All the rules of social convention tell you not to stand up and yell in a movie theater. Unless there’s a fire. Then, by all means, stand up and yell. This is a crisis situation. No time for whispering.
During a crisis, we may forgo things that are normally important for the sake of ultimately important things. Being polite and civil is normally important. But when, for example, you’re at the site of a car crash, civility loses its importance for a moment. It’s appropriate to yell, “Get out of the way!” Even at the expense of seeming rude or hurting feelings.
The problem comes when people mistake urgent for crisis. These are not the same. Life brings many urgent decisions—cases when we need to make a choice. These times are often unplanned and unwelcome. Few of these are crises—cases of imminent danger.
When we talk about “putting out fires,” we’re talking about crises. A fire must be put out or we risk serious damage. Unless you’re Jack Bauer, you should not be putting out multiple fires per day, or even week or month. If you are, there’s either a problem with your system or, more likely, you’re confused about what a “fire” is.
If “putting out fires” isn’t the term that’s used, it may come in a different form: drama. Drama takes a presenting need and turns it into a crisis.
When we mistake urgent for crisis, it creates a big problem. In crisis, we live by a different set of values and create a different culture. We re-write or re-order what we consider important for those times.
Here’s how that can look in the church…
Sunday Morning and the Perfect Game
In the church, Sunday morning presents many urgent situations. We have lots of moving parts. We would like each of those parts to move in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. How that looks on a perfect morning: hospitality team greets every person who walks in, microphones are on and off at all the right times, the correct slides are always on screen, everyone hits every cue. I’ve referred to this as “the perfect game.”
I often say to our leaders after worship, “The perfect game still eludes us.” We haven’t pulled it off yet. Every week, something goes wrong––someone misses a cue, a volunteer calls in sick, something isn’t where we expect it. Most likely: I screw something up. But not yet have we had a true crisis. And the worst thing we could do to undermine our values is to treat the pursuit of a perfect game as crisis.
Here’s how urgency can become crisis on Sunday morning…
We can’t find the gifts we normally give to guests. This is a problem. An urgent problem. Guests will be standing before us at any moment, waiting for that promised gift, and we don’t have it. You have to make a decision. (A note: this is a situation I think my church has happily avoided. So this is all hypothetical.)
One decision––keep calm. Have some people look around. With a smile, ask anyone who may know where those gifts may be. If all this fails, greet the guests warmly and apologize that the gifts we promised seem to be misplaced.
Another decision––treat it as a fire. Scramble. Panic. Run into rooms breathless, asking where the gifts are, thus sending the whole room into a frenzy.
When crisis comes, we forgo normally important things. We stop smiling, noticing people as people, and speaking to them with warmth. We kick into fight or flight mode, instead. In that example above, the gift is intended to facilitate a more important value––that we value people and want to welcome them well. When we treat the gift as a crisis, we create an environment where the more important thing (valuing people) takes less importance.
When I’m in an environment where “the perfect game” is top priority, I can tell. The people there are tense, even when they try not to show it. They’re unable to give me too much attention because they’re constantly watching for anything that may go wrong. Every problem is a threatening fire.
No gifts for guests is a simple example. Others that may sound more pressing: a key children’s ministry leader calls in sick, the sound board isn’t operating correctly, the preacher just called in sick. All of these are disappointing. All will require some major adjustment. None is a crisis. The first thing to do in each situation: everyone smile and take a breath. We’ll still find a way to worship together this morning.
Why this is important
As a pastor, I’ve learned that this distinction is not a small thing, a minor preference about how we approach worship together. It’s a big thing. It sets the tone for the whole community––how we live and worship together.
I’ve learned this because I used to be more preoccupied with every potential problem. To the point that I couldn’t worship well if something was wrong or threatened to go wrong. That spirit prevented me from giving enough attention to the people in front of me. It occasionally spilled over to stress out those around me. It showed our community that getting things right was the most important thing. When we live on edge like that, we might get the things right, but we get the spirit wrong. We create a culture of fear rather than a culture of joy and celebration. And the culture of joy and celebration needs to remain more important––all the way until there’s a fire threatening real danger.
We can find a way to adjust without that crucial volunteer, without the sound board, without the preacher. It’s not ideal. We’ll hope for better next week. We’ll learn to plan better if we could have. But we will worship with a glad spirit right now, regardless.
This doesn’t intend to shrug off problems. We would like things to go as planned. We should prepare well, with thought and care. That sets us up for success. (Some things that become “urgent” aren’t because of unexpected surprises but because of poor planning. That’s a bad excuse. We should own that failure in planning when it happens and then correct it.) If the same problem keeps happening, it’s irresponsible if we don’t ask why and work on a solution.
But once the planning is over and the time has come, problems are sure to come with it. A good question to ask: is this a problem or a fire? If it’s a problem, stay calm, work toward a solution, stick with the big values you know are most important. If it’s a fire, then you have permission to get stressed out. Run, scramble and yell all you need to. If things go wrong, the consequences could be dire.
We rarely mistake a fire for a smaller problem. Fires stand out. But we often mistake problems for fires.