by David Dockery
Leadership is always challenging, but there are certain times when leadership is even more challenging than normal, especially during trial, suffering, and setback. The important and helpful book in Catastrophic Crisis: Ministry Leadership in the Midst of Trial and Tragedy contains powerful leadership lessons learned at key times in the midst of real-life experiences, lessons that are often beyond our ability to fully grasp in the moment. Usually, it is only on reflection that these lessons can be communicated to others. The chapters in this book communicate those reflections in ways that we hope will provide guidance and instruction for others when their moments of challenge arise. The authors of this project, Allen England and Steve Echols, are to be commended for their vision and desire to provide such a useful resource.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that God often uses the experiences of suffering as a megaphone to awaken us. According to Lewis, suffering and pain are often the essential means by which God brings about dependence, fortitude, patience, and forgiveness in His children, while also arousing acts of mercy and compassion among others. On February 5, 2008, the campus of Union University, where I served as president, suffered massive damages from an EF-4 tornado. Bringing destruction to almost all aspects of our residential area and to several other key buildings on campus, the $45 million hit has been declared one of the worst disasters in Southern Baptist history.
That morning we had over 3300 students in class, and nearly one-half of them were on campus when the tornado arrived at 7:02 that Tuesday evening—a night that we will never forget. That night we took 51 students to the hospital. Almost a dozen were seriously injured, and a few had lengthy hospital stays. Everyone who saw the campus during the first 48 hours was overwhelmed by the fact that the lives of all of the students who were on campus on that Tuesday evening were spared. For God’s providential protection we remain grateful.
I was in my office with two other deans when the tornado struck the campus. We were able to get to the residential area of the campus within minutes after it touched down. The devastation was far greater than anything I could have imagined. After spending time with students trying to give direction and assurance, I spent the next six hours in the command center that evening communicating with everyone involved. When we returned to the campus about 2:00 a.m., I couldn’t believe what I saw.
That picture of devastation was even more difficult to believe when the sun came up the next morning. The local, regional, and national media were all on campus early that Wednesday morning. After spending time with the media, we immediately began our initial assessment. We mapped out a five-step plan to get us through the initial 48-hour emergency period and then to move forward. The time invested on that Wednesday with campus leaders was critical, and the overarching five-stage plan served us well for the next several months. In many ways, those were the most critical moments of leadership that I had ever faced. Literally hundreds of decisions needed to be made. We needed wisdom; we needed God’s help; we needed a framework for our plan; and we needed the Lord to provide agents of mercy for our time of need.
During this time we saw God’s hand at work in answering our prayers. We witnessed thousands of acts of mercy and compassion from people who responded to the massive needs associated with Union University. These acts of mercy and compassion came from people near to the university and from people far away who knew hardly anything about Union University. Somehow the disastrous effects of the tornado touched the hearts of these many, many people who helped us through those difficult months. We are thankful for them, but most of all we are grateful for God’s good and amazing providence and for the gift of hope that He provided for us. God’s providence and the sense of hope were not only gifts to sustain us through those days; they were also the means that God used to give us the framework to begin to provide the guidance and leadership needed for our campus during this time of extreme need and challenge.
Christians have historically confessed that God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. The providence of God provides the best framework for all Christ followers and especially for Christian leaders to interpret the accounts shared in this book, including the account of the tornado that devastated large portions of the Union University campus. For me, providence moved from an abstract theological concept to being the very source of strength and direction needed for that critical hour.
The lives of those who have contributed to this book, like my own, will likely never be the same after experiencing the events portrayed in the chapters that follow. I know that my life will never be the same on this side of February 5, 2008. The events of that night will be etched in my memory for years to come and will continue to shape my understanding of leadership on a day-to-day basis. I will never forget the eerie darkness, the loud sound of the swirling tornado, the initial phone call telling me that portions of the campus had been hit, the first impressions after seeing the wall crumbling down, the look on the faces of the shocked students, and the amazing efforts of the rescue workers who were involved that night in the initial response. But most of all, I will never forget the sense of hope that carried us through that night and the many days thereafter.
I am deeply grateful for the privilege to write the foreword for this fine book, but in this brief section I cannot trace the details of all the events that have taken place over the past two years in response to that night of devastation. I can, however, testify to the reality that we often found ourselves in uncharted waters, functioning in an essentialist mode. Our entire leadership team continued to press on with hopefulness in God’s good providence, with an assurance that the same providential God who protected us on that evening would provide for us and guide us along the way in the new journey that was now ours. Hope in God’s goodness, in His grace, and in His providence has indeed carried us through the challenges of recent months.
Hope is a powerful word—a driving force in life. Hope includes a desire for something, but it is even more than that. It is an eager, confident expectation that sustains us while we work diligently and wait patiently. Hope is not escapism; it is an energizing motivation for faithful living in the here and now, especially for those in key leadership roles. In the midst of these challenges, hope serves to stabilize our lives as an anchor to link us to God’s faithful providence. I think it would likely be the testimony of every contributor to this volume that hope shaped and directed their service and gave it motivation so that—while waiting in the midst of the trial or challenge—they were able to navigate their way forward with the assurance of God’s guidance. Even for those whose situations may have turned out different from ours, it is now the power of hope in God’s good providence that can begin to help shape the days to come. Leaders cannot function without an abiding sense of hopefulness in the providence of God.
This kind of hope is not self-reliant motivation, but a confidence in a God who intervenes in the affairs of human history. Without such a trust in the triune God, we would all have found the challenges such as those that are described in this book to be insurmountable. Leaders move forward in the midst of these times with the full recognition that God’s providence transcends the experiences of men and women. In so doing, God can take actions that seem bad and use them for His good (Gen 50:20).
These challenges call for us to have a new mind-set, a new attitude, and a new spiritual framework to navigate our way. But like the people of God who have gone before us, we can allow these challenges to become instruments of transforming grace in our lives because we recognize that there is one overarching longing and purpose in life, and only God can make known that purpose and satisfy that longing. In the midst of the kinds of challenges and setbacks described by the contributors to this book, there will likely be times when haunting and perplexing questions spring up in our hearts. During those times it is often hard to see our way clearly, and it is often difficult to sing the hymns, to pray, or even to read Scripture. When that happens, what should Christ followers do? What should leaders do? Assume that God has abandoned us, that He does not care for us or does not love us? Assume that He is unable to help us? I think not.
It is in these moments that we learn in new ways to trust the providence of God, even when we have unanswered questions. It is during these times that we are driven afresh to believe the truth of God’s Word, and ultimately to find rest in the great faithfulness of the one, true, and living God, who has made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).
It is my prayer that, as you work through the pages of this book, you will be encouraged to seek God afresh and in these times of reflection you will find strength, guidance, peace, and hope for the leadership calling that is yours. It is a joy to recommend to you this book and the life lessons regarding leadership that are communicated herein. I pray that this resource will be an instrument of grace for you in the days to come.
Editor’s note: This is adapted from David Dockery’s foreword to Catastrophic Crisis: Ministry Leadership in the Midst of Trial and Tragedy.
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