A theology of leadership during crisis?

Guest commentary by Matthew J. Skolnik

It appears to me that as the church wrestles with how to respond to COVID-19, that it is helpful for individuals and communities to develop and/or review our personal theologies of leadership during difficult times. Developing and having a personal theology of leadership is helpful because those who internalize their prayerful study have a foundation to direct their actions.

Some of us may need to pick up our previous work, while reflecting and adapting it. Others among us may never have taken the opportunity to develop a general, robust and healthy theology of leadership.

Wherever you find yourself in this discussion, I encourage you to take a next step. The church always needs stronger and healthier leaders. Who knows? Maybe what you learn through the coronavirus outbreak will have a profound impact on your overall trajectory of leadership.

The current context of COVID-19

Leaders of all types of institutions and organizations are making decisions that they feel are in the best public interest. History will be able to better parse which of these are actions, reactions and overreactions. Likewise, in the years to come, we will have a better understanding of which decisions provided a net gain or net loss for society and individuals.

For example, Harvard announced March 10 that they are “de-densifying” their campus by asking all students to leave for the duration of the semester before next week. In my home state of Ohio, other major universities and colleges have or are doing the same. Local schools are also making plans for remote education. It seems likely that Harvard’s actions will be viewed in the future as a turning point in how our society addressed COVID-19.

While I am neither arguing for nor against the actions of Harvard, I am noting the exceptional nature of this type of response, and how it and similar responses are and will be perceived by the public. Some possible reactions include:

  • Applause and praise for bold leadership.
  • Increased anxiety and uncertainty.
  • Gratitude for action.
  • Criticism for overreaching and inciting greater fear.

As events continue to unfold, I have frequently recalled one of my favorite clips from the hit movie “Monster’s Inc.” Once the child, Boo, is found to be at large in Monstropolis, there are a series of news reports. In this sequence, Dr. Arthur Fransenberger begins speaking calmly on the cartoon TV screen. Before his sentence is complete, the doctor erupts into a frenzy, “It is my professional opinion, that now is the time to pa-n-ic!”

This movie clip reminds us all of the importance of leadership. What we do impacts many. Still, our doing is influenced by our thinking. Therefore, let us start to examine our patterns of thought together.

Stepping stones

In any daunting task, such as developing a theology of leadership, it is important to have stepping stones to help us get across the rushing water. Below I will provide stones that I have found to be helpful in my theological inquires. Others are encouraged to critique these stones and lay out their own.

Over the years of being a pastor and presbytery leader, I have come to view leadership as a matter of resilience. For example: Abraham demonstrated grit as he repeatedly questioned God. Hannah exhibited her tenacity as she barged into the temple to pray and bargain with God. Jesus defeated sin and death while experiencing death himself.

From this perspective, Diane Coutu’s work at Harvard Business Review is helpful. In her summary of resilience studies, Coutu has outlined three recurring themes:

  • Having a staunch acceptance of reality.
  • Finding meaning in difficulty.
  • Having an uncanny ability to improvise.

These are the three stepping stones that currently guide my theology of leadership as they naturally provide a series of non-exhaustive questions. May these questions clarify for you what it means to lead, and may you enjoy the process of developing your own stepping stones and/or questions.

Having a staunch acceptance of reality

  • Who in Scripture and church history has demonstrated that they fully understood the challenges of their day?
  • What is the role of the church during challenging times?
  • What is God seeking to redeem today?
  • What do I need to do so that I can square my shoulders to this challenge?
  • What is it about my personality, political perspective, position in life and mental health that blinds me from seeing all aspects of this problem?
  • What voices do I need to listen to or read? Which do I need to set aside?
  • Who are my partners and encouragers?
  • Who can cry and laugh with me?

Finding meaning in difficulty

  • How did the prophets find meaning in difficulty?
  • How do the psalmists approach life challenges?
  • What stories in the Scriptures have moments of difficulty and, at the same time, shape meaning?
  • Though Jesus could have avoided difficulty, why did he often embrace it?
  • What is a healthy level of self-sacrifice?
  • Is meaning found after the fact or pursued in the moment?
  • How does this event fit into God’s larger story?
  • What is the relationship between personal weakness, grace and God’s action?

Having an uncanny ability to improvise

  • Who are the strongest leaders in Scripture and church history, and how did they see solutions to situations in ways that their contemporaries did not?
  • How would my solutions have differed if I was in these stories?
  • How did others react negatively to new ideas in these stories?
  • What can I do to increase my intelligence, imagination and love for service?
  • Where in the Bible and history has leadership failed because there was a lack of innovation?
  • When it comes to innovation, at what point(s) is buy-in created?
  • How can we encourage others to find creative solutions?

Questions of this nature are not easy to answer. They take time to wrestle with privately and with other members of the Body of Christ. In addition to prayers of safety and well-being, the church prays for you as leaders, just as we pray that God’s faithfulness will be experienced in the days and months ahead. May God’s steady faithfulness be seen in all of us as we do our best to lead through COVID-19 and other challenges.

Matthew J. Skolnik

MATTHEW J. SKOLNIK is the general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in eastern Ohio. He enjoys motivating mission, equipping leaders and encouraging the church. Matt has lived with his family in Ohio for 12 years, loves nature and laughs frequently.