By Jeff Wilson
I don’t have to tell you that being a church leader is tough these days. We’re living during a season of perfect storms that require the very best of our technical and adaptive skills. Many of us are developing skills we never knew we had. How are church leaders—both professional and volunteer—to lead congregations through this time of high anxiety, while we are also feeling anxious, disoriented, and uncertain?
How are we to be innovative, confident, and bold leaders in this moment when the elephants in the room are related to the third-rail topics of race, politics, and religion in a time of COVID?
Thanks be to God that we are not left to navigate these storms by ourselves. We are part of a greater community that is navigating, too. As you read this, I hope to become part of your community of support and encouragement as I offer perspectives based on my doctoral thesis (2017) that dealt with how congregations maintain unity amid diversity and as a pastor of a congregation that is 32 miles from the front door of the White House. Politics is in the air here as national news is our local news. Recognizing that there is no way to adequately address these topics in one short article, I’ve included a bibliography for your further reading.
Our Foundation for Conflict
From our earliest days, we were taught to wash our hands before supper and the two topics never to talk about in polite company: politics and religion. We were taught to be “nice” to others and not to say anything unless we have something nice to say. But people disagree with each other and aren’t always nice.
Our foundation for facing conflict is formed from our youngest years as we experience conflictual situations in our families. Did your family argue directly about issues, argue about unrelated issues, or avoid conflict altogether? Was conflict viewed as a normal and healthy part of relationships, or was it a sign that the relationship was broken? Was compromise an option?
Systems are about relationships and the connections between people in the system (read Murray Bowen and Edwin Freidman). Relational systems can be small groups, congregations, states and nations. Relational systems can also be two or more systems that are connected. Each of the people involved in a relational system lends something of themselves to the DNA of the system—their personalities, perspectives, and their foundations for handing conflict.
There is no perfect system—not a family, congregation, or any other group of people. Systems can, however, take some steps to become more resilient, handle conflict in healthier ways, and move toward their purpose.
Does your congregation make jokes about how they handle change? Every congregation I have been a part of uses some version of these statements:
- How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because Lutherans don’t believe in change.
- We’ve never done it that way before.
- We always do it that way.
Two of the hardest things to do when a congregation says these things is ask “Why?” and then wait for an answer. The reality is that congregations must change and they do change. The relational systems govern how those changes happen. They also help leaders be aware that resistance in the system can be healthy and helpful as opposed to just about people not wanting to change or being nay-sayers. People’s resistance is often connected to a value, fear, or grief.
Physics adds to this conversation on systems theory by comparing open and closed systems. A fire is a good illustration of both of these. A fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat. If you build a fire inside a sealed metal drum, it may burn for a short time, but, eventually, the fire will consume the oxygen and extinguish itself. This is an example of a closed system. Closed systems are cut off from their environment, isolated, closed off from new ideas. Classical thermodynamics goes so far as to say that a system in equilibrium is also a closed system.
Leading within Diverse Systems
We begin to see the application of systems theory when differences within a congregation emerge. Does a congregation react by closing off and becoming rigid, inflexible, angry, and divisive? Or does the congregation exhibit openness, flexibility, and curiosity?
An open congregational community will be more resilient and better equipped to handle differences, challenges, and trigger phrases that can drive wedges between people. Leaders in open systems engage in honest self-reflection because, as part of the system, we affect and are affected by the push and pull of systemic anxiety. Friedman urges us to be a non-anxious presence, and, as we manage our anxiety, we also manage our reactivity.
No seminary class, workshop, or book specifically addresses how to navigate COVID, intense race relations, and divisive, vitriolic politics. There is nothing normal about our lives currently. We know how to “do church” the way it has been done for the better part of fifty years. We can no longer say “We’ve always done it that way” or “We’ve never done it that way before.” Our leadership has to evolve during this time toward an open system. Our congregations, other leaders, and we ourselves may have the instinct to maintain normalcy, to hunker down, and circle up the wagons. These are the closed systems that do not survive.
