by Robert Klamser
Contingency planning and crisis management.
You are the director of a mission organization. Your overseas coordinator bursts into your office with news that shocks, but doesn’t really surprise you. In a Latin American country a leftist terrorist group has kidnapped some of your missionaries. The initial report is sketchy, but it appears several members of a family have been taken.
Even as you begin to try to get more information you are informed a wire service reporter is on the phone asking for your reaction to the list of demands released by the terrorists: Payment of a $1 million dollar ransom, publication of a manifesto renouncing the United States and admitting the mission has been acting as a CIA front, and withdrawal of all mission personnel from the country immediately. You are informed you have 24 hours to respond or a five-year-old girl will be the first hostage killed.
Sound unlikely? Statistically you are correct. But impossible? Absolutely not. This scenario is a composite of actual situations faced by U.S. mission agencies in the last decade. In most cases, missionaries have been released; sometimes they have escaped; in a few cases, hostages have been killed.
Some of the organizations negotiated with the hostage-takers; others did not. In some cases the organization and its leaders faced a situation with which they were unprepared to deal, despite the life-and-death consequences of their decisions. For periods ranging from days to months leaders dealt with these situations, sometimes to the exclusion of all other business.
Our hypothetical leader faces a multitude of major issues, each of which will compete for his time and attention in the first few hours and days of the crisis. His most damaging hindrance is not the terrorists, their deadline or their demands. It is the fact he is not prepared. He will have to create his contingency plans, policy guidelines and crisis management process as he goes. Unfortunately, decisions made under pressure tend to be inferior to those made in a calm environment in which alternatives and consequences can be evaluated.
If the mission agency had planned before the crisis occurred, it could have evaluated the consequences of such a crisis, brainstormed potential solutions, assessed side effects or associated risks for each solution, identified the resources needed to resolve the crisis, and, if necessary, to secured training and additional resources.
CONTINGENCY PLANNING AND CRISIS MANAGEMENT
Contingency planning is a process in which potential risks faced by an individual, family or organization are identified and prioritized as to their likelihood of occurrence and degree of import. As a final step, plans are developed to deal with the risk.
Crisis management includes both contingency planning and prevention measures. In this article, we will examine contingency planning and crisis management in the missions community and suggest how to implement these concepts.
Key policy issues any mission organization should consider and resolve before an incident occurs include:
1. What type of leadership structure should be created to respond to the crisis?
2. Should the mission ever negotiate with terrorists? (Note: In this context, "negotiate" means to discuss, not necessarily to concede to demands.)
3. Should the mission agency pay ransom?
4. Should the organization yield to non-monetary demands?
5. What should be done about other members of the victim’s family during a terrorist incident? Should they be evacuated from the country?
6. How should the agency handle the news media?
7. In what ways should the mission cooperate with involved governments?
8. Who has the authority to order the evacuation of missionary personnel in an emergency?
Contingency planning is time consuming, and if additional training is indicated, it can be costly. It is proper to examine the need for such measures. First, forecast the likelihood your organization will be victimized. Terrorism tends to be cyclical in the short term. As this article is written, we are experiencing a lull in terrorism worldwide. But by the time you read it, terrorism could once again be daily front page news. However, when long-term trends are analyzed, most experts agree terrorism is on the rise.
Contingency planning and crisis management principles apply not only to terrorism, but to crises due to aircraft, train, or automobile accidents; the imprisonment of a member charged with proselytizing; or emergency evacuation due to natural disaster. A realistic assessment of all of the risks faced by an international mission organization would seem to generate a hue and cry for contingency planning and crisis management skills.
THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
The first question raised in a crisis is the issue of God’s sovereignty. Many feel these events are experiences provided by God to allow us to deepen our faith through reliance on him, rather than on human wisdom and endeavors. Perhaps the best response to this position is contained in a passage from Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliot. She recounts the approach of a missionary pilot to this issue:
Nate’s wife Marj carefully noted his position every five minutes.
There were those back home who smiled at Nate’s constant concern for safety. "After all," they said, "a missionary is supposed to trust the Lord!"
"Perhaps my reasoning is pagan, as I’ve been told"? Nate wrote home, "I do believe in miracles. They are nothing to God, surely. But the question is one of finding the pattern that the Lord has chosen us to conform to, I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t trusting the Lord.. .I’m concerned about safety, but I don’t let it keep me from getting on with God’s business. Every time I take off, I am ready to deliver up the life I owe to God. I feel that we should be quick to take advantage of every possible improvement in carrying out the job before us.
Further guidance can be found in Christ’s instructions to the disciples recorded in Matthew 10:16: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves." The Living Bible’s paraphrase of Proverbs 24:11 yields an even stronger admonition:
Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don’t stand back and let them die. Don’t try to disclaim responsibility by saying you didn’t know about it. For God, who knows all hearts, knows yours, and he knows you knew! And he will reward everyone according to his deeds.
FORMING A CRISIS MANAGEMENT TEAM
As a first step in contingency planning, you will need to decide on a staff structure for handling crises. Often, the top leader takes personal control, sometimes travelling to the scene of the crisis. This is usually an unnecessary step, and in some cases may be counterproductive.
Terrorists desire both to disrupt the work of the target institution and to generate widespread publicity. Both of these goals are achieved if a well-known mission leader rushes to the scene. Once there, he is committed to remaining. This will almost certainly disrupt the operation of the mission organization. An even greater concern is the message such an action may convey to the terrorists: Action directed against this mission will trigger a satisfyingly visible response. This may make your mission an irresistible target for terrorists.
There are many proven models for organizational response to crises. The most effective model is a committee or group commonly called a crisis management team. Before any crisis occurs these individuals are selected for their technical expertise and demonstrated ability to remain calm under pressure and to work as a team.
