like everyone else) to barricade themselves and stay safe. Nehemiah could have done so, as he lived comfortably in a fortress far from Jerusalem. But when visitors arrived, he sought trustworthy information about the situation back home. “They said to me, ‘Things are not going well. … They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.’” (Neh. 1:3)

If Nehemiah were alive today, I think he would have sought information on COVID-19 from reliable sources like government agencies and multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization. But information alone is not sufficient. It can leave us fearful and confused about the best course of action to take.

Pray and Mobilise Prayer

As leaders, we want to act when a crisis hits. Nehemiah’s first act was to pour out his concerns to God: “I sat down and wept. … For days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:4) Broken before God, he confessed his own sins and those of his ancestors. He followed the example of King David 500 years earlier, who faced a crisis by expressing his anguish in prayer: “A raging fever burns within me, and my health is broken. I am exhausted and completely crushed. My groans come from an anguished heart. You know what I long for, Lord; you hear my every sigh.” (Psalm 38:7-9) Esther, who like Nehemiah served in a pagan king’s palace, also mobilised others to pray and fast.

Nehemiah’s communion with God didn’t just allow him to deal with his grief. It also enabled him to assess the significance of the information he had just heard about Jerusalem and to discern the implications for himself.

A modern-day Nehemiah would quickly realize that none of our modern strongholds – plans, money, power or technology – can be depended on to remedy the situation. COVID-19 has shown each of these to be inadequate. Nehemiah encourages us to pray and to express our trust and confidence in God and in his ability to calm the sea and storm, or to calm us so that we can weather them.

Communicate and share information

Beyond speaking to God, Nehemiah had other audiences to address. He told the king about the crisis and the resources he needed to deal with it. His facts were accurate and his request for the king’s help was clear. Later, Nehemiah communicated his vision and remedy to the elders and the people of Jerusalem. And he had a different but equally clear message for the opposition.

In addition to God, who are the other audiences you need to engage with? Who are the people affected by the crisis, as well as those who may be able to help: staff, their families, churches, health officials, other agencies and those with a stake in your organisation? Each may need a different channel of communication, but all require relevant information that is transparent, honest and reassuring. This helps to dispel fear, to build confidence and hope, to provide guidance and direction, and ultimately to save lives.

As contemporary Nehemiahs, we need to communicate what our organisations are doing to address the situation, indicate where people can get help and let them know when and how to expect updated information.

Be available and accessible

Because Nehemiah worked alongside the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he got first-hand information about an impending enemy attack. He immediately mobilised the nobles and the rest of the people before the attack took place: “Don’t be afraid of the enemy! Remember the Lord, who is great and glorious, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes!” (Neh. 4: 14) The last verse of chapter 4 is instructive to leaders: “During this time, none of us … ever took off our clothes. We carried our weapons with us at all times, even when we went for water.” (Neh. 4:23) His visible commitment became an inspiration to the community.

In the midst of a crisis, it is common for a secondary crisis to occur. Because Nehemiah was accessible to the people, he learned that the powerful were oppressing the poor in their midst: “I spoke out against these nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are hurting your own relatives by charging interest when they borrow money!’ Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem.” (Neh. 5:6-7) Nehemiah gave the people confidence and security, knowing he was available and accessible, and dealt with issues openly.

Nehemiah recognized how important it is for leaders to be visible and not to go underground in times of crises. While it isn’t possible for us to walk up and down the hallways of our organisational offices at the moment, what alternative ways can you make yourself visible and accessible to those you are leading – to monitor their health and well-being, to offer encouragement and guidance, and to assure them that you are with them in this situation?

Avail resources to deal with the crisis

To re-establish Jerusalem, Nehemiah realized he had to move resources around to resuscitate the city’s economy and guarantee its defence. He repopulated the city by casting lots among the Jews living elsewhere and reassigned Levites from Judah to live with the tribe of Benjamin.

In our day, COVID-19 has stripped us down to our one common denominator – our humanity. No culture or class has been spared. It has infected day labourers in Delhi and world leaders in places of power, the titled and untitled, those with education and those without. When we as leaders remember our shared humanity, we value the people we work with more than the assets of our organisation. We may need to move money around to save lives and protect human dignity. As an Alliance, it may mean moving people and financial resources to where they are needed most. It will result in the strengthening of our bonds as an Alliance of organisations serving in Bible translation.

Lead people to God

Finally, during times of crisis, God entrusts leaders with the responsibility of leading people to him. Once the walls were rebuilt, Nehemiah teamed with Ezra to focus attention on rebuilding the people and bringing them back to God. The Torah was read publicly and interpreted for everyone to understand, resulting in a revival at the Water Gate.

Could this time of COVID-19 crisis be calling us leaders to lead our organisations and the Alliance to experience revival and rededication to God?

For reflection

  • What sources of the information are you paying the most attention to?
  • Is it generally too much, too little or just right?
  • What are you doing with the information you gather each day?
  • How are you going to God with what you are hearing and feeling?
  • To whom do you need to speak regularly, and about what?
  • How are you communicating with those you lead?
  • How might your organisation need to shift resources during this crisis?
  • What does it mean to bear faithful witness for Christ in this moment?

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