Pastoring A Pandemic: The Challenge of Adaptive Leadership
It’s stunning how quickly life can change. We got a taste of this here in New York City during 9-11. Now it’s the coronavirus. Calamities like this are unforeseen. They’re never anticipated. We’re never prepared. So it always fuels high anxiety. As someone commented, “Right now fear may be worse than the virus itself.”
As with every other segment of America, the Christian Church is facing unprecedented challenges. How do you pastor a pandemic? How do we continue to ‘be’ the church if we can’t gather ‘with’ the church? This is uncharted territory for every pastor and spiritual leader I’ve talked to. They’re being forced to adapt and change which for many may be as difficult a challenge to face as the virus itself.
A few years ago, I read, “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory” by Tod Bolsinger (IVP Books). It’s written to pastors who are leading in situations they were not expecting. He writes to help them reimagine what effective leadership looks like in a world that suddenly changes. I can’t recommend more highly.
Doing church in the midst of this coronavirus crisis presents adaptive challenges that go beyond the technical solutions of the experts or best practices that were successful in the past. What’s the playbook when your public worship gatherings are derailed and when you can’t be closer than six feet from one another? How can churches effectively care for their congregations under such restrictive conditions? How will leaders lead and pastors pastor in this changed and hazardous landscape?
Church leaders are being forced to learn and to change without abandoning their core identity and purpose. Bolsinger says that this is a process that’s fraught anxiety and loss. Leaders must learn to see and lead a whole new way – a way that’s unfamiliar to most pastoral leaders causing them to feel off-balance and insecure.
Leading a decentralized church in troubled times will require a certain amount of loss of ego, power, efficiency and control on the part of the pastoral leader. Ministry will have to be significantly shifted from paid staff to a mobilized laity. Top down decision making and problem solving will have to be replaced by a more spiritual gift-based, collaborative corporate team-like method.
The senior leader is still the key leader but it will change. As the church community embarks on this journey into uncharted territory, I can imagine the senior leader (no longer the expert) taking on the role of “lead learner”. Maybe the best answer an adaptive leader can give when facing times like this is, “I don’t know, we’ll just have to pray and wait and see” (an answer we were never taught to give in seminary). Ironically this might open-up new creative possibilities.
In light of the unfolding coronavirus crisis Bolsinger’s book is an insightful and prophetic word for church leaders today. It’s a timely, must read. However, I’d like to add a word on the magnified importance of the role of the Holy Spirit and prayer in times like this…
Adaptive leaders will have to get used to “leading from behind”, that is, doing what the Father doing by following the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than relying on their natural, God-given leadership instincts, talents and muscle to make things happen. Despite the hysteria, God is in control. He has solutions. Christ has a pastoral directive for his Church in response to this crisis. The most important task an adaptive leader and his or her team must carry out, particularly in a crisis like this, is to pray and listen to the Spirit in order to discern God’s agenda and then move the church on to it by prayerfully creating a Spirit-driven plan, trusting God to supply the wisdom, help, resources and the strength to carry it out. Prayer must become the adaptive leader’s first ministry. In spite of all the demands and expectations placed on the leader’s time and energy, prayer must take precedence. Nothing is more essential.
I’ll be back with more thoughts fon “pastoring a pandemic”. But until then, be at peace, trusting God our Shelter in times of storm.