Church leaders face many crises and dangers: from without, a rapidly changing environment and an uncertain global economy; from within, budget difficulties, interpersonal struggles and questions about the pastor’s vision and direction. Deciding how to respond to real and perceived threats can be difficult. It’s easy to react with anxiety and even panic.
The African-American folktale “Flossie and the Fox” tells the story of a little girl who encounters a fox on her way through the woods to deliver some eggs. Instead of running away in terror, she acts like she doesn’t know what a fox is. She suggests to the fox since he is furry like a rabbit, he must be a rabbit. Then she says his long pointed nose means he must be must be a rat. He has sharp claws and yellow eyes like a cat they encounter and a bushy tail like a squirrel in the trees overhead. By the time he suggests to her that he has sharp teeth and can run very fast, she is out of the woods, and points out to the fox that the dogs about to come after him also have sharp teeth and can run fast. And Flossie reaches her destination safely. (See the delightful version of this story by Patricia McKissack.)
Flossie’s story suggests one approach church leaders can take in times of danger: don’t take it so seriously. She faces a situation of real danger: a little girl alone with a fox. But she courageously uses her imagination to poke fun at the fox, and distracts him from his purpose long enough to reach safety, creatively disarming the dangerous force.
When we respond to a crisis too seriously, we tend to disengage our imaginations. Options seem narrow–A fox! Run away!–or nonexistent–We’ll all be killed! Fight or flight reflexes kick in. But a broader repertoire of responses can increase the possibility of survival. Reframing the challenge, playing dumb for a time, looking for an alternative path through the thick woods, calling on the resources of others: all may be useful strategies.
Responding to danger with a variety of actions, including humor, is not the same as denial. Those who are most anxious may view it that way: “Can’t you see the sky is falling!” they may cry. “You’re just not taking it seriously enough.” But part of the task of leadership is to offer our followers a bigger picture and a longer perspective.
The more we can keep our heads, the better we can imagine options. The foxes of this world, external and internal, will be less likely to steal our resourcefulness and keep us from reaching our goals.