Leadership Lessons From Harvey

by Steve Garrabrant

In late August, 2017, the Houston-area faced catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall, which was more than 51 inches. Houston averages around 49 inches of rain a year, so to receive a year’s worth of rain in a mere three days was devastating. Our school, Lutheran South Academy, a Pre-K through 12th grade campus, was especially hit hard from the flooding. It’s no secret the flooding of Harvey is a financial challenge to LSA. Fortunately, we carried the maximum amount of flood insurance possible, but that is not going to cover everything lost. Between the coverage of our flood insurance and the outpouring of generosity from others, especially fellow churches and Lutheran schools, we are still facing a shortfall of just under $500,000. Our campus is still not back to 100% operation as we await millwork in some of the classrooms and offices. Our gym will not be ready until sometime in February. Nevertheless, as we enter the second semester of a crazy year impacted by Harvey, we can look back and see several leadership lessons learned from the natural disaster.

Lesson #1: Never Waste a Hurricane

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. ~ Galatians 6:10 (NIV)

If you find yourself in a conversation with Lutheran Education Association of Houston (LEAH) Schools’ CEO, Gregg Pinick, I am sure you will hear the phrase, “Never waste a hurricane!” at some point during the conversation. No one should ever desire to experience a hurricane. After experiencing Harvey’s catastrophic flooding, I have no desire to experience another hurricane! As administrators, we have been called to lead our teachers and our students in good days and in bad, during days of calm and during those of calamity. The opportunities that we are given to be vessels in furthering His Kingdom and being good stewards of that which our Lord has entrusted to our care does not cease with a natural disaster or at any other time. We have to make the most of every opportunity, every day.

With this Call and charge from our Lord in mind, we realized the need to return school to session as soon as possible. A return to educating our youth was our top priority, but the challenges we faced in doing so were very daunting. As the saying goes, “When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.” God calls us to make the most of every opportunity and experience. Daunting or not, it was time to circle the wagons, rally the troops, and come away better than before.

To “Never Waste a Hurricane,” means to make the most of every opportunity. In three days’ time, over 1,000 volunteers came to campus to help with the clean-up effort—removing ruined sheetrock, tearing up compromised flooring, cleaning and disinfecting everything that was salvageable from the flooded “black water.” The way our LSA community rallied together for a common purpose and joint mission was an awesome experience. Never waste an opportunity to build and appreciate community comradery.

Due to the need to remove sheetrock throughout the lower floors in every building on campus, we were provided an opportunity to move walls—to reconfigure spaces to make them more efficient. Our high school and lower school offices benefitted from reconfiguring the walls. Our high school science labs and storage areas were improved. Our campus’ weight room was enlarged to better meet our needs. Our gym layout was changed to better suit the needs of our campus. Though we faced devastation and destruction, we were able to make improvements moving forward. Never waste an opportunity to improve.

Lesson #2: For Such a Time as This

And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?

~ Esther 4:14b (NIV)

It is always amazing to see God in action. To be able to observe how God uses people and situations to carry out His plan is equally amazing. Though our first semester was one for the record books—a change from a traditional schedule to a block schedule, a hurricane with devastating floods, three different “first days of school,” operating a Lutheran school inside of a Baptist church for six weeks, experiencing the bare necessities with no bells, counters, cabinets, and toilets and sinks—our ministry continued because of how God provided the right people at the right time, and how He equipped those He Called. Parents, students, teachers, and staff came together for such a time as this to do amazing things in such a short period of time. There was no accidental placement of individuals at LSA. God knew what was needed and how it would come to fruition. The same is true for your ministry situations. God has Called you and your staff for His purpose, for the furthering of His Kingdom.

Lesson #3: God Provides

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

~ Philippians 4:19 (NIV)

Thanks be to God for all that He gives us! We have been blessed so much at LSA with the outpouring of aid from others. One such blessing was a large Baptist church reaching out to us and inviting us to use the classrooms in their church so that we could resume our education. Miraculously, in less than two weeks from the onslaught of the hurricane, we were up and running at Sagemont Church. For six weeks, we held classes at Sagemont.

