Note: This podcast episode was recorded before the first case of coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported. However, we at Church InTension believe the content of this episode is timely for churches dealing with crisis management. Every church has the potential to deal with a crisis. According to crisis management expert Lawrence Swicegood, they tend to come without warning.
Dr. Jon Chasteen interviews Swicegood on the finer points of crisis management in this episode of Church InTension. Lawrence Swicegood is a communications, public relations, and church marketing specialist who works at Gateway Church as director of media, and he owns Clarion Communications and Media, a communications and crisis management firm. He also served President George H. W. Bush as a member of the White House Advance Team.
Dr. Jon Chasteen: Welcome back to the Church InTension podcast, where we talk about things that are the intentions of the church, but we’re also talking about things that are a church in tension. That there’s a tension that needs our attention. So, today we have a really awesome guest that I know is going to bless you whether you’re a pastor, whether you’re on staff at a church, whether you just attend a church who’s going to give you great perspective on the things happening inside the church. Today we’re talking about crisis. Who wants to talk about crisis? No one in the world gets excited about talking about crisis, but it’s an important topic. Today we’re going to talk about this. Today. Our guest is an amazing man. His name is Lawrence Swicegood and he has served in the White House before. He was on President Bush’s advanced team. He’s consulted numerous Fortune 500 companies.
He’s consulted hundreds of churches and nonprofits and really his passion is there. It’s in the church in the nonprofit world. In fact, he also serves just because he’s bored and needs something to do. He also serves as the executive director of media for Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, which is one of the most influential churches in America. Lawrence, thank you for joining us today, man. We’re so glad that you’re here.
Lawrence Swicegood: Great. Thank you. I call it an exciting topic. I know crisis. When people think of crisis, they go, oh no, not me but I often tell my clients and even people that are listening to this podcast and others, if you’re in a church there’s a 100% chance that there will be a crisis in that church of some magnitude in the next three to five years.
Jon: Three to five years?
Lawrence: Yes. So, it’s kind of like our odds of death. There’s a hundred percent chance we’re all going to pass and that’s going to be a crisis in somebody’s life. For me, not because I’m going to heaven. It’s awesome. But at the same time as a pastor, executive pastor, a leader in a church, a deacon, and elder, regardless of your role, I think it’s prudent to plan for a crisis. I’m excited to dive into this topic today.
Jon: It’s the thing that no one wants to talk about, but until it’s too late, why not get ahead of it? So, while it may not be something that any of us necessarily think we sit down and we strategize about sermon series, we sit down and we strategize about growth and expansion and campuses and all the things that the church is doing. Those are all really great things but how often does the leader sit down with a leadership team and with a consultant and say, you know what? Let’s plan for the worst.
Lawrence: Yes. One of my best friends is an attorney and they oversee crises for churches and nonprofits all and have for 25 years. A great saying, he said is let’s pray for the best and plan for the worst because in doing so, we put our intercession before the Lord, going God gives me the wisdom, the insight, and discernment to get through this situation. But if we get on a whiteboard before the crisis happens and we say, okay, let’s look at the various audiences that are affected by the crisis. We got the congregation, we’ve got the community, we’ve got the media, we got families involved. We got the person that it happened to all those elements and let’s look and dive into each of those areas when the crisis happens, you’re prepared.
Jon: That’s really good. So, tell us how you got into this line of work, man. Did you wake up one day and say, you know what, I want to deal with crisis every day of my life? How did you get into this? Tell us about yourself.
