What you need to know to lead through chaotic times
What are the critical characteristics leaders need to navigate the present and future realities of today’s world? We identified six essential marks of leaders on mission.
1. Hopeful Leadership
Many Christians have either resorted to a gloom and doom outlook or are simply pretending that nothing has changed. However, as leaders, we don’t have to be pessimistic, optimistic or in denial. We can find realistic hope rooted in Christ, because he is the same, yesterday, today and forever.
I love Star Wars. Even the spin-off movies. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the leaders of the rebellion were facing overwhelming odds when the main character, Jyn Erso, reminded them, “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.” If you think about it, Christianity was a rebellion that was built on hope. In the midst of war, persecution or pandemic, hope is what has sustained the church throughout the ages. Romans 15:13 in The Message says, “May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” Leaders of the future must have a realistic hope.
2. Emotionally Healthy Leadership
More than ever before, we need emotionally healthy leaders. Over the past decade, statistics have revealed that many Christian leaders are burned-out. Some have committed moral failures. Others have simply walked away from the ministry.
One of the primary reasons for burnout is that too many leaders are emotionally unhealthy. Prior to COVID-19, Lifeway Research revealed that 23% of pastors acknowledge they have personally struggled with a mental illness; 49% say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness. Another Lifeway Research study of pastors concluded that 84% say they are on call 24 hours a day, and 54% find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming. Combined with the pandemic and the massive logistical, relational and financial pressures churches are facing, leaders are facing significant challenges.
“As leaders, we don’t have to be pessimistic, optimistic or in denial. We can find realistic hope rooted in Christ.”
In his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Peter Scazerro describes the emotionally unhealthy leader as “someone who operates in a continuous state of emotional and spiritual deficit, lacking emotional maturity and a ‘being with God’ sufficient to sustain their ‘doing for God.’”
So what does an emotionally healthy leader look like? One of the keys is self-awareness. Healthy leadership involves attending to our inner life and knowing ourselves as well as knowing God. Knowing ourselves is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence—our capability to recognize and use our own emotional information to manage and adapt to various environments. Rather than focusing on your ability to perform tasks, emotional intelligence probes the depths of identity to ensure that at your very core you possess the character, stamina and adaptability to succeed as a leader. Emotionally healthy leaders have the ability to calmly differentiate themselves from the demands and voices around them.
3. Contemplative Leadership
In a world filled with distractions, we need a quiet place where God can speak to us. Too often, leaders are people of action, but rarely men and women of contemplation and prayer. The result is often stress, depression and burnout. I continue to find that sitting and prayerfully meditating on God’s Word puts the cares of this world in proper perspective and opens me up to allowing God to speak to me.
Contemplative prayer is important for leaders because even doing a good work for the Lord can be a distraction if we don’t allow time to rest. Through his words and actions, Jesus reminds us of the importance of rest. After the disciples returned from a busy missionary journey, Jesus told them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). Jesus knew they needed rest for their weary souls. He was guarding them from spiritual burnout.
4. Adaptive Leadership
Right now, many churches are mourning the loss of membership, buildings and cultural influence they once enjoyed. Scripture reminds us how “unwelcome disruptions” come to the church. Although we might fight against it and hope that God would never let terrible things happen, we see time and again that disruptive change results in a deepening and expanding of spiritual and numerical growth for the church.
“Emotionally healthy leaders have the ability to calmly differentiate themselves from the demands and voices around them.”
As the nation of Israel was heading into the uncharted territory of the Promised Land, God encouraged Joshua four times to “be strong and very courageous” (Josh.1:6, 7, 9, 18). Later, he makes it clear to Joshua that he has “never been this way before.” I’d say that sums up where are—in uncharted territory. More than ever before, we need leaders who are willing to lead when they can’t foresee the outcome.
Leaders must be flexible and adaptable to people’s needs and the rapidly changing environment. Adaptivity is an organic concept drawn from biology in which living things adapt to survive. The Old and New Testaments are also based on an organic worldview. The church is the spiritual and living body of Christ. Like all healthy organisms, it requires numerous systems and structures that work together to fulfill its intended purpose and overall health. Just as the physical body needs an organic structure to hold it together while allowing it to grow and develop, the body of Christ must have an organic structure that can do the same.
5. Culturally Sensitive Leadership
We live in an increasingly diverse world where leaders need cultural sensitivity to navigate various levels of social complexity. For example, with more than 337 languages represented, the United States has become the most multicultural and multilingual nation on earth. No matter what kind of church you lead or are thinking about planting, we should all find ways to reach across ethnic, racial, cultural and economic barriers.
“Disruptive change results in a deepening and expanding of spiritual and numerical growth for the church.”
To be an effective cross-cultural leader, you will need to develop the skills and ability to understand and appreciate diverse cultures and contexts, and be able to lead across national, ethnic and political lines. This begins with self-awareness, listening to others and seeking to understand and appreciate the cultural perspective of others.
6. Servant Leadership
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leading in today’s world requires servants. Unfortunately, our individualistic society and our pride have caused us to neglect the need for humility. For our culture, serving—putting others above ourselves—is revolutionary. Servant leadership works to see and know others’ needs. Jesus set the ultimate example by living out Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
By engaging in faithful servanthood, we become Christ’s representatives to a lost and scared world. Nothing could be more critical for the missional leadership of today than that.
This article is based on the e-book Healthy Rhythms for Leaders: Cultivating Soul Care in Uncertain Times by Winfield Bevins and Mark Dunwoody. To download the e-book, visit Exponential.org/healthy-rhythms.