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Productively Navigating Church Crises

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There are two kinds of crisis every church may face. A crisis from the outside. For example, a cancel culture protest or social media backlash from a disgruntled former member. The second comes from the inside. For example, the pastor has an affair, sends inappropriate texts or emails or a youth leader has an inappropriate relationship with a minor. “A crisis does not have to break your church. Rather, it can be an opportunity to strengthen your church to weather the storms,” shares Phil. When he has been called in to advise a church or ministry, his goal is to help save the church or organization. His goal is to help the congregation deal appropriately with the crisis, survive, and move past it. 


Although it is impossible to completely avoid a crisis, especially in the digital age there are some things you can do to avoid a crisis before it starts. Be aware of red flags/domino effect. Within your church or organization know how to look for red flags with your staff and congregation. For example, if a youth leader is spending too much time with a youth there should be concern. If a church newcomer is staring and interacting too much with children, it must be addressed by a senior staff pastor. Crises can be avoided in some cases if we are more alert to red flags. When they are ignored the church or organization experiences a domino effect. “When dominos fall, it’s almost impossible to recover. As multiple accusations and revelations build, this becomes the worst kind of crisis because it simply gets out of control. As the crisis grows, more critics are emboldened to step up, the media has a field day, and in today’s social media world, the momentum is nearly impossible to overcome,” shares Phil. 

The digital world can have a negative impact on your church or organization. The most simple but inappropriate tweet can create a public relations crisis, and likewise, positive social media messages can turn around a negative story. That’s why your church/organization needs: 1) a strategy for how to use social media effectively; 2) a meeting (or series of meetings) with your leadership and influencers to teach them the importance of what they share via social media; and 3) a vision for how social media can impact your church or organization.


Phil believes, “It’s not if you’ll have a crisis, it’s when.” Understanding what to do and what not to do in a crisis can help your church or organization stay afloat. He gives the following advice:
·      Be transparent - express your position in a clear, logical, and reasonable manner, it can bring down the temperature in a room. When Patrick Doyle, CEO of Domino’s Pizza, began leading the company he held a series of focus groups with consumers and discovered that people hated the pizza. He made the right 
decision to own the problem and accept the criticism. They ran TV ads featuring Americans complaining about how bad Domino’s pizza tasted. Then Mr. Doyle appeared on screen with an apology and promise: 
“We hear you America. Sometimes you know you’ve got to make a change. Please give us another try.” In the three months following those ads, Domino’s had its fastest rise in sales in company history. “I think consumers really appreciated that we were direct and honest with them,” Patrick explains.
·      Respond appropriately within the first forty-eight hours - in today’s digital, social media culture, word will get out—and fast. After gathering facts about the incident, respond in a timely manner to the congregation and the public.
·      Issue a public statement - bring the public up to date, share the information known at the time, and outline a strategy for taking action and moving forward. Sometimes a well-written social media post will suffice.
·      Decrease negative press - flood the Net with positive stories about your organization. Use bloggers and social media influencers to assist with this effort.
·      Don’t speak to the wrong audience - don’t just respond like a pastor or ministry leader, respond like a professional. Phil shares the following example: “If you’re a religious organization facing allegations of financial improprieties, then just a “spiritual” answer isn’t appropriate. Trying to assure supporters that God will deliver you … isn’t what the congregation, partners and especially donors are looking for. They’re looking for professional assurances that financial safeguards are in place and integrity is your priority.”
·      Don’t speculate and start rumors
·      Don’t respond out of emotions on social media – Phil says, “People are watching you respond (or not respond) so make sure everything you post is something you’ll be proud of later.”

When a leader or pastor experiences moral failure, the goals for the church or organization should be (1) healing for the victim; (2) responding to the perpetrator according to biblical and legal principles; and (3) keeping the church healthy. Some immediate steps that should be taken include:
·      Have a crisis plan in place ahead of time. Activate your crisis team. Get them together, go over the situation, and implement your strategy.
·      Call an attorney. Notify authorities and then the congregation (if there is criminal activity).
·      No matter how distasteful or ugly the situation is, don’t try to cover it up. Be honest. Advocate sharing the truth with the congregation first, in person if possible. Then go public and tell the story.
·      Seek counseling, healing, and restoration for all those involved.
·      If the allegations are true, pull the pastor or leader’s content from your website, print materials, church bookstore, and everywhere else. If you don’t, critics will use online photos and products to make fun of the situation, which can get ugly.
·      Start moving the church forward. Tell leaders not to dwell on the failing but to talk about the future. Refocus the congregation from the failing in the past to the possibilities of the future.

Phil remembers a pastor who had to step down due to sexual sin. The church did not try to hide his moral failure, instead they addressed the issue, he stepped down from his pastoral role and received counseling. Today the former pastor is in another line of work, but doing well and the church is thriving. By addressing the issue in the right way, the church was able to avoid a domino effect.


Phil has produced TV and film programming in more than 70 countries around the world, and in the process, been shot at, survived two military coups, fallen out of a helicopter, and in Africa, been threatened with prison. During that time – through his company Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California – Phil has helped some of the largest and most respected Christian and nonprofit organizations in the world use media to tell their story. 

To purchase your copy of Phil Cooke's book, "Church on Trial," please visit Phil Cooke's website: You can also visit Phil's media company at:


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