This team is charged with resolving the crisis. Specific limits of responsibility and authority are established so the team understands what decisions and actions it can implement, and which need additional approval. Ideally, the team will meet for training exercises prior to facing a real crisis. The team may draw on other resources within the organization, but its objective is to limit response to the crisis to the smallest group possible. This allows the mission to continue to work on its primary objectives in the field, and prevents organizational paralysis.
The size and composition of the crisis management team will vary according to the nature of the crisis. During a crisis, key members of the team should be relieved of other responsibilities, as experience has shown that in an extended emergency it becomes almost impossible for an individual to divide time and attention between the emergency and routine duties. Usually, both suffer.
SETTING POLICY GUIDELINES
One of the crisis management team’s most important tools is a set of policy guidelines. Policies define the organization’s priorities and position on critical issues. A crisis management team operates close to the emergency, and this is proper. But as the situation progresses, it will become increasingly difficult for team members to keep the "big picture" in mind as they strive to find an acceptable solution to the crisis. Policy guidelines bring a sense of order and objectivity to the team and help keep its activities consistent with organizational philosophy.
All policy statements should be simple, direct, and easily understood. Those that affect all members of the organization should be distributed to all. Missionaries with one agency sign a statement acknowledging the mission’s ransom policy at the time of initial application. Not only is this fair to the missionary, it may help the mission deal with family and friends should the missionary be taken hostage.
RANSOM – TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY
The question of paying ransom and yielding to extortion is probably the most controversial policy issue the mission will face. Most organizations adopt the policy advocated by the U.S. government against paying ransom and yielding to extortion. In theory, this policy should reduce the instances of terrorism and kidnapping worldwide.
But in many parts of the world, hostage-taking for financial gain has become so widespread that multinational corporations routinely carry kidnap insurance, and ransom is a normal business expense. A mission agency that unilaterally adopts a no-ransom policy (which in fact is not followed by any Western government) may find itself inadvertently sending defiant messages to a terrorist group. It is one thing for a missionary to be martyred for his faith, but are we willing to accept martyrdom of our missionaries in order to maintain the agency’s political position? The answer, of course, must be decided by each organization. This is the type of policy decision best made in a calm, deliberate manner and not "under the gun" while facing a deadline.
TALKING WITH TERRORISTS
At first glance, the issue of negotiating with terrorists seems as controversial as paying ransom. However, "negotiate" frequently is used interchangeably with "discuss" or "meet." Discussing a hostage situation with a terrorist group should not imply capitulation.
In most such incidents, hostage-takers eventually realize their demands will not be met. They reach the point where they desire only a face-saving way out of their situation. Skillful negotiators frequently can find a middle ground acceptable to all parties. Such was the result of a recent case negotiated by Contingency Preparation Consultants, in which seven missionary hostages were released after two months of talks. In that case, the mission agency made no agreements and yielded to no demands. Yet all seven hostages were released safely.
THE FAMILY IN CRISIS
Should the victim’s family be evacuated during the hostage ordeal? It is an emotional issue. Most experts— and most hostages and their families— agree that the immediate evacuation of the victim’s family is a wise policy. It protects the family from additional kidnappings; the knowledge that his family is safe encourages the hostage; and it may reduce the time demands on the leadership team charged with resolving the crisis.
But unless this policy is established, explained and agreed to by all parties beforehand, it will be virtually impossible to implement during a crisis. The organization should be in constant contact with the relocated family, and should plan to provide necessary financial, emotional and spiritual support.
RELATING TO THE NEWS MEDIA
The relationship between the mission agency and the news media can be crucial during a crisis situation. The natural tendency of most organizations to adopt a "no comment" attitude (no matter what terms are used to convey that message) may not be helpful during an emergency. The news media may be able to carry your "story" in such a way as to build public support for your position and influence terrorists to drop their demands or release the hostages.
In some cases, the media may be your only method of communicating with the terrorists, and cooperation will be essential. In any case, the media will play a key role in portraying your organization to the public. Since your public image is part of your Christian witness, it is logical to make every effort to solicit fair and accurate representation of the mission in all circumstances, especially crises.
DEALING WITH GOVERNMENTS
The relationship of your mission to various governments during a crisis, especially a terrorist event, may be even more difficult to manage than your media relationships. You are likely to face conflicting demands from the governments, the terrorists, and possibly even from different agencies and factions within the governments. Local law may require governmental cooperation and prohibit direct negotiation.
Your concern about the ability of some local governments to discharge these responsibilities may influence your decision whether or not to notify the government of a hitherto unreported kidnapping. It would be important to establish solid relationships with key government officials before a crisis occurs, as they may be invaluable in cutting through bureaucracy.
TRAINING MISSION PERSONNEL
A critical component of contingency planning and crisis management is training. Some mission organizations have training programs for all of their personnel covering such areas as individual and family contingency planning, crime prevention and avoidance, and hostage survival. Additional training for leaders in policy setting, organizational contingency planning, and crisis management is a sound investment. The crisis management team (or its equivalent) should undergo periodic training as a group. This training should include simulations and drills under conditions that are as realistic as possible.
In closing, let’s return to our hypothetical director and his crisis. This time, imagine a more positive scenario. As the director, you may be encouraged to know the victims have taken a hostage survival course. You have a team of trusted leaders who have planned and trained to respond to just such an event. The organization has policy guidelines to assist in making decisions about payment of ransom, leaving the country, and other issues.
Will these tools guarantee successful resolution of the crisis? Of course not. But they will allow you and other leaders to approach the situation in a calm, professional manner, knowing you have done your best to prepare. You will be able to discharge your responsibilities to the hostages, their families, and to God in a manner that is worthy of our missionary calling and the One we serve.
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