Engaging Culture

How to Handle a Crisis

One of our most valued and long time clients has been Jack Graham, pastor of  Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. We work with the PowerPoint radio and television outreach hosted by Pastor Graham. Kathleen and I consider Jack and his wife Deb close friends and I admire his ministry and his leadership a great deal.  Even though Jack’s ministry career is an example of remarkable integrity and credibility, one of the most fascinating aspects of his skill as a leader is how he handles a crisis, and I’ve been fortunate to see that leadership up close and in action.  As a result of watching him lead through challenging situations, here’s 3 important lessons I’ve learned: 

1) Have a plan.   In today’s world you never know what could happen – accidents, money problems, mistakes, sexual impropriety, baseless allegations, – all kinds of things. So you should coach your team regarding who to call, how to handle the press, and who speaks for the organization. Plan it ahead of time so when a crisis happens, you’re not caught off-guard.

2) Be honest and tell the truth.   Trust me – in the age of Google, you can’t hide anymore. So be upfront, welcome the press when necessary or appropriate, and confront it head-on. Hiding only makes it worse. Jack understands the importance of cooperating with law enforcement, and as a result, they’re able to move on with community support.  In one case, Scott Seal and the Power Point TV team released a video of Jack’s response to a particular situation immediately to the press, and as a result it was seen around the world in a matter of hours. Even Jack’s friend, pastor Greg Laurie, traveling in Rome saw it and sent Jack an encouraging email.

3) Understand the power of “Brand Equity.”   I’ve said in other contexts that the Billy Graham organization could weather just about any crisis because they’ve spent so many years building up integrity and accountability. Jack and Prestonwood are the same way. Because of their integrity, track record, and involvement in the local community, during a crisis, the public is far more willing to understand and cut them slack. You can’t pay for the favor that a lifetime of integrity, accountability, and honesty can bring to a situation.

This is an example of why I consider Jack such a great leader. If more churches and ministries would handle a crisis like Pastor Graham and the executive team at Prestonwood, the Christian community’s perception in the non-Christian world would be far better.

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  1. I'm not an attorney, but I do know that there are legal ramifications when an alleged sexual issue with minors are involved.  In these cases, what the church can do is limited by the courts.  They can certainly help the family, and I'm sure they're doing that, but direct intervention with the perpetrator is a legal issue and has serious limitations while the case proceeds.

  2. I think a key point to remember is Integrity. I think that people have the biggest problem when a scandal happens in the midst of judgment or hypocrisy. A perfect example is former NY Governer, Spitzer, who took a tough position on crime, then committed a pretty egregious one himself.  Those in New York who were most effected by both his position and his crime felt betrayed. His one saving grace (and the only reason anyone still has a shred of respect) was that he didn't deny it, and more or less "owned up" for it by resigning (granted, he would have been ousted quickly). You spoke of integrity of both Prestonwood and the Billy Graham organization, and I think that something often forgotten is that integrity is an active trait. It requires both honesty and grace.

    I know Billy Graham to be a very non-judgmental person. He speaks to sin as painful rather than abhorant. And I believe I have heard similar things from PBC. The recognition of man's sinfullness, the willingness to forgive and show grace, as well as a consistently honest position is very important to surviving such "scandals". As for why we must scandalize sin, I am still at a loss.

    To sum, Integity, as it was demonstrated, was more than just honesty. It was living the graceful, sin-aware, loving lifestyle Christ showed us when he allowed prostitutes to anoint his feet, saved an adulterous woman, and allowed tax collectors to walk with him.

  3. Billy Graham made those decisions as a personal safeguard.  I think that many pastors and leaders are taking it seriously, but I think the church is trying a little too hard to "police" these things.  I know a pastor at a local church had a hard time avoiding alcohol abuse.  He had been an alcoholic in the past, and had been going to counseling ever since.  He was sober, but he struggled.  Word got out after his fellow pastor, the man who he was seeing, committed an indiscretion of his own, and suddenly everyone took it upon themselves to handle the issue in a 'loving-but-strict' way.  Several people told their kids to watch him carefully when they went over to play with his son, and at picnics at least a half dozen people wanted to check his punch for alcohol.  Eventually, he got fed up and moved.  He stopped going to counseling and ended up falling apart for a while.  

    I think you are right, we need accountability, but it never works well when regulated or forced.   We in America have a romantic view of our leaders as responsible to us all, as if the President himself needed to do a broadcast confessional every week.  However, sin and handling it is a personal issue, between us and God.  Not to say we ought not bring others in for support.  We are, after all, a community.  Sin of one may effect us all, but forcing them to take a specific action, or requiring broad accountability may not be the best option.

    Just a thought from a young guy who grew up in a post-grahamian era. 

  4. I think your first two points play into point 3. They are all important and related to the external experience of a 'brand'. Not only is the 'brand' of that church in full view, but every time this happens to any organization, the brand of the faith/religion as a whole is brought into light.

  5. I’m glad you brought this up, Phil.

    Your reference to Billy Graham (which I thought of today) leaves me with a question maybe you can answer.

    This is becoming all too common in our churches. (Last year we had Ted Haggard).

    Billy Graham never traveled alone – he didn’t even go in the elevator alone.

    So why do we not take this extra step in our churches today? It would prove much more beneficial to head off the problem before one can develop instead of always dealing with it after the fact. It will also provide accountability that most people need.

    I agree with you that the way the church handled it was appropriate but I still don’t understand why we don’t go the extra mile. Billy Graham said he took the extra measure because he was unwilling to jeopardize the gospel, his family, and his ministry. So what’s different about today?

    I think we have come to a point in time that we need to re-institute similar precautions so there is appropriate accountability at all times for all those who are in leadership. Not just for the sake of the church and the gospel, but for those who might be falsely accused.

    Having said that maybe, it is interesting to me that accountability isn’t something we hear about a lot nowadays. Maybe it is finally time for the body of Christ to revisit the subject.

    Remaining Steadfast,

  6. I've been involved in a few of these situations to varying degrees.  I've never known the Church to be limited in terms of how they work to assist the perpetrator or the family in this regard.  There certainly may be and should be limitations in terms of exposure to minors and ministry roles, formal or informal within the Church.  Providing counselling and/or providing an internal plan to assist and work with someone as a Church Member and their family when they are no longer a member of the staff is an internal Church ministry matter that the state has no business interfering in.

    More to the point is the PR work within the Church and within the community.  Fail to place an emphasis upon the victims and their needs while appearing to sweep a matter under the rug and the Church's image will suffer within those communities.

    If the perpetrator is repentant and willing to submit to Church Discipline for the purpose of restoration and restitution within reasonable bounds (i.e. a convicted or admitted pedophile should not be involved in ministry to minors, period) then it says a lot as to whether a Church will work in that situation or just extend the right foot of fellowship.  This is an opportunity for the Church to be the Church.

    Jack Graham was my pastor for several years when he was at First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. 

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