Lawrence: No. The exciting thing is I got thrown into it pretty quickly. I was on staff at Liberty University with Dr. Jerry Falwell. When you’re in a university setting, there’s always crisis and so, I kind of cut my teeth in that and then moved to the Bush 41 White House from 1987 to 92. Anytime as we pick up the newspaper or radio or TV every day there’s typically, beyond the internet, about every four hours, there’s a crisis breaking somewhere in the country, in the world. So, you learn to adjust either strategies or tactics or messaging geared on those crises. So, I think the good Lord puts you in situations in life, regardless of where you are and you learn from those. After I left the White House in 92, I thought, man, there’s a lot of organizations that have need for this, but yet my greatest passion was the kingdom and the Church with a capital C. So, there wasn’t a week that went by that someone said, “Hey, Lawrence, you’re used to dealing with crisis. Can you help me through this particular situation?” So, it kind of evolved and God prepared my heart for that and then through various training and going to seminars and learning from experts, and then doing a lot of case study work on from Fortune 500 companies, all the way to government, to personal crisis, to church crisis. I learned the nuances of it.
Jon: It’s almost a shift in your mentality even to begin and to leaders out there listening. It’s almost a shift from being something that we run away from that almost we adopt the personality of a fireman. They don’t run from fires. They run to fires and as leaders, we’re firemen. We’re women, we’re men who run towards the fire and it’s a shift in our thinking. So, let’s just dive into it. So, can you define what is a crisis within a church? I know it can be broad, it can be narrow. Where would you start with that? What would you call a crisis?
Lawrence: Well, I think there are numerous crises that can happen for a church and I think the major crisis that we typically see most in churches or in the children’s or students’ areas because that’s always the highest risk. They’re always the darling sensation I think of the media and that’s the one I usually get the most calls about even this morning, talking with a megachurch and they’re dealing with a crisis in the children’s department that something happened at a church camp.
Lawrence: So, we got to deal with that. The other crisis that we all see is a pastor resigns. That’s always, at some point, every pastor leaves their organization either through retirement or resignation or through a crisis. But at some point that causes a ripple effect through that organization. Then there’s always a staff that made issues that may happen on a church staff, the youth pastor, the worship leader. There’s always because we’re dealing with people there’s always conflict and sometimes conflict can lead to a crisis. Then the church leadership sometimes is the crisis of elders or deacons and how it relates to the governance of what’s happening in a church that can lead to a crisis. Then simply incidences that may happen. Every church I know typically has small groups. They have church camps, there’s a vacation Bible school, there’s all these entities that can happen.
Lawrence: Then there’s natural disasters that may happen in a church with hurricanes and flooding and whatever. Then there’s policy changes. I know of a church who grew its membership in one year from 1200 to 318 because they shifted from a conservative traditional church to a contemporary model and in doing so that shifts to a pretty substantial crisis. Now that church has come through that and grown through it. Now they have five campuses and running almost 10,000 people. So, it’s not a bad thing, but it was a crisis at the time when suddenly people left, giving dropped, policy changes people, there was hurt feelings, et cetera. Then there’s all the crisis of money. I think many times, 2008, when the recession hit giving, typically in churches dropped about 41% and in doing so, what did that do? What did that cause to budgets and giving and capital campaigns and future growth and all that can happen in a church and what that affects?
Jon: How often do you see a church that’s prepared for a crisis?
Lawrence: Less than 1%.
Jon: Wow. So, when you come into a situation more times than not, they’re unprepared for it. It’s hit them, they’re calling Lawrence, hey, come save us. Come talk to us. This is kind of a broad question in, but what would you say is the number one mistake most leaders make when it comes to crisis?
Lawrence: Well, I think many times I see they stick their head in the sand, hoping it will just go away versus going let’s at least meet in the round table with the key team and determine what the likelihood that this will go broader outside our walls, into the community, into the media, what crisis team do we have in place? They just want it to go away because Sunday’s coming and I got to preach a sermon and I got to deal with the conference coming up next week. So, they’re not willing to hit it full force to go, let’s at least sit in the war room, spend an hour, hour and a half, and discuss the possibilities of where it may lead to or may not.
