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Four leadership lessons in a era of change

Our world is covered in change. At present, it feels like the whole world is changing at once. If I am honest, I often feel helpless as a young pastor leading a church through this time of change and grief. Yet I take comfort in the story of Scripture, which is a narrative about people who live within ceaseless change. The following are a few things I’ve found to be true about leading amidst change. I must admit that I am still in the process of discovering these as possibilities for my own ministry, but I hope they speak to you of the grace God has for you in these changed-covered days.

1) The church can’t change until you change: The leaders God chooses in the Bible are extremely unqualified. Moses can’t speak; Isaiah has unclean lips; Ruth’s from the wrong side of town; Peter’s just terrible at everything. And, yet, Moses finds his voice; Isaiah’s lips speak of the new heaven and earth; Ruth gives birth to the line of Jesus; Peter becomes the rock of the church. The common element of the change that occurs in all these leaders is that God led them through their own slow progression of inner change.

As pastors, it can be hard to pay attention to our inner lives. We typically get rewarded for doing things, for our public charisma and personal dynamism — two of the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). Yet, if we desire to change, we need to sit in the disquiet of our own souls and suffering. What God wants to change there is what God wants to change everywhere else.

2) Take a step back and slow down: People are in the wilderness right now. The wilderness elicits two responses from the people of Israel — nostalgia and anxiety. People will ask their pastors for all of the programs that once were, and they will fixate on the uncertainty of the future. When the people complained to Moses, he gave them what they wanted, but he did so by hitting the rock as hard as he could. It’s tempting amidst nostalgia and anxiety to give the people what they want but to do so while being angry and resentful towards them. People want nothing more than a quick fix, but the growth they need takes time. So, instead of reacting, what if we reserved 30 minutes a day for thinking, processing and stillness? No products, no programs, no sermon illustrations, just quiet. After all, the voice of God was not in the thunder, or the fire, or the whirlwind, but in the whisper (1 Kings 19:12).

3) Don’t do it alone: Ministry is one of the loneliest jobs on earth — and not because there aren’t people around. As Yoda might say, people we have. What we don’t always have are people who understand the complexity of the pastoral role. We are at once cultural critics, biblical theologians, non-profit CEOs, Ted-talkers, hospital chaplains, accountants and stand-up comics. The popular American image of a leader is the lone ranger genius who leaps effortlessly into the void of change to find new solutions. This model leads to pastoral burnout and a kind of institutional change that is built on one person’s charisma. When that pastor leaves, that vision of change leaves with them. What if we didn’t lead alone? What if we listen to the words of Moses’ father-in-law and stop captaining the ship alone (Ex. 18:1-27)? Who do you have in your corner? What elders or church members really get your role? What local pastors can you invite to a breakfast table and, taking church comparisons off the table, ask: how is it with your soul?

4) Don’t be a Pelagian: The grandest heresy of modern America, and of its mainline religious expressions, is Pelagianism — the poisonous belief that we don’t need God to create change. This theory finds its way into every sermon that tells people they need to do more, be more, change more. Even though our Reformed tradition emphasizes the power of God, we are also 21st century Americans, which likely means our characteristic protestant work ethic and moral individualism will seep into our pastoring and congregational life. If we’re working 70 hours a week or attempting to create a vision for change in our own image, then we’re probably a Pelagian heretic. So, that’s most of us. Thank goodness God loves heretics and hypocrites. The good news is, friends, it’s not our job to change hearts, minds, congregations and cultures. While we are called to act on our beliefs and share the gospel, the job of changing hearts will forever and always belong to God.