Leading in Difficult and Divided Times

How do you pastor a mob?

The truth is you can’t.

At least not easily.

The only problem is that right now you have to.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an era of reasonable consensus to polarization, partisanship and division. That’s true of congregations, boards, staff, teams and almost every group that gathers these days.

The crisis of 2020–21 has accelerated and heightened the tension.

For pastors, and for almost every leader these days, there’s no escaping the fact that pastoring a mob now comes with the job.

No wonder 29% of pastors have said they’ve seriously thought about quitting ministry in the last year. And turnover was already a challenge everywhere.

To make it more interesting, not only does everyone have an opinion, everyone now has a platform on which to share it. And share it they do.

The question becomes, do you lead in this environment, where few people agree on anything and everyone has easy access to you to criticize anything you do as a leader publicly and regularly?

How do you pastor a mob?

It’s definitely not easy, but here are four strategies that can help.

1. Expect Less Affirmation (So Find It Elsewhere).

One of the big adjustments every leader is making right now is to get used to leading with less affirmation.

As Tim Keller put it recently,

“Not only is everybody tired, but nobody’s getting any positive affirmation … Almost nobody’s getting any pats on the back.

“So you’re just running and running to try to keep things together. And there are no hugs, literally no hugs.

“[Leaders are] getting absolutely no affirmation. There’s just a tremendous amount of loneliness of feeling of being separated from so many people that we care about. We just can’t live this way.”

Keller is absolutely correct.

What do you do about it?

The question then becomes, well, what do you do about that?

Breaking down disappointment and the lack of affirmation can be helpful.

Disappointment and delight usually consist of the gap between what you thought would happen and what actually happened. If whatever you’re doing ends up being less than you imagined, you’re disappointed. If it turns out better, you’re delighted.

These days, almost everything seems to be turning out slightly worse than you had hoped.

This takes us back to the old adage: the secret to happiness is low expectations.

We may be in for a season where it’s going to be a challenge. Knowing that, and realizing you’re here to serve people who have not got a lot of joy happening in their lives right now can help you calibrate your expectations appropriately.

A second strategy is to seek affirmation elsewhere.

This can happen in a variety of ways. One obvious starting point is in your relationship with God. As a person of faith, there are days where that might be the only affirmation you receive all day.

But on many days, you can also find joy and affirmation from other sources: from your family, from a life-giving friend, from a walk in the woods, a good cup of coffee, or from a hobby that gives you a deep sense of satisfaction.

It’s essential that you do this and not feel guilty. To find life-giving sources, habits, and rhythms is basic self-care.

Leaders who don’t practice self-care will soon find themselves either burned out or heading down the path of self-indulgence. Both will sabotage your leadership in the end.

2. Be What You Hope To See.

Almost every leader I know has been disappointed not just by random critics or uninvested people going off unhinged. They’ve also been hurt or disappointed by at least one long-term friend, associate or colleague who’s turned on them over the last year.

That just further illustrates how hard a season it’s been for everyone.

So what do you? How do you respond?

The line I’ve tried to follow, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is to be what I hope to see.

In other words, if you hope to see people behaving reasonably, be reasonable.

If you’re hoping for kindness, compassion and grace, embody that.

Don’t return sarcastic, snide or angry comments with sarcastic, snide or angry responses.

It can be hard. I scroll through the comments on this site or on my social media feed every day. Most are super encouraging. But there are also more than a few that are corrosive, angry or downright toxic.

My first instinct is to want to retaliate … to get back at the commenter. I’ve had some incredibly snide replies composed in my head … and that’s exactly where they need to stay. In my head.

There are also times I’ve tried to win over irate people online. I find I can’t. I can usually diffuse a situation in real life. On the internet? Almost a 0% success rate. So I no longer try.

I’ve also tried to discuss things online with people who have extreme and public views on subjects. Trying to change their minds is like trying to move a 10-ton block of steel with your baby finger. Not only does the steel not budge, you now have a broken finger.

The best way to react to angry, extreme views is to be what you hope to see.

I hope to see reasonable people who respect and love each other, and who can disagree with each other without being disagreeable. So I try to be that.

I think there’s a huge opening in our culture right now for moderate, compassionate, reasonable people. That’s what I hope to be.

What do you hope to see? Be that.

3. Don’t Get Sucked Into the Wormhole.

What are you trying to accomplish with your leadership?