Jon: So, let’s just get really super practical and talk about a very specific thing. Let’s say that a church is walking through a situation with a child. That’s got to be one of the more difficult things to ever walkthrough as a pastor is if somebody on your staff or a volunteer has done something really bad, that’s just a terrible thing to walk through because there is a line. You be transparent, but how transparent? I’m giving up that Sunday, I’m going to look the congregation in the eye and I’m going to say, we’re walking through something as a church. Where is the line? How do you know where to cross that? Do I say everything or do I reserve a little bit? I think this is the mistake a lot of pastors make where they get up and they either say way too much, or they didn’t say enough, and there’s a lack of transparency, or there’s so much transparency that people’s privacy gets abused. So, how do you navigate? How do you walk a pastor through that the process?
Lawrence: Well, I’m thinking word pictures. So, I think of, if you cast a pebble into a perfectly calm body of water, it has ripples and there’s those circles start from really tight circles all the way out to wide circles and I look at our situation. So, when the crisis hits and it causes ripples in our organization, I think the details that the pastor and the elders or deacons and the executive committee have to dive into and learn and discuss and investigate are at its highest level. No stone left unturned because under every stone is a potential situation that we need to deal with. Then the next circle is kind of like your family, if you and your wife have a crisis in your family, you and your wife talk it, at the deepest levels. If you’ve got a 10-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, it still affects the family. So, you’re going to sit down with your son or daughter at the table, and you’re going to tell them portions of the crisis that the family’s dealing with, but you’re not going to get into all the details of that because in that case, it’s not age-appropriate.
Lawrence: They can’t handle those particular details and then there’s the other ripple is your church membership. Those who come and give and a part of your lead team, your leadership team, those entities, and then you got your… So, that’s the leadership and the volunteers and then you got your members and attendees. Then outside that, you got your communities, the next ripple. Because ultimately why is the church there? It’s to reach the community. So, the last thing you want as an organization is you’re inviting people to come and hear the compelling, changing message of Jesus Christ, and all of a sudden, when they turn on the news, they see, oh, that’s that church that had X problem or Y problem. So, your message has fallen on deaf ears. Then you’ve got the audience of the media where there’s Christian media, mainstream media, you’ve got in this world, you got social media and it can drive and change a crisis in a heartbeat and the rumors and things that can happen. So, I tell my clients, I said, first and foremost, always, always, always be honest about the situation. There is no compromise when it comes to the truth. It’s the amount of information that you feed to those each circles of audiences is what really matters.
Jon: So, although I’m serving as the president of The King’s University, I’m actually still serving as the pastor of a church in Oklahoma City. We walked through a difficult situation four or five years ago and one thing that we were really big on through this process, and I love if you’ve ever read a book by Chris Voss, it’s called Never Split the Difference. It’s a book about negotiating, and this is a-
Jon: …negotiating topic.
Lawrence: Highly recommend it.
Jon: We would use one of the principles. He would always say in his negotiating, he would say always acknowledge the elephant in the room. So, we would go through these processes where we would get up from the platform and say, this is really hard and this is confusing and this is a challenge. You acknowledge in the room, the pain, the frustration, and there’s something to be said about, you referred to it as being truthful. You know what? We’re just going to all agree this is really bad. This is terrible. This is confusing. Pray for us. That even some of the way you can talk can unify. It can bring unity. I think one of the most if it’s done well, crisis can actually, what we experienced is it can actually be something that unifies the body. It’s something that if it’s done well, the vision is cast. If it’s done with love and purity, it can actually bring a group of people together really strongly. That’s what we experienced. I don’t know if you ever see that happen.
Lawrence: Well, I’ve actually seen people grow. The church, actually grow through a crisis because the community or people that were just attending occasionally all of a sudden going man, the way they handled that situation, the way they communicated and they loved and care for people and they were honest and forthright, I’m attracted to that. I’ve actually seen a handful of churches actually grow during a crisis because of the integrity of how it was handled. There’s a fine line between secrecy and privacy and therein lies people will say, well, I don’t know all the details of the crisis. Well, because of there’s privacy matters. Let’s say it’s involving a child. Maybe the family doesn’t want the name of that child out for privacy reason. Is it a secret? No, but so therein is the fine line of what details or secret, what are private, and then how much information you’re going to relate to those audiences.