While we were at Sagemont, we were blessed to have our weekly chapel service to include all levels (Lower School, Middle School, and High School) at the same time in their large Worship Center. At LSA, we start the year and end the year with an all-campus chapel in our gym, but due to the population of student body, it is not feasible to do an all-campus chapel weekly. While at Sagemont, Rev. Aaron Richert, our Campus Pastor, led messages with a focus on God’s providential care. What a great reminder it is for us that we know our Lord will meet all of our needs!

I am still in awe at how God provided the means for us to resume our education as quickly as He did—how God provided laborers and how God worked through churches and organizations to provide materials and donations. One of my favorite stories was to see my Assistant Principal, Gary Himmler, be reunited with a former baseball teammate from Lutheran High North (Macomb, MI). As we were in the initial talks with Sagemont about using their facility, their CPA Administrator, David Juengel, said he graduated from a Lutheran high school. Long story short, after many years and some 1,300 miles, teammates were reunited. How awesome it is to see God at work and how He provides!

When as many as 150 people in the neighborhood surrounding LSA began to experience flooding in their homes, they were able to take refuge on the second floor of our middle school demonstrating yet another wonderful community connection and opportunity for LSA to share God’s providential care. Though our school faced devastation from the flooding, we were able to be a safe haven for those in the community seeking shelter from the rising flood waters until they could be rescued by the Texas National Guard.

Lesson #4: Flexibility is a Necessity

There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—‘I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge.

~ Matthew 12:6-8 (The Message)

Simply put, Harvey forced us to be flexible. As mentioned earlier, we had planned a schedule change from a traditional schedule to a block schedule. Harvey solidified that change when we found ourselves at Sagemont. Without access for lockers, students had to carry all of their materials in backpacks. Having to carry books and materials for four classes instead of eight helped a great deal. That was an easy transition. Having teachers set up and tear down their classes, bring in materials and take them home, so that Sagemont could hold its Bible classes, required flexibility. When we returned to campus, but lacked millwork and even white boards, our teachers had to be flexible. Coaches had to be flexible without a gym or weight room. Everyone had to be flexible. There was no way we were going to experience “business as usual.” The leadership of the administrators needed to embrace, encourage, and model flexibility.

Lesson #5: Plan and Pray

Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.

~ Daniel 9:17-19 (NIV)

My former Superintendent in the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Detroit, Rev. Dr. John Herzog, once told me that “we have to plan as if it is all on us and pray as if it all on God.” When facing a crisis, it is important to plan. Kuddos to our LSA Head of School, Sheila Psencik, for being the mastermind planner! You need to have a plan for everything—a plan for organizing volunteers, a plan for resuming the mission, a plan for dealing with the present hurdles and obstacles, a plan for moving forward toward the future. While we planned all that we could, we needed to always accompany our planning with prayer. What a blessing it is to have the opportunity in our vocations that while we engage in plans for our organization and the carrying out of those plans, we have the wonderful opportunity to join together in prayer. On the morning of Harvey’s anticipated arrival, our administrative team and several staff and faculty members gathered at the school to prepare as best we could. We raised items as high as we could off the floor. We sandbagged doors and entrances. We worked hard together that morning— united in a common mission. After several hours of preparing what we could, we gathered together in the lobby of our B Building to pray before returning to our homes to complete our own preparations. I’ll never forget that time of prayer. Being a transplanted northerner, I had no idea what was really coming our way. Should I board my windows? Did we need to leave our house and head further inland? Did we have enough food and provisions to endure what was to come? All we could do is plan to the best of our ability and pray unceasingly.

My fellow administrators and brothers and sisters in Christ, I pray you never face anything like Hurricane Harvey. However, the reality is that we will all face hardships in our ministry and in our leadership. The old evil foe is going to be hard at work where the Gospel is being proclaimed. What a blessing it is to us that though we will face difficulties and hardships, our Lord’s promises will never change nor will He ever forsake us.

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Steve Garrabrant is the high school principal at Lutheran South Academy. He can be reached at steve.garrabrant@lutheransouth.org.