What Church Leaders Can Expect From 2021

We need to temper our expectations for the new year, but there is hope.

You’re so anxious to get 2020 over with. I get it. I feel that too.

It would be amazing if somebody returned everything to some semblance of normalcy right about now, wouldn’t it?

Sitting here in December 2020 at the end of a long year, it’s tempting to paint 2021 as a relief to all our problems.

Trust me, I feel the urge to do that too. Deeply.

But, that would be a mistake.

For some leaders, it would be a fatal one. Either because it could take you out or your organization down … or both.

Before you dismiss the article, or quickly move on to something else more “positive,” let me drop some promises in (which is actually the point of this post: To help you make it through the end of 2021 and well beyond).

Lowering your expectations for 2021 now will lead to greater joy, a far more resilient organization and a much healthier you later.

As they say, the secret to happiness is low expectations. One of the reasons you’re so frustrated and exhausted right now is because you expected things would be better.

Humans do that. Christmas is disappointing because your picture of how your family will behave is different from how they actually behave.

The frustration you feel with your team emerges from the gap between the ideal person you thought you hired and the real person you actually hired.

Lowering your expectations increases both your resilience and your happiness almost every time.

Here are five reasons that lowering your expectations for 2021 is a really good idea.

1. The Shut Down Happened Overnight. The Reopening Will Be Far More Gradual and Intermittent.

It’s slowly dawning on most of us that there may not be a reopening “day” or season where everyone floods back in and everything is at it was.

For most organizations, the shut down happened overnight. You were open for business as usual March 9th 2020, and were shut down completely or radically impacted by March 15th.

It’s easy to imagine that the reopening would happen exactly the same way.

There’s incredible news with a vaccine on the way, but both the roll out and its impact on the spread of COVID-19 is going to take a while.

While nobody wants it, we’ll likely have months ahead of the virus surging and retreating, and with that, regulations that move you in and out of degrees of lockdown.

The restrictions themselves will take a while to lift completely.

Government regulations are one thing. Human behavior is quite another.

It might take a while longer for most people to feel comfortable being in crowded public spaces, and some of the pattern changes people have adopted during COVID will likely be permanent.

I think the metaphor of having green light, yellow light and red light people is sound.

Green light people are those who will rush back and be perfectly comfortable.

Yellow light people will be more cautious for months or maybe longer.

And red light people, made so either by disposition or medical condition, might change how they operate in the public sphere for a much longer time.

Simply realizing that this will be a longer, gradual process will help you plan for a longer, gradual re-entry and make you more effective as a result.

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2. Normal Is Being Redefined as We Speak.

You long for normal. I long for normal.

I also understand everyone is oh-so-tired of hearing about “the new normal.”

So, what can you actually expect?

Emerging out of the pandemic, in all likelihood, won’t be the return to normal you hope for.

That’s because normal is being redefined as we speak.

The longer the current crisis goes on, the longer temporary habits become permanent ones.

We will eventually settle into some kind of normalcy, and that’s likely to have a strange and unpredictable mix of familiar and new patterns.

So sure, people will return to live events. Schools, gyms, restaurant and churches will one day be open without restrictions. (Cheer now).

And to be sure, offices will reopen and traffic jams will happen and people will vacation and airplanes and resorts will operate at capacity again.

But don’t miss the nuance underneath all this.

Will company offices return to exactly where they were pre-pandemic? There is zero indication that’s going to happen. Of course, some offices will reopen as they used to be, but most will change their patterns. As this Harvard survey shows, remote work will, in all likelihood, become much more prevalent than it was pre-COVID. Many companies have already downsized and hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions?) of people have already sold their homes and moved to more remote places now where they can easily work from home.

It will be interesting to see what happens with shopping (more home delivery?), school (more homeschooling?), fitness (fewer gym memberships now that people bought their own Peleton?) entertainment (are direct-to-home movie releases more of the future after 2021?). Will in-person church attendance take months or years to go back to pre-pandemic levels?

So post-pandemic, whenever we get there, will definitely feel more normal than things do today. But normal will have shifted. And even a 10 to 30% variation in patterns is massive disruption and something every leader needs to plan for starting now.

3. The Biggest Certainty Is Unpredictability.

Every leader longs for certainty. I do. But even long before the crisis hit, you didn’t really have certainty.

What you had was some form of predictability. The crisis, of course, took that away.

The unpredictability and uncertainty are likely to continue for a while longer. Months for sure. Perhaps longer.

A good way to look at 2020 is that it helped build some skills that are essential in unpredictable times: Agility, flexibility and the ability to move fast and change again.

Those will likely be even more important in the future.

The last few decades are filled with companies, organizations and churches that died because things changed and they didn’t.

When the autopsy is done on those organizations, you usually discover they lacked not only the vision to see that change was necessary, but the flexibility and agility needed to change.

You’re developing agility and flexibility as a result of everything you’ve been through. Keep developing them, and don’t let those muscles atrophy.

4. An Unhealthy Rhythm Now Means You Might Not Make It to Then.

I recently asked over 75,000 leaders (over email—you can sign up here to join my list) what they’re struggling with. By far, the No. 1 challenge is exhaustion: Their exhaustion and the fatigue of their teams.

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The thing I’m most worried about for leaders who see 2021 as a panacea, or a finish line of sorts, is that they’re not going to make it into 2022. (I explain more on that in Point 5, below.)

Imagining that 2021 is going to give you rest is kind of like thinking you’ll be fine after the tornado, only realizing too late that you now have to rebuild everything.

Yes, things will eventually be better. No, we’re not there yet.

Finding a healthy rhythm during the crisis is essential to being okay after the crisis.

In the same way that so many leaders looked to time off to save them during 2020, only to discover that a week or two off didn’t solve anything, looking to 2021 to save you will just be an exercise in disappointment.

Time off won’t save you from an unsustainable pace when the problem is how you spend your time on.

And if 2021 won’t bring instant relief, it’s critical for you to find a sustainable pace now.

I have a lot of free resources on how to manage your time, energy and priorities to stay healthy, and I have a session in the free 2021 Church Leader Toolkit if you want to learn more (non-church leaders are welcome to the Toolkit as well).

Time off isn’t going to heal this one. How you spend your time on is. 5. The Greatest Leaders Confront the Brutal Facts (But Never Lose Hope).

Let’s finish up by going back to what Jim Collins calls Stockdale Paradox, one of the principles that a lot of leaders talked about early on in the crisis.

As you may remember, Jim Stockdale was an American Vise Admiral captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He was held and tortured for seven years.

Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly and they’d be released. “They died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

Instead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine realism and hope. In Stockdale’s words:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That, essentially, is your job in crisis leadership. The greatest leaders confront the brutal facts but never lose hope.

And sadly for you and me, the crisis and instability will soon drag into their second year.

You will prevail in the end, but there’s some brutal stuff you and I need to get through before things get better.

Crisis leadership falls apart when leaders embrace the extremes: Pessimists only see the real, and naive optimists only see the ideal.

When you embrace both, you discover true leadership. You’ll also emerge out of the crisis stronger and into a much stronger tomorrow.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.