What does the church need to unlearn from the pandemic?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

I was boarding a plane – as I often did – in the Denver airport, making a connection that would take me back to Los Angeles after finishing a few days speaking in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

As I scanned my boarding pass, the United Airlines gate attendant gave me a Clorox wipe. She suggested that I use it to wipe down my seat, “just to be safe.”

It was March 13, 2020, and that Clorox wipe changed the way that I would live, work and even think. I have to admit that I was a bit slow to see the disruption of COVID-19. Four days earlier, I had been in a President’s Council meeting at the seminary I serve — and I was being really resistant to the changes that we needed to make. I even wondered aloud if we were all overreacting a bit. I knew what my team needed to be able to do to get their jobs done and these plans, including the possibility of eliminating travel, could make it impossible, I thought.

But then four days later, as I was holding my Clorox wipe, I thought to myself, if United Airlines – who keeps thousands of people safe at 30,000 feet in the air – needs my help to keep the plane safe during this soon-to-be-declared pandemic, then this thing is not only real, it will change everything.

I had thought that this pandemic wouldn’t disrupt my life and my work too much. At least, I was determined not to let it.

The Clorox wipe made me think again.

People assume intelligence, experience and conviction are the keys to being effective. But, in “Think Again,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant asserts, “In a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

Rethink. Unlearn. Or as Alvin Toffler is credited with saying, the cycle of “learn, unlearn and relearn” is the key to making wise choices in a rapidly changing and disrupted world. And that process itself is, for many of us, highly disruptive.

In the week following March 13, 2020, I had 15 speaking engagements canceled. In the following year, I would learn how to teach and speak using Zoom — and would conduct more than 150 webinars. This learning meant that I also had to unlearn some assumptions about teaching and communication.

On Sunday, March 15, 2020, every church that I knew, consulted, coached and served would shut down their sanctuaries and go online. Almost overnight they learned that they could launch really creative ministries. But soon, most of these same leaders were exhausted. They would have to unlearn the habit of just adding more ministries to an already packed calendar.

In the past year of speaking to, consulting with and coaching the leaders of churches across the country, I have learned, unlearned and am relearning some critical concepts of life and ministry. And if Adam Grant and Alvin Toffler are right, then that pattern of learning, unlearning and relearning may be even more important than we think.

So let me make a few observations about what good leaders are learning, unlearning, and relearning because of this pandemic.

Many of us learned we could change quickly if we really need to.

We need to unlearn that “quick fixes” will ever solve our greatest challenges in an enduring way.

I have marveled at the way that so many churches became remarkably nimble and creative literally overnight. Churches that haven’t changed a thing in a generation rethought their entire ministry in a weekend. A crisis like a complete shutdown of all gatherings created the conditions for focusing our minds and wills in new ways.

But it is important to understand that crises don’t cause problems as much as they reveal them. They bring to the surface underlying assumptions and “legacy practices” that we haven’t had the will to confront before. In the words of Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues from Harvard University, crises give us the opportunity to “hit the organization’s reset button.” Wise leaders “use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past.” Adaptive leaders don’t just make changes, they also become reflective to address some of the deeper underlying assumptions necessary for long-term change. For most churches, these underlying issues have been areas of challenge for a long time: Adult discipleship, a unified community, leadership development, the loss of the younger generation, the inability to speak prophetically about injustice and other issues are much bigger and need much more focused attention than some quick fix.

We learned that people would and could use technology at much greater rates than we thought.

We need to unlearn that technology and relationships are in competition with each other.

We are truly sustained by relationships. We grow in relationships. We thrive in relationships. We even change because of relationships. And for many of us – especially those of us who are older – being in relationships has always meant being in the same room together.

But as more and more people integrate technology into their lives, there is a hybrid, “high-tech/high-touch” quality to our relationships. We communicate both with texts and phone calls and hugs and handshakes. We often begin learning about a new restaurant, a new hobby, a new group, a new endeavor – and yes, a new person – online before we connect in person. Many of us discovered that even our prayer meetings and discipleship groups could be sustained and strengthened with digital tools.

We learned that we didn’t have to do everything the way we have always done it.

We need to unlearn our default behaviors of always returning to what is familiar as soon as the crisis is over.

