I received two notes from highly committed parishioners. Both thanked me for effectively leading our church through “crisis.”
My first thought was “which crisis?”
Since 2016 or so, the church world has been in a perpetual state of crisis. The tornados keep touching down and the tornados already on the ground never seem to lift. We have a sharply divided nation along political lines, denominations imploding, entrenched human sexuality debates, leaders doing dumb crap, the vitriol of social media, racial divides and young people far less interested in church than their parents and grandparents. The church is being sharply critiqued from both the inside and the larger culture and those holding traditional views of Scriptural authority and morality are being demonized as “haters.”
And right about the time you didn’t think things could get worse, a global pandemic hit and shut all churches down for weeks and some for months and months. Christ Church reopened for live worship in July of 2020 and I remember thinking, “If we open too soon, we will be vilified by half of America. If we open too late, we will be vilified by the other half of America. And if we open on the PERFECT day, we will be vilified by everyone.”
I was right.
Leadership in 2022 is like walking across a Midwestern cow pasture; you will step in something.
How does a church leader lead in such volatile times? I have some thoughts on that topic! Leaders are only needed in time of great opportunity or great challenge. Managers and positional leaders work fine during the other times. The “Roaring 2000’s” were times of great opportunity for the church and congregations with vision, strong leadership, laser focus on their mission and a favorable environment found themselves in a climate of unprecedented growth, vitality, building, capital campaigns and generally good weather. Churches of over 2,000 were suddenly everywhere and held far more in common with one another than with the smaller congregations of their own tribes. Most of these congregations were led by a gifted founding pastor or a long tenured leader who “grew with” the church. Such dynamic congregations could attract people of very different political understandings and backgrounds because they were centered upon a clear mission. The big idea was, “We are going to disagree on all kinds of things but at church were are going to agree upon a shared mission.”
And that approach worked great…until it didn’t.
One day we all awakened and the world had changed. All of the sudden, people could not imagine going to church with people who didn’t think or vote like them and could never sit under the teaching of a pastor they suspected of not being of like mind on human sexuality or social policy. By 2018, a shift began to occur that was greatly accelerated by the 2020 pandemic. Progressive churches lost their conservatives and conservative churches lost their progressives. Those in the “true middle” (and there ARE some of these folks) may have found themselves in the worst position of all. I believe that about 25% of pre-pandemic regular church attendees have either quit, shifted exclusively to church on-line or changed churches.
It is too easy to view the current church conflicts though a horizontal “right/left” dichotomy because it tells only half the story. Complicating matters, is a vertical “institutionalist/non-institutionalist” axis.
Institutionalists believe in institutions like denominations and in crisis, tend to centralize and get heavy handed. They want a map. Non-institutionalists believe institutions are a significant part of the problem and tend to de-centralize. They want a navigational chart.
In some matters, a conservative institutionalist will think more like a progressive institutionalist than a conservative non-institutionalist. In others, progressive non-institutionalist will think more like a conservative non-institutionalist than a progressive institutionalist.
We find ourselves in a difficult position; we have never more needed leadership and it is harder than ever to lead. So how do we effectively lead in such times?
1. Define your core values
Leaders must act from their own deeply held core values. There can be no pragmatism or politics around this issue. Authenticity is impossible apart from it.
2. Lead prayerfully
I am being dead serious here. Serious prayer and the utilization of spiritual gifts, are essential when the path is not clear. Hearing and heeding the Holy Spirit can make you look like a genius.
3. Lead strategically
Impulsive leaders do poorly in times of crisis. They overreact to loses and they are unduly buoyed by victories. Every moment is a new crisis. Strategic leaders play for the long game. Develop a game plan, run it and make adjustments.
4. Think team
In the past, heroic solo leaders led by winning year after year. Right now, long winning steaks are not possible. Strategic leaders need the collective intelligence and support of a gifted team.
5. Don’t wait for 100% support
I figure I need 80% support to make a bold move and would prefer 90%. Don’t allow “hate mail” to distort the strength of your opposition or diminish the perceived size of your support base. Happy people normally quietly support with their feet and their wallets, it is the unhappy folks who make all the noise. If you wait for 100% support, you will never move.
6. Build a support system
You will occasionally get your butt kicked even if you make no leadership mistakes. There will be inner doubt at times. Some decisions are “49-51” and no matter what you do (even if you do nothing), there will be fall out. You will need trusted peers outside your leadership sphere to both console you and celebrate with you. If you have to hire a coach, do it.
7. Be transparent
Stay optimistic but give them the good news and the bad news. Transparency builds trust and trust is essential to leadership.
Pushing through a short-term crisis is possible but you can’t sustain the pace of a year or two of perpetual crisis. Take a day off, enjoy your vacations, turn off the phone, rely on your teams and make sure you are living healthy. You can’t lead others if you can’t lead yourself.
Leading in crisis requires navigation skills. There is no map to follow (that is why it is a crisis) and SIRI can’t tell you where to turn. Get comfortable making decisions, holding steady and hunkering down during storms. Navigating is not terribly efficient but when there are too many variables to follow directions, it is all you have. If it makes you feel any better, every leader in the New Testament was navigating.
10. Lead boldly
Leaders can’t suffer from double mindedness and indecision in challenging times. The tentative leader is the worst kind of leader; they give people nothing to follow. Think it through and if you decide to do a thing, see it through. People will follow bold leaders.
As I ponder those notes I received , it occurs to me that these two people know how tough leading a church is these days and took the time to offer a word of appreciation and support. It is greatly appreciated.
And then it hit me, we don’t lead for ourselves and we don’t lead because it is easy. We don’t even lead because we want to or for others.
We lead because God asked us to do so.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois and the author of “A Trail Guide to the Gospel of John” and “Love God. Love People. Don’t do Dumb Crap.” His blog “12 Things I See Happy People Do (that unhappy people do not)” is nearing four million reads to date.