While I do not want to appear opportunistic in the face of the trials we face, I do believe leading our diverse congregations through these times calls us to behold the God who makes all things new (Rev 21:6) and to prepare new wine skins to receive these new things God is doing (Matt 9:17).
Leading in these times calls us to manage our own reactivity so that we can stand with our people in the midst of the conflict, to help all of us see where the Law and Gospel work on our hearts. If all of our people remain unwavering in their conviction that their perspective is the correct perspective, that mindset creates a closed system which cannot survive. If our people stop talking about things that are important, including politics, they will segment into various camps and cause fracture within the congregation.
Many people nod in eager agreement that we should not talk about politics in the church under the banner of the constitutional “separation of church and state”. When churches speak about politics, we hear that we are “too political,” “the pastor ought to stay in their lane,” and “I come to church to get away from all of that.”
Talking about politics can be uncomfortable. Politics and religion are intertwined because both of them are about people: one informs our laws and civil society, and the other informs our morals, values, and relationship with God. Both are necessary.
Separation of church and state is actually not constitutional nor is it biblical. The First Amendment to the Constitution contains two clauses (establishment and free exercise) neither of which is separation of church and state. The Bible has many examples of leaders speaking and acting politically. I certainly don’t advocate that politics overtake the message of the gospel, but I don’t think we need to be afraid of speaking politically either. The reality is that Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles spoke and acted politically. The prophetic word of congregations lifts up the values of Jesus. Congregations venture away from the prophetic word when they confuse politics with partisanship.
Heifetz and Linsky’s book Leadership on the Line offers immensely helpful perspectives for leaders managing conflict within the system and guiding individuals managing themselves. To summarize a few of these concepts:
- Getting to the balcony refers to changing your perspective. When you are on the dance floor, your vision is limited.
- Managing the temperature. When people argue and tensions rise, it generates “heat.” Heat and conflict are not always bad; instead, well-managed heat can create the opportunity for deeper dialogue and change. Leaders can help create a holding environment that is safe, honest, and allows for holy argumentation. Not talking about or acknowledging the heat doesn’t mean it’s not there.
- Staying in the room is about encouraging people to remain open, withstand the heat, and remain in the conversation. I would call staying in the room a spiritual discipline because it resists the natural urge to leave when things get uncomfortable because of love for the community and seeking the greater good.
It’s All About the Mission of Jesus
Leadership in times of crisis makes all the difference for congregations. You may not feel equipped to handle the challenges that face our culture and your particular context. Every context is different. God has called you and your leadership team to be the resident experts in how to lead your congregation. The challenge all of us face is how to provide care, speak prophetically, bring people together, manage the change, and even manage grief.
Jesus’ Church is needed right now. Renewing our call to be the ONE body of Christ and claiming our identity as children of God is needed right now. Jesus doesn’t expect us to have all the answers or to know precisely how we will move forward. Jesus calls us to follow and to participate with Him in His mission.
There are and will always be times of crisis. The challenge for church leaders is to keep the mission of Jesus as the main thing we do, tend relationships, and shine the light of Christ on the challenges of our time.
God has a mission, and God’s mission has a church.
For Further Reading:
- Bolsinger, Tod, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory
- Heifetz, Ronald A., and Martin Linsky. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
- Roxburgh, Alan J., and Fred Romanuk. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.’
- Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2006. Kindle.
- Wilson, Jeffrey M., “A Congregation Engaging in Missional Dialogue: Strengthening Discernment amid Diversity through Healthy Congregational Dialogue” (2017). Doctor of Ministry Theses. 18. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/dmin_theses/18
- Zscheile, Dwight J. The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014. Kindle.
About the Author
Jeff Wilson has served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manassas, VA, in the Metropolitan Washington DC Synod since 2007. He received his Master of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in 2002, and his Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Mission and Leadership from Luther Seminary in 2017.
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