There is good reason to be optimistic about the start of this program year. People are back from a summer of traveling and reconnecting with loved ones. Staff are rested and brimming with new ideas. Many children have been vaccinated, and a more predictable school year seems likely. We are coming out of pandemic mayhem. However, a more robust start up to the new program year is not a signal that we have arrived at “the” new normal. We are still in a liminal season—and need to lead accordingly.
In several parts of my life, I feel a sense of letting go—as I transition into a new professional role, let go of some things in my personal life and identity, and shake off this reluctant Minnesota winter that won’t quite let me go. As a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, I sense that we have now entered a season of letting go, as our time of denominational separation has arrived.
I consult mostly with congregations of the former Protestant mainline. Occasionally someone asks why I continue with this work when it seems so clear that the end is coming—not just for these congregations but for their denominations as well. I agree that the end is coming—not of ekklesia, only of the form of congregational life so many of us grew up with. Embedded in that form are bits of our life together that I am convinced we and God can use to create something new if we allow ourselves to play.
Criticism: it’s ubiquitous in congregations. No matter how we leaders pretzel-twist ourselves to please people, we fall short—and there are always helpful, caring people who will take the time to tell us so!
The worst thing we can do is overreact. Whether by proclaiming innocence or by fighting criticism with more criticism, leaders who respond too strongly only up the emotional ante. That’s why underreacting is a key skill for every leader.
Being a part of the church does not feel safe right now. For many clergy and lay leaders, it may feel like the hardest work we’ll ever do.
Church was already hard before the pandemic because the church we’ve known—the church many of us graduated from seminary thinking we knew how to serve—was already disappearing. We used to think we knew what our job was, but the things we know how to do aren’t working anymore, and no one yet knows what will work in the future. We’re in a constant state of chaos, and no matter what we do, someone will always get upset.
History’s most transformational change agents—Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—engaged consistently in three kinds of activity: they built movements, they spent years working for change, and they demonstrated a deep love for the individuals and societies they were striving to change.
This season has been relentless in its assault on our equilibrium. Mistakenly, many feel that they must resolve their own sense of overwhelm before they can effectively lead others. But overwhelm isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an invitation to shift perspective.