How to Steer in a Crisis

Yesterday on this blog, I featured a review of an excellent book on a critical period in Salvation Army history. Entitled 1929: A Crisis That Shaped The Salvation Army's Future, a former general of The Salvation Army, John Larsson told the story of the constitutional crisis of 1929, in which an ailing General Bramwell Booth (son of the Army's founders) resisted efforts by nearly all the movement's highest leaders to bring about a change in leadership and in how the general's successors would be chosen.

The book should be of help not only to those with an interest in The Salvation Army; it also provides a primer of sorts for Christian leaders, boards, and organizations on how to steer through a crisis. The riveting story depicts how most of the Army’s leaders (piloted in large part by the man who would become Booth’s successor, Edward Higgins) got it right in a very difficult situation. In so doing, the book provides many lessons for Christian leaders in times of crisis. Here are just a few of the lessons I took from the book:

1. Go to the source.
Too often in a crisis, everyone talks about a person (or persons) rather than to them. When emotions run high, this tendency (a sinful one, usually) gets worse. The book depicts the Army’s leaders making every attempt to call upon General Booth and speak with him. When they were prevented from doing so, they made appeals to him in writing. Circumstances made much contact impossible, but there seems little doubt that every attempt was made to go to the source.
2. Maintain love and respect.
I have personally witnessed situations in which people, in the midst of a crisis, begin to cast aspersions, question motives, and even conduct character assassination campaigns in the most shameful ways. Sometimes it seems no one is worse than the church at disagreeing without becoming disagreeable, even abusive. But I was struck with how the Army’s leaders, throughout a highly charged atmosphere, consistently expressed sincere love and respect—publicly and privately—for the man who was sure to be most affected by their actions.
3. Follow the rules.
Too often in a crisis I have seen leaders give scant attention to proper conduct and procedure—even when they themselves wrote the rules! Not those Army leaders of 1929. They assiduously strove to make sure that “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40, KJV), even when those rules made their job much more difficult and their hoped-for ends much less likely.
4. Be circumspect.
Though the High Council of 1929 was the victim of spurious gossip and reprehensible actions, most of the participants refrained from spreading rumor and trying to slander the cause of those with whom they differed. This is too seldom the case in times of crisis.
5. Resist the drawing up of battle lines.
It was only right and fitting, according to procedure, but still it was striking to me that the High Council of 1929 respectfully included the ranking members of Bramwell Booth’s family in their deliberations—most vocally, the general’s wife and daughter Catherine (thought by many to have been the general’s handpicked successor). No one was treated as “the opposition” or “the enemy.” Care was taken to preserve an attitude of prayer, and of everyone being on the same side, difficult as it was.
6. Admit your mistakes and do your best to correct them.
At several crucial points in the crisis of 1929, the Army’s leaders had to “push pause,” in effect, to correct a point of order or address a mistake they had made, even at great cost, personally and financially. But they did it. They chose to be deliberate and painstaking in doing the right thing, rather than pushing and rushing to the desired conclusion.

There are many more lessons to be drawn from that crisis and Larsson's book, I'm sure. But those are the ones that leaped out to me, and which could and should serve as a guide in any crisis that confronts Christian organizations or leaders.

(The photo at top pictures some of the principals in the constitutional crisis of 1929, from left to right: Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth, Mrs. General Booth, General Bramwell Booth, Commissioner Edward Higgins, Commissioner Evangeline Booth)

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