For me these days in my writing and speaking, I’m trying to help leaders live in a way today that will help them thrive tomorrow.

For decades as a church leader, I spent my time trying to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus (even though that’s not my “day job” anymore, I’m still committed to that in my personal life).

Whatever you’re trying to accomplish with your leadership, stick to that.

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole that has become public discourse these days.

You don’t need to be a cultural commentator on everything from politics to pro sports to vaccines to state regulations to immigration to Supreme Court decisions to celebrity splits.

And guess what? You’re probably not an expert on any of those things. Neither am I.

Yet you look at a lot of pastor’s social media feeds today, and commenting on anything and everything appears to be their new job.

It probably comes from a good place. After all, you lead in a world where people feel like they got their doctorate in a particular niche subject on YouTube and perfectly understand a topic like no one else does.

But here’s the truth: you’re not going to win that argument. And you don’t need to be in that argument in the first place.

I’ve seen so many leaders peddle away their influence by weighing in on every topic du jour and miss the main point of their ministry and leadership.

So what are you trying to do again?

Stick to that.

And while you’re doing that, focus on the things that unite people, not on the things that divide people.

Focusing on division brings greater division. Focusing on unity brings greater unity.

Right now, in a culture fraught with division, people are longing for unity. So be unifying.

4. Ban the Trolls (and Tune the Rest Out).

There’s a lot of talk about free speech these days and our right to express ourselves. And I’m all for free speech.

But does that mean everyone gets to say whatever they want however they want wherever they want?

I’m going to suggest the answer to that is no.

Let’s focus on wherever for a minute—as in inside the church or organization you lead.

You definitely need people with diverse views and opinions on your team and in your tribe, but that doesn’t mean there are no limits.


Simple. The trolls inside your church will kill your culture and can ultimately kill your mission.

The sad truth is, some would love to do just that. They don’t care about you, other people, or your mission nearly as much as they care about themselves and whatever idea or venom they’re peddling in the moment.

Organizationally, this isn’t nearly as much about free speech, as it is about creating a healthy culture and and cultivating community.

To get a clearer perspective on it, imagine that conversation you’re trying to moderate online or in your church was happening instead at a dinner party in your home.

In the same way you wouldn’t tolerate a dinner guest who punches you in the face, breaks your dishes and insults your spouse and kids, you don’t need to let trolls and haters live in your digital or physical space.

No, if that happened at a dinner party, you’d either insist they leave or call the police, or both. And you’d be justified in doing that.

Trolls and haters intend to divide. They intend to wound and destroy. That’s their game. And I’m going to guess that destruction isn’t the game you’re playing (if it is, then welcome the trolls).

The proper response to someone who intends to destroy you is to stop them from doing so.

And as far as free speech goes, you’re not silencing them forever. Trust me. They’ll find someone else to pick on. You’re just saying it can’t happen in your space.

That’s leadership. And that’s setting a healthy boundary not just for you, but for everyone you lead.

The healthy people will thank you.

So what specifically do you do with trolls and haters?

To break it down a little further, here’s what I do with trolls and haters. I started by assuming the best. Everyone has an off day, and sometimes the message I hear is not the message they sent.

Assuming the best means sometimes I ignore the comment or, alternatively, reply with a kinder, more generous response. That never changes a troll by the way.

Then my team and I start looking for patterns. If someone has an abusive pattern and shows no openness to changing, caring about others or even engaging in real dialogue, the proper response is to delete or block.

That’s true online and in real life. In real life on a handful of occasions, I’ve stopped toxic people from serving or joining a group at times because the impact would be so devastating on the people around them.

Remember, too, that we’re talking about less than 1% of the people in your church or maybe 1% of the people on your public channels. But that noisy, angry 1% can take down the 99% who are trying to have real community and real conversation.

It’s perfectly fair to put limits on unhealthy behaviour for the sake of the health of the organization. If you want more, here’s a post outlining 7 pro tips on dealing with toxic people.

What does this leave you with?

A healthier you and a healthier church ready to reach healthier people.

And the trolls and haters, they can find another sandbox to play in.

Which leads to the final point: When you find trolls play in other sandboxes, tune them out.

Consume some thoughtful, helpful, stimulating content instead, rather than the drivel that makes up too much of life in the moment.

You’ll be so much better off for it. Plus you’ll sleep at night while you work toward a better tomorrow with the people you lead.

Read more from Carey Nieuwhof »

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