Jon: So, let’s shift gears and talk about another topic that is kind of a hot topic right now, not just in church, but in society. It’s a crisis that some churches have faced and sadly enough, more will face. It’s this topic of an active shooter. This is a big, big topic right now, and we may have Pastor Brady Boyd on the podcast sometime. He’s a good friend of mine that walked through this experience that he’s told me the story, and it’s terrible. So, there’s always this, every pastor, a lot of pastors probably face this, where they have these group of guys on their teams, they’re volunteers usually that are the security team. It’s almost like they want something to happen. They’re so amped up. They’re so amped up for it. So, how does a pastor walk that line? Where how much should a church leader think about this and plan for this?
Lawrence: Well, I just think from a potential of that situation happening, we see it in the news, at least once a month, maybe not in a church, but it could be in a Walmart. It could be in a school and it’s becoming more and more prevalent. So, for the church pastor or the leadership to think that cannot happen to me, that’s being irresponsible I think. I think the key is to immediately put together, review your policies and procedures that are happening in your own church to go, are we prepared for this?
Lawrence: Do we allow, for instance, backpacks into our sanctuary? I was actually on staff of another church a few years ago, and actually, a gentleman had a backpack and as you walked in, one of the security officers were kind of trained to watch people as they go into the auditorium. The guy’s laser happened to be on in his handgun that was in his backpack and he was headed down to the front section and they intercepted him and pulled him to the side and that gentleman never made it into the service. Again, we don’t know whether he had ill intention or not, but he has his laser on his nine-millimeter turned on. That happened in a church in Dallas-Fort Worth. That could have been the lead story on the five o’clock news that evening, but it was the awareness and the training and the policies to go, do we, as a church need to have a team or people or a process? What items do we allow in or don’t allow in?
Lawrence: Is there somebody visually standing at the door kind of looking for situations? Again, it’s not the sky is falling on every person walking in because as you know, Pastor Jon, churches attach crazy people. So, at any point, we just need to be aware, but then what are we doing? How do we do it? Even in the court of law, I think in many situations that I’ve seen the judge and the jury often look at, did you guys try to prevent? Were you diligent in the process or were you careless?
Jon: Caught off guard?
Lawrence: Absolutely. That’s where the difference I think comes.
Jon: So, let’s talk to the pastor on staff, to the senior pastor, and even the person in the church. Okay. Let’s just say we’re calling Lawrence into our church through this podcast and we’re saying, okay, Lawrence’s come in. We’ve got no plans. We have zero crisis prevention. We have zero playbooks on our shelf. Where do we start? Help me start. I’m a leader in my church, or I’m going to go have a conversation with the leader of my church where’s a couple of simple steps I can take as a leader to begin this process to planning for crisis? If it’s going to happen in three to five years. Not if, but when, what’s the first thing I need to do?
Lawrence: Well, that’s why I love this podcast Church InTensionality because you’re being intentional about preparing. I think the number one step is go ahead and put together a crisis team. The crisis team could be made up of the senior pastor, the executive pastor, and maybe some of the leadership could be an elder or a section of the elders or deacons, who is your security director? That person should be brought into the team. Obviously your legal advisor. I think there’s numerous… Not necessarily every lawyer is an expert in crisis, but do you have somebody ready and prepared to call in this situation? Then your spokesperson, do you have a spokesperson for the church? Sometimes it’s the pastor. Sometimes it’s not, and there’s a whole nother discussion we can have about who should be the spokesperson in a crisis-
Jon: So, talk about that just for a second because that’s important.
Lawrence: I think so as well, in that many pastors, because they have the giftedness of persuasion and their giftedness of communication, they want to persuade people every Sunday to come to Christ. So, therefore they stand in front of the microphone in a situation that may be happened in the children’s area. They’re trying to persuade an audience or try to persuade a news reporter that this did happen, didn’t happen, or whatever, but I’m going, is that the best person, or should there be a separate spokesperson? Because again, take the visual medium of television. If I’m sitting there and I turn on and I’m watching this news story, and all I see is a pastor, the name of the church and I’m hearing about a crisis, that’s the visual. That’s the connection that I just made.
