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Courageous leadership


The church’s biggest asset in 2021

By Krystle S. Morey | Presbyterians Today

After a suspicious fire closed the Lima Presbyterian Church building, the congregation had to be resilient and flexible, adapting to worshiping outside under a tent. When cold weather approached, community organizations, including the Lima Ambulance Service, opened their doors to the congregation. Courtesy of Lima Presbyterian Church

This wasn’t as bad as it might have been. That’s the message the Rev. David Kilgore and his congregation clung to after learning someone attempted to burn down their sanctuary. Members of Lima Presbyterian Church arrived the morning of Aug. 23, 2020, to find their sanctuary full of smoke. According to the local sheriff’s investigation, someone entered the church building, located 25 miles south of the city of Rochester in upstate New York, via the basement. They set ablaze a Bible from the pulpit, damaging a pew and cushion, and burning a basketball-sized hole in the church floor.

Churchgoers at Lima Presbyterian were furious at first, but strong leadership has carried them through. “This is a resilient congregation. They have been through setbacks for quite a few years. They are people who just have a lot of grit,” said Kilgore, adding that some of the families in the congregation are farmers. “Farm families are tough families. They don’t quit easily.”

The Rev. David Kilgore, called out of retirement two years ago to lead the small congregation of Lima Presbyterian Church, reached deep to find the courage to guide his flock through a pandemic and then a fire which burnt a hole in the sanctuary floor and caused extensive smoke damage in the building. Courtesy of Lima Presbyterian Church

Instead of being bitter, the congregation decided instead to pray for the arsonist. “This is a person that needs our prayers,” said Kilgore. “We have a duty to pray for this person who is either very angry or disturbed, and we should pray that God will be working in their life.”

Abandoning the grudge wasn’t easy, though. “The mixture of emotions about this has been interesting to watch,” Kilgore said. “First, there was a sense of violation and anger followed by a sense of relief that nobody got hurt,” he said.

How courage is born

When confronting any crisis, a cycle of emotions occurs, during which courage is born. Courage — and resiliency — are what breed the strength to overcome any challenge. Whether it be picking up the pieces after an arson, protecting one another from the coronavirus pandemic or working to dismantle systemic racism, ministers like Kilgore agree that courage will be a leader’s biggest asset in the new year. What, though, does leading with courage look like?

“Courageous leadership is something that calls us beyond ourselves,” said the Rev. Stephen Lewis, president of the Forum for Theological Exploration in Decatur, Georgia. “It’s about organizing and mobilizing a community toward a vision.”

Lewis spoke last summer at “Courageous Leadership Matters,” a Facebook Live chat that was hosted by the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Foundation. During the chat, Lewis noted that courageous leadership was not about leadership for one’s own platform.

Rather, “It’s the kind of leadership that gets at this larger moral, ethical, benevolent vision … a vision of a new heaven and new earth, a new relationship between who we are and how we relate to the eternal.”

However, leading courageously should not fall on any one person’s shoulders. “Leadership is not the practice of an individual; it’s the practice of a community,” Lewis said.

The Rev. Dr. Dan Saperstein, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Huron, agreed, stating, “Leadership is a team sport.” In addition to working with session and allies in the community, Saperstein stressed the importance of looking to the presbytery to assist in managing hurdles.

Kilgore said he found the courage to lead by reaching out to others in Lima Presbyterian’s time of need. After the fire, area churches offered prayers and help with the clean-up. One church in the Rochester area even volunteered to replace the pulpit Bible that was burned.

“Each Sunday there was another letter to read to the congregation about somebody offering something or holding us in prayer,” Kilgore said. “It is important to help the church realize that we are all connected to each other. It’s important that we stay in touch with each other, hold each other up and offer each other help and assistance wherever we can.”

Kilgore has relied a lot on courage throughout his ministry, but even more so recently. Two years ago, he was called out of retirement to lead Advent and Christmas celebrations at Lima Presbyterian, a small congregation averaging about 25 parishioners each Sunday. He soon found himself back in the pulpit regularly, taking on the role of part-time pastor for the congregation.

Never, though, did he imagine coming out of retirement would mean dealing with not just a fire and where to worship, but also a pandemic.

“The pandemic, with the necessity for isolation and social distancing, was already significant, creating its own strain and pressure,” Kilgore said. The fire was “right on top of that.”

“In some ways, it’s a bit like wandering in the wilderness,” said Kilgore.

During the first few weeks, gatherings were held on the church lawn in a tent. “People drove by and saw that we were back in business,” Kilgore said. As cooler weather deterred outside worship, other community organizations, including the Lima Ambulance Service, offered space for the group to meet. Other pastoral duties such as premarital counseling and session meetings were also displaced by the fire. Kilgore has met couples at local restaurants to discuss their plans before their big day. The pandemic also forced congregations to utilize online forums, which for some was not an easy task. But Kilgore and his congregation have done their best to embrace the new thing God is doing.

Saperstein commends churches like Lima Presbyterian for the courage to be open to the Spirit. “This is an opportunity for us to discover new ways of being the church, ways that we have been reluctant to embrace because we were doing just fine with the old normal and nobody likes change,”  he said.

As 2020 drew to a close, Lima Presbyterian Church was still unsure when it would be able to return to its sanctuary. Smoke caused a majority of the damage, including disabling the organ. “The penetrating smell of smoke is really difficult to get rid of,” said Kilgore, noting the organ needs to be dissected and each part cleaned. Repair and cleanup costs are expected to exceed $250,000, with approximately $100,000 going toward repair of the organ. The kitchen and fellowship room will be the first spaces cleaned, so that churchgoers can at least return to the building. Social distancing will be a challenge though, the pastor says, because the fellowship room is not as large as their sanctuary.

