I’m in regular conversation with church executives about the challenges of leadership in this disruptive time. Each person describes their experience in a somewhat different way but the underlying issue is the same in each case. These leaders are hard working, love their churches and have big hearts for kingdom ministry. Yet each has high levels of tiredness and frustration with their roles.

The Tensions

They describe a common tension that isn’t easily resolved. This tension is causing them a lot of discouragement. Our conversations are about how to lead in the crisis -this unraveling that’s upon us. When I’m asked for advice, they appreciate how I frame the challenge in terms of discerning how to form communities of hope in a place we’ve never been. They agree with the practices I outline for forming such communities.

Then, the tension comes to the surface.

One describes herself being on a treadmill going around and around and never being able to get off. The treadmill is the bureaucratic management that fills up her days. So many of these management systems were set up when denominations were thriving. They hardly make sense in this disruptive place. They suck up time and wear down leaders. Another leader expressed the same thing in a different way. I asked what had surprised him about starting a new exec role. He said he wasn’t prepared for the amount of management and paperwork he had to go through all the time. Another person talked about the increased levels of crisis management he had to do with pastors and congregations. Many congregations are demanding help to fix their free fall or manage their crisis around whatever issues are being raised that divide people.

The underlying message I’m hearing is that at the end of each month there’s no time left to be a different kind of leader. Leaders are discouraged and feel there’s no way out.

So many executives and pastors are working so hard and faithfully at the front edge of all this unraveling. They have to deal with so much and, at the same time, feel the weight of wanting to form communities of hope in a place we’ve never been before.

No Fix – But a Way Forward

For lots of reasons, there isn’t an easy fix to this tension. The systems we’ve inherited at denominational and congregation levels were never designed for this unraveling world. Leaders were never trained for this disruptive space. But listen carefully to this. None of this is suddenly going to disappear. The demand to manage will grow as decline accelerates.

How do my friends address this tension? There isn’t a big, system redesign solution. Every attempt to restructure or reinvent these systems only exacerbates the tension. But there is a way forward. It involves starting small experiments. I advise these executives not to try to change the system. Instead, carve out time to gather a small number of pastors and congregations (no more than 3-5 as a start) and invite them on a journey together. Discover a way of addressing how to form communities of hope in a place we’ve never been before.

We are walking alongside leaders who are doing just this in the Leadership Project. Here an executive can partner with a small band of leaders in forming a community of companions. Together they can discern with and for one another, the practices that can form such communities where they lead.

This is how to begin to break the tension and find encouragement.

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