Lawrence: So, at Easter, when now where the church is inviting people going, oh, no, that’s that church and that pastor, I remember that face. He’s the guy that was talking about the situation that happened in their children’s area. We’re going to go to the other church across the street. We want no part of that. So, I think there’s times where the senior pastor does need to stand up and be the leader and be the communicator and the conveyor. Then there are other times when no, you should have a spokesperson or a chairman of a deacon or elder board or a trained professional outside to help with that process.
Jon: That’s really good. Okay. I interrupted you. Go back to how do we get the playbook going? You were talking about build the team, people are going to be on the team, and then what… Okay. Yeah, I got my team built. What are the top two top one, top two, top three crisis that we can-
Lawrence: Well, at that point then I think you go back to the listing, all the potential crises that are happening in the church. As we said earlier, there’s the children’s is there’s staffing issues. There’s incidents that happen on the campus. There’s policy changes and there’s a financial. Go through those in your particular church and go, where can these most likely happen? How would that affect in these areas and then develop a crisis plan? That is consider the possibilities of this happening versus this happening. Identify outside resources in advance, like if we need a lawyer to deal with this, do we call the church lawyers? Do we call the guy that we see on TV, on the billboards? I mean, who do we call?
Lawrence: Who’s your PR media consultant? Law enforcement. Do you have a good relationship with the law enforcement in your local community? Because you need to bring them quickly in the loop because obviously typically there’s investigations of that and who all that triggers. What’s our official position in a crisis. There’s fine lines there because what you say can and will be held against you in a court of law. So, there are times when you come forward with yes, we screwed up, we made a mistake and we’re dealing with… There are times where you’re like, this is currently under investigation. I would love to go into all the details of it. I can’t because of a criminal investigation, you’re held back from all those details until law enforcement completes their investigation. So, it’s those types of scenarios.
Jon: How is crisis management different in the church than it is in the secular one?
To me, the kingdom’s at stake, if in any crisis, depending on how we handle it, we reflect the heart of God, or we, I think, cause a blemish on how we handle love people, care for people. Are we more concerned about our building, our assets, and our staff, or we care more about shepherding and pastoring, and loving people through really tough times? So, I think it has a huge bearing ultimately on what the world sees and are they attracted to us because of how we handle crisis or are they like, well, you’re the same as a lost person would handle it. It’s all about the money and it cannot be about that.
Jon: So, man, thank you so much for being on the podcast today, as we close, what would you say to all the pastors out there that are leading? Maybe they’re not a pastor, maybe they’re leading an organization, maybe they’re doing something in any walk of life. What would be your encouragement to them with this crisis topic?
Lawrence: Well, it’s hard to encourage someone when you use the word encouragement and in crisis in the same sentence. But if I was reading this scripture today in Psalms and it talks about go before the Lord. I think the amount of time that we spend in prayer and in preparation, saying, Lord, a lot of things in the world happen, but would you protect us this day? We talk about the Lord’s prayer, give us today, our daily bread, and sometimes a daily bread we need as a pastor is wisdom and discernment for whatever crisis, it may be a minor crisis, it may be helping a person in our congregation with a personal crisis, or it may be our entities crisis.
Lawrence: But we start with prayer, everything starts with prayer. Then I think the next thing is we plan for the worst and we pray for the best. That is through preparation and being ready for whatever situation and then go back and assess the crisis afterwards. That’s where I think there’s a reason that football teams spend a lot of time in the film room after a game to see what they could have done better. I think after a crisis I always recommend crisis team come back together and say, we knock it out of the park here and we fumbled the ball here.