Tasked with minimizing fear

Another earmark of courageous leadership is the ability to move a group forward during a challenge or a crisis and be able to minimize the stress that is caused by fear. “Managing and modulating the level of anxiety in a congregation is really important because anxiety functions hydraulically: the more pressure that is built up, the more it is likely going to explode in not a good place — the place that is the weakest part of the system,” said Saperstein.

To say Lima Presbyterian Church is under stress would be an understatement. But the stress doesn’t just stem from a suspicious fire and an ongoing pandemic.

Kilgore’s emergence from retirement has also meant finding the courage to tackle the unrest and divisions attached to dismantling systemic racism.

The pastor has begun sending out a “Midweek Missives” newsletter to his parishioners that broaches the topic by posing questions and providing education. The upstate New York church may be a white congregation, he says, but “the newsletters help remind them that current events like the Black Lives Matter movement need to be a topic of discussion.”

“It’s very easy in a rural congregation that is 100% white to feel like what’s happening just up the road in Rochester is not really a part of our lives,” said Kilgore. Rochester, a city of nearly 210,000, is 62.9% Black, Hispanic and other minority races, according to (2017). “We need to make sure that we see ourselves as part of the greater community, and what happens there is important to us as well,” said Kilgore, adding, “The work of prayer has been important in holding the congregation together.”

With the multitude of crises at hand — some hitting churches all at once like the Lima congregation — Saperstein says every church is under some sort of strain.

It is important, he adds, to not let different crises get entangled with one another. It is also important to be a leader who doesn’t react, but rather responds.

The courageous leader is one who can self-differentiate, Saperstein says. “The leader’s role is to self-differentiate, not to be reactive, but to stay cool, calm and connected to people who are spiking in anxiety or who may be the source of conflict.”

Krystle S. Morey is a freelance writer in Granville, New York.

How courageous leaders lead

Presbyterians share a few principles for how to lead with courage in challenging times

By Krystle S. Morey

Image of "superman" type figure with a cape standing on top of a mountainConsult reliable information
Opt for credible information and know the source of the information you are getting. “I don’t get my information from Facebook,” said Lisa Allgood, transitional executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Cincinnati in Ohio and a trained immunocytochemist. Instead, she follows a few credible sources. Specifically, pertaining to the COVID-19 virus, she consults county-by-county medical data published by the Ohio governor’s office as well as “They are consistent and you can trust them from day to day,” she said. She recommends consulting one or just a few independent and credible sources of data, “so you’re always looking at apples to apples.” She added: “Find a single source that is credible, independent and objective, and stick with that one source.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
An essential part of managing any crisis is communication. Strategies for sustainability of any organization are not developed in a bubble. They are cultivated by consulting the great minds of many. The Rev. Dr. Dan Saperstein, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Huron, said it is “being able to disagree, so long as we can stay in community with each other and recognize that our unity is not in our politics, but in our Savior.”

“Take a balcony view of the situation,” Saperstein said. Take into account reliable information that will help guide you. He said it’s best to “maintain levels of communication with [parishioners], not react to them, but let them know that you are listening, so you can respond rather than react.” While listening, it’s also important to create grace within the community for differences of opinion, so conversations can happen by allowing people to express their feelings while respecting one another.

Be proactive
Be the type of leader that is not managing responses, but one that understands the challenge because they are already knowledgeable and out in front of it.

Be present
It is important to make sure that the congregation understands that the leadership is aware and is being proactive. “Be present, whether it’s virtually or in person,” Allgood said, adding, “Explain what your organization is doing to adapt to the changing climate.”

Be flexible
“Life is all about adaptability. And for adaptability, you need to have the flexibility, the resiliency, that allows you to adapt to changing circumstances,” Saperstein said. “That is cultivated in congregations by exhibiting and modeling grace. It means having the ability to own up and say, ‘That didn’t work.’ It’s OK to make mistakes.” Allgood agreed, noting the rise of COVID-19 cases at the end of 2020 forced some churches to find the courage to halt in-person worship again and host online gatherings. “Going back to virtual is not a failure. It’s just the response that’s appropriate for their congregation at this point in time,” she said.

Take time to recoup 
Don’t let the weight of multiple crises weigh you down. Leading with courage requires rest and relaxation. After last summer’s church fire, the Rev. David Kilgore took time away from the church for himself, so he could recoup and return to the church refreshed and ready to lead.

Reduce emotions
We may not know exactly what is yet to come, and that can be unnerving. But by controlling emotions and taking a data-driven approach, fear can be reduced. “People will respond emotionally to situations, but if you are responsible for their well-being, you need to have good, reliable data and be data-driven, not fear-driven,” Saperstein said.

Use your resources
Ask yourself: What do we need right now to overcome the challenge at hand? Whether it is a digital camera to join virtual gatherings or hand sanitizer to keep parishioners safe, “Identify what can help you move on to the next piece of the crisis,” Allgood said.

Find the light
Courageous leaders look for where inspiration is arising. “The best leaders can look and ask, ‘What are you seeing that is worth celebrating?’” said Allgood, adding that the best example of courageous leadership is remembering who to turn to: “God is in control. The Holy Spirit is at work.”

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