This season of change calls for a new leadership stance. Susan Beaumont outlines five practices that can help you lead more effectively as you discover the new normal for your congregation.
We are in a liminal season, stuck between an ending and a new beginning. The pathway forward is not knowable. The way we “did church” even two months ago is gone. We have literally been thrown out of our buildings by a pandemic. We can reassure people (and ourselves) by pretending the disruption is temporary. “We will resume all normal activity soon.” That reassurance is not helpful or truthful.
No one knows what normal looks like after sheltering in place. Likely, we will resume many familiar things, but congregational life will not be the same. We are disoriented and confused. There is grief and loss.
This season requires a different leadership stance. Our actions must originate from a new center — a less busy and more yielding, soulful place. The following five practices can help you lead more effectively as you discover the next, new normal with your congregation.
To surrender is to yield. We accept this moment as “just the place we need to be” to learn what is most important now. To surrender does not mean giving up or giving in. It does not mean we languish or grow lazy — quite the opposite. It means we lean into the disorientation and trust the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Striving, rather than surrender, was the mood of the first season of this crisis. Striving is the act of working harder and longer to prove mastery, merit, and worth. We hoped that our industriousness could protect people from the difficult, adaptive work ahead. Through our own hard work and determination, we figured out how to put church online. We toiled to demonstrate our care for people when we could not be physically present with them. We learned new ways to connect those in need. We have done good industrious work.
But now we find ourselves beyond the limits of our own resourcefulness and knowing. This next season requires adaptive learning — for leaders and followers alike. Learning begins with surrender. I acknowledge that I don’t have answers. I yield my spirit to God’s leading and invite my congregation to do the same. We attend to all that arises in response to our surrender.
2. Use the Disorientation
All innovation begins with disorientation. People must let the old status quo fail before we can embrace innovation. We should acknowledge that the status quo failed us some time ago. We have been falsely clinging to the old normal because there was too much pain in letting go.
The pandemic has thrown us into deep disorientation. Now, we have no choice but to let go of the old normal. We occupy space on both sides of a threshold. One foot is rooted in something trying to end; another is planted in a thing not yet defined, something waiting to begin. We cling to structures, identities, and relationships formed by our old experiences, although we know that those processes and practices will not serve us adequately moving forward.
It would be a mistake to shore up the old structures and practices as things get “back to normal.” We need to take advantage of this moment to let old things die, to experiment, to take risks and learn.
3. Invite Meaning-Making
Humans cannot live without meaning. The greater our sense of uncertainty, the more desperately we grasp for a handhold, a shred of something that reminds us of who we are and where we have been. People need help interpreting the present moment given their shared past.
Part of this work is theological in nature. People grapple with the deep questions of our faith. Where is God when people are suffering? Why are we here? Is God punishing the world? Listen. Sharpen your theological edge and shape the conversations happening around you.
Beyond that, locate this moment in the history of your specific context. When have your people endured a moment reminiscent of this one? What higher values did they bring to that moment? How might those same values guide them now?
4. Define One Good Next Step
People need to know that they are pursuing something that matters now: worthy work, a shared common cause, or a sense of rootedness to something enduring. This is especially important when we cannot plan our next steps in one, three, and five-year increments. Who even knows what tomorrow will bring in this environment?
Systematic planning will not serve you well in liminality, but you don’t have to wander aimlessly. Help people remember their passions and connect those passions to their gifts and resources. Develop a shared sense of what you are trying to learn together. Then, claim one good next step in the general direction of your shared aspirations.
5. Attend to the Yearning
Rational decision making assumes that human knowledge is enough to address the challenges we face. Rational decisions cannot guide us through the deep disorientation we face now. Instead, we need to pay attention to yearning.
Yearning is the language of the human soul. When we listen to others at soul level, we sense a collective longing that will guide us to the other side of chaos. Letting go of what once was, we let ourselves be led by God who is drawing us forward and into our future.
Discernment is the tool we use to attend the yearning. It is a wisdom way of knowing. We drop beneath rational decision making, directly into the knowing planted in our souls. Make space in your congregation for this expression of collective yearning. What is God calling us to do or become next?
Our new normal is already with us and it is also just beyond our reach. This is an exciting time to be the church if we are willing to stay in the disorientation for the time it takes to discover our next chapter.
This article was originally published in Perspectives for Church and Synagogue Leaders, the enewsletter of the Congregational Consulting Group. Used by permission. Susan Beaumont’s book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019) is available at Amazon.
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