3 Ways to Cultivate Resilient Leadership


Leadership is challenging, especially in these days, so effective leaders need to be resilient. C. Kavin Rowe asserts that resilience is essential in Christian communities as they are founded on hope. He outlines three ways Christian communities can cultivate hope and nurture resilience in their leaders.  

There are at least three central ways that we can cultivate resilience. These ways of cultivating resilience emerge from the cognition of our present location within the broader Christian narrative that moves from God’s good creation through the fall to the election of Israel, the redemption wrought in Jesus Christ, and the consummation of this redemption at the end.  

We exist in this period after Jesus and before the consummation. In this period, God’s kingdom is simultaneously now and not yet here. Now/not yet, that is, not only names our moment in the story; it is also shorthand for Christian knowledge of the truth about the world as we know it. 

1. Recalibrate our imaginations. 

The first way to cultivate resilience within this moment of the Christian story is to recalibrate our imaginations to the reality of profound difficulty as a natural part of life. At least in the United States, there is a pervasive sense that we are entitled to ease or at least to good things that should themselves be easy to get. The world, it is imagined, somehow owes us a good life. The trouble, however, is that the world won’t cooperate with this view and instead keeps sending us things that repeatedly knock us down. In the face of reality, we should learn to expect struggle and even gross failure as inexpungible patterns of human life in the world as we know it. 

This is the “not yet” of Christian knowledge of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, however, changing our expectations of what the world must offer us has the potential to disclose many ways in which we already exhibit resilience in daily life — the ability to go each day to a job we’d rather not do, to face hard relationships with the hope of something better, to sacrifice our needs for someone else’s sake, and so on. 

Accepting the difficulty of the world allows us to note the daily forms of resilience; attending to these begins the skill of learning how to hear words of hope in the context of daily life. The expectation of ease also has a somewhat paradoxical effect in that it can lead people to despair. When life brings nothing but struggle, then the utter lack of ease results in kind of hopelessness — the seemingly permanent state of being knocked down. 

2. Establish sites of hopefulness in the midst of despair. 

Second, we need to establish sites of hopefulness in the midst of despair. Here in Durham, North Carolina, the work of TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc.) with substance abusers, for example, is work that teaches hope by means of focused practices of repair. In Houston, it’s Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. And all across the nation on every single day of the week, it’s Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the “now” of Christian knowledge of the world. By learning how to hope, people in despair learn how to get back up again and develop resilience step by step.  

3. Resilience is best learned in community. 

Third, as these examples indicate, resilience is best learned in community. We often think of resilience in individual terms: this or that person is resilient. But communities of hope — the calling of all Christian communities — are actually places that have resilience written into their being. They are founded on hope, and their very existence testifies to the fact that getting back up is not simply a matter of the individual will. We can be helped back up and can learn how to help others up.

Hope too, therefore, is not only our own response to the world but is something we can extend to others and they can extend to us. Christian communities often fall far short of being places of hope, but that is their foundation and their calling. Because of God’s work in Christ, we can, quite literally, hope for someone else, and they can hope for us.

Start talking with resilient leaders and soon enough you will see that someone hoped for them in a time when they couldn’t get back up. Resilience, in this understanding, is a communal practice, the fruit of a common life rooted in hope itself. Resilient leaders are those who are best able to figure forth the hope of the community — not least in the face of failure, again and again and again. 

Leading Christian Communities book coverAdapted from Leading Christian Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2023), pp. 53–55. Originally published in Faith & Leadership. Used here with permission. This book is available at Eerdmans, Cokesbury, and Amazon 

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About Author

C. Kavin Rowe is the Vice Dean of the Faculty and the George Washington Ivey Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. The first of three volumes of his collected essays was published as Leading Christian Communities (Eerdmans, 2023).

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.