In a time of jarring change and frequent uncertainty, pastors and church leaders must anchor to the Rock of Ages and find our strength in the one who is the same yesterday, today and forever. But how do we lead well when the one earthly certainty is uncertainty? Here are three areas to direct our attention and increase our attentiveness as leaders.
1. Exercising Authentic Humility
The people we lead have been bombarded by “experts” giving confident answers to complex health issues, social challenges, economic uncertainty, educational confusion and more. The dilemma is that many of these declarative answers have been wrong. Promises have been made about when things will get back to “normal,” and few of the prognosticators have been correct.
Over the past 18 months, not many leaders have shown the simple humility to say, “I don’t know.” Instead, too many public figures have kept blurting out their best guesses or personal opinions as if they were gospel truth. When proven wrong, many of these same people double down and make another over-confident prediction. In response, the people who come to hear us teach, preach and give spiritual leadership are understandably cautious and skeptical.
Today is a good time for leaders in the church to be very careful not to become another voice that is unwisely definitive. Let me be clear: We never compromise on God’s Word. I am not talking about theological compromise. But humility in our leadership is essential at a time like this.
I seek to be very humble when someone asks, “Pastor, are we going to start meeting outdoors again?” or “Are we going back to masks and social distancing?” or “What will church look like in two months?” I say things like, “We are doing the best we can for now, and we will keep you informed of any changes in direction.” Or, “Our goal is to serve the whole church, so we’re going to keep offering options indoors, outdoors and online.” Or, “I’m not really sure, but the board and staff are praying and working hard to honor Jesus, grow believers and reach our community.”
We can be clear on what doesn’t change while being honest about dealing with what is constantly changing. What I know won’t change is the mission of the church. What I am not sure about is the method we will be using from week to week. We humbly hold that in open hands. Leaders need to smile, look people right in their eyes (even from the pulpit) and say things like, “I really don’t know,” “We were wrong on that decision, and we are very sorry” or “I’m sorry for being overconfident about that.”
We should be transparent enough to say we are doing the best we can, but we don’t have everything nailed down. If your church members know the mission and the ministry are secure, they will understand when the methods have to change and even change again.
2. Agreeing to Disagree
Have you noticed that people have become polarized, argumentative and flat out contentious? If you provide leadership in a local church like I do, then you most likely have felt the pull of different groups who are at odds with other groups of people, sometimes in your church.
Over the past six months I have had many conversations with other church leaders who are brokenhearted over the behavior of their church members. People who used to get along are now at odds with each other because of their viewpoints on an issue. Family members are not speaking because they stand on opposite sides of a cultural battlefield. I have had people leave our church (and tell me so) because they have decided the church (or me as a pastor) does not align with their views on all sorts of topics. In most cases, these people are imagining things that neither the church nor I have said or believe. But they are so angry that they are ready to leave, break up their family and cause division between longtime friends. It is painful and shocking to watch.
I am old enough to remember when political opponents in our nation’s capital could stand their ground, argue their case vigorously and then go out for dinner together. They were actually friends who disagreed. I remember my parents heading out to vote and my dad saying, “We’re off to cancel out each other’s votes.” In the family I grew up in, we could disagree strongly, debate, seek to intellectually defend our ground and then agree to disagree without becoming enemies.
Church leaders, in the next chapter of our world, need to hold to our faith with tenacious commitment but embrace people who have a different perspective. If Christians can’t be a model of disagreeing with grace, who will be? This is a dynamic and pivotal moment in history. The church must be the place where we can say, “I might disagree, but I love you,” “We don’t see eye-to-eye on this topic, but we are friends” or “We are miles apart in our convictions, but we can sit side-by-side and talk about it.”
“If Christians can’t be a model of disagreeing with grace, who will be?”
The day before I wrote this article, I led the Celebration of Life ceremony for my father. He died during the pandemic when travel was tough. We waited until all five of us kids could come together to hold the service. One of my sisters read Psalm 23 near the beginning of the service. I then shared a brief reflection by saying that I knew there were people present who could say with confidence, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I also acknowledged that there were people in the chapel that day who would say, “I’m not sure if the Lord is my Shepherd, because I don’t know if the Christian message is real.” And I gave a warm welcome to those who would say, “The Lord is not my Shepherd, and I don’t buy the whole Jesus story.”
At the end of the service, I reminded everyone that my dad had held all three of those positions through the years. Over the four decades that I was a believer and my father was not, he was always open to talk, listen, debate and learn. It never got nasty.
Let’s pray and work toward being leaders who set the example of knowing what we believe and holding our ground. At the same time, let’s listen to others, model grace and never let the forces of hell turn the church into a battleground where people feel driven away because we don’t agree on everything.
3. Praying with Confidence and Power
In a time when so much seems uncertain and people are dealing with elevated levels of anxiety, we need to pray more and make those prayers faith-filled and bold. God is on the throne, no matter what the news says or our feelings scream. Our God rules, reigns and sustains the universe by his power.
As leaders talk with church members who are sick, out of work, mourning, fearful and a whole list of other challenges, let’s move more quickly to prayer and spend less time trying to explain what we think is happening. Most people are not looking for clever answers; they need to hear from God. They need to see his face. They long to know that their life is actually in his hands and under his sovereign rule.
“Let’s move more quickly to prayer and spend less time trying to explain what we think is happening.”
Let’s listen to our own prayers and check our hearts. If we can’t pray with bold confidence, we need to spend some time at the feet of Jesus. We need to remember his mighty deliverance, his call on our life, his endless power and his infinite wisdom. In the glory of his presence, we will be captured again by the truth that every moment of every day is under his sovereign power.
God still heals. He still delivers. He can speak and the heavens and earth can grow calm or roll up like a scroll. If we believe this, let’s pray with confidence and bold faith. Let’s open his Word and feed on story after story of God’s presence, power and deliverance. Take time to read the story and remember how it ends: God is on the throne and we are with him.
I am no prophet, but I have a deep sense that the turmoil we are in right now is not going away in the next 12 months. It looks like we will face challenges, tensions and conflicts (maybe in growing measure) for the coming year. As followers of Jesus, let’s commit to walk in humility, extend grace to those with whom we disagree and pray with increased faith. Each of these steps will help us navigate the future in ways that honor God, bless others and keep us close to the heart of Jesus.