While we enjoyed unprecedented freedom and creativity to make big changes in the wake of our church buildings being closed, many people were clamoring to get back to the way things were as soon as possible. The anxiety of the unfamiliar soon overwhelmed the thrill of experimenting, and before long we were exhausted by trying to hang on to as much of our past ways of doing church while also juggling new ways. If we are going to learn as we go into a new future, we are going to have let go of some things from the past.

And that leads to…

We learned that many churches and almost every pastor are caught in the crossfire of people with deeply divided views on almost everything.

We need to unlearn that we can ever make everyone happy.

One of my coaching clients said to me: “Tod, my inbox is a terrible place to be. No matter what I do, someone is mad.” Others told me of how sisters and brothers who both read the same Bible are divided by what news program they watch. While many congregants went out of their way to be more flexible, more caring and more intentional about loving their neighbors, far too many pastors found that their congregants were more concerned about their own comfort and routine than they were about extending the love of God to neighbors and friends feeling the impact of the virus.

When I was researching my most recent book on leadership, I found that for most pastors the most difficult thing was not the challenge of a changing world, but the resistance of the congregation when leaders tried to mobilize them to make a difference. And far too many leaders fall into the trap of thinking that if they please everyone, then they can lead everyone. They try to change their churches for their members, but the gospel requires that our membership be transformed for the mission of God in the world. And even Jesus discovered that not everyone is happy with that.

From unlearning to relearning

If the key is learning, unlearning and relearning, are there any enduring lessons we can relearn from this pandemic? Let me give you the most important relearning from the pandemic of 2020: A thriving church is crystal clear on a compelling, missional reason for being.

Many of us spent the pandemic asking ourselves some of the deepest questions of our lives, and a significant number of people are rethinking everything they assumed to be true about their jobs, their relationships, where they would live and what they wanted to spend their time doing. And church leaders should do no less.

A crisis gives us an opportunity to ask the biggest question of all. It gives us an opportunity to hit the organizational reset button around a real reason for being. Many, many churches need to relearn this in this moment where we don’t know what the future brings. Survival is not enough. We need to get as clear as possible on this: “Why do we (need to) exist as a church?” And how specifically does your existence truly further the mission of God in your community?

And if your answer is “To ensure a Presbyterian witness survives in this town,” I encourage you to think again. As one senior leader said to me once: “Tod, nobody cares if your institution survives. They only care if your institution cares about them.”

Relearning and relationships

A worldwide pandemic and a Clorox wipe handed to me as I boarded a plane triggered me to think again about my own resistance to change. But, perhaps the most important lesson I relearned in the pandemic was not one that came from a Clorox wipe or on a plane, but from my son. As I was struggling to accept how disruptive the pandemic would be to the plans for my team and me to carry out our responsibilities, I spoke to my son from the last Uber I would take for almost a year. As the driver took me to the Los Angeles airport, I told him about the conversation in the President’s Council and how I couldn’t believe we would be disrupting our travel because of this virus. This could be the last trip I make for a while, I told him.

My son, who lives in Seattle and whose girlfriend works as a social worker in a convalescent home in Seattle, said to me: “Dad, this thing is real. People have already died up here from it. Please be careful when you are traveling.”

That was when I began to question some of my assumptions. That was when I began to ask myself questions about what I thought I knew about this virus, and my team and the work that we needed to do. I trust my son, and I know he is thoughtful, intelligent and steady. And I know that he loves me, too. So, that was when I began to think again.

To be a disciple is to be a learner. And the church is meant to be a learning community based on the love we have for each other and for our Lord (John 13:34). Loving relationships don’t just give us support, they help us open ourselves to the lessons we are often missing in our anxious moments. The lesson I relearned at that moment is that everyone – including leaders – needs to have people they love to help them learn. And unlearn. And relearn.

Questions for discussion:

What is one thing we have learned as a church during COVID-19?

What is one thing we may have to unlearn to go forward in this still unsettled world?

What underlying issues were revealed during the pandemic?

What would be one way we could develop a more “hybrid” approach to relationships and technology?

How do you answer the question, “My congregation’s reason for being as part of God’s mission in the world is …?”


Tod Bolsinger is the executive director of the Church Leadership Institute at the De Pree Center for Leadership ( and an associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is a member of the San Gabriel Presbytery and the author of five books including, “Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.”