Jon: That’s good. Yeah. And you hear a lot of leaders say, how’s it going? What are you doing? The leader will answer, I’m just putting out fires. I feel like that’s all I do is put out fires and although obviously, leaders do more than that. That’s a big part of our job. That’s what we do. So, we can learn from a fireman. What do firemen do? They put out fires, they run towards the fire when everyone else is running away from it. There’s a fire station, close to my house, and almost every time I drive by that fire station, those guys got their trucks out, they’re cleaning them. They got their hose strung out. They’re cleaning an ax. They’re doing something to prepare for a fire because it’s not a matter of whether a fire is coming. It’s are we ready for it? So, I think we can even learn from a fireman.
Lawrence: Absolutely. I think it’s also in talking with pastors like yourself, who’ve dealt with very intense crises. There’s probably not a senior pastor that’s been in ministry for more than 20 years who can’t share multiple stories with a young pastor to go, this happened in my church and this is the way we handled it. This is the mistakes I made. This is what we did right. But learn. I mean, if we need to learn about our golf game or we’re trying to correct a slice, we go to a coach and yet I’m not sure why young pastors get into the ministry and they don’t go to a coach and go, can you help me on this particular topic? I need help. I don’t know anything about crisis management, help me, walk with me. What can I learn? Then things like this podcast are invaluable.
Jon: Yeah. I think a big shift we talked about, we started the podcast talking about this, that it really becomes a shift in our thinking from thinking that leadership is just about standing on a stage and teaching and getting the glory and getting your name in lights to really, maybe one of the greatest roles of a leader is to run towards the fire is to shift my thinking, to saying, okay, I’m not going to avoid crisis. I’m going to look for the potential of crisis and meet it there and beat it there. You think about firemen. They’re going to a fire, the structure’s on fire. For them, it’s not about saving the structure. It’s about saving the people and so, we have to be reminded as leaders that sometimes the structure might fall, but we got to protect the people and we got to go out and that’s what leaders do. So, thank you for being here today. To the leaders listening, you were called for this. You were put in that position to manage this crisis for this season, for this organization. So, God has appointed you for that. So, be encouraged, run after it, prepare for it. If you get in a pickle, just call Lawrence.
Lawrence: Well, or they can call you because you’ve been in a lot of pickles as well.
Jon: No, I’m going to get your cell number and get you on my speed. Lawrence, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, they have a question, maybe the organization wants to reach out to you. What’s the best way that they can get in touch with you?
Lawrence: Well, as crazy as this is I give people my personal email address and my personal cell phone number because when you’re in the middle of a crisis, I had a pastor in Florida call me. It was a Tuesday morning at 7:30 in the morning. He said, I’m sitting at my desk, Lawrence, our church has a Christian school. It started an hour ago. Two of our seniors took a junior out for breakfast this morning, shot her, dumped her in a creek. Now they’re setting in an algebra class and I don’t know what to do. The sheriff is coming here in 10 minutes. FOX 4 has already called me. The TV stations already called me and they’re sending trucks out here and he said, I’ll never forget these words. He said, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary. I don’t know what to do and I’ve got to give a response.” I said, “Pastor, let us help you through this.” I said, “We’ll come, we’ll provide you for the next 24 hours what do you need to do, for the next seven days between now and Sunday? What do you do and for the next 30 days, how do you go through this process and all the legal side and the investigation side, and then let us help prepare you a hundred-day plan.” As crazy as it is I love that side of it.
Jon: It’s a gift. It’s an annoyance-
Lawrence: It’s a great puzzle, but you can contact me at email@example.com or you can call my cell phone number (214) 533-8875 because it seems crisis never happened between 8:00 AM and 5:30 PM. It’s always in the middle of the night or on the weekends, your Saturday, your Sunday. So, if you need help, I’m here to help.
Jon: Well, I just want to say thank you for what you do. It’s helping the body of Christ. We all play our role. We all have our role in advancing the kingdom and yours is a key part. So, for me to you from hopefully all of our listeners to you, thank you for using your gift in that way, and in advancing the body of Christ. Listener, thank you for listening today, lead well, you’re doing great. Like I said, well good, do not give up, press in. You were called for this season, so don’t miss the next podcast. Love you guys. Have an amazing day.