Scriptures are replete with stories of promise that address this question of how we live in a time of unraveling. Above all else, the Easter narrative is the story at the centre of our lives. Right now, however, I see the Euro-tribal churches being more like those bewildered followers of Jesus lost in their lament on the road to Emmaus.
In the Leadership Project we have been meeting with a group of pastors from North America and the UK. These are mature, well-informed leaders. They are good at what they do and fully aware that we have all tumbled down into this place of unraveling. We’ve focused together on a simple but challenging question:
As we enter a world we’ve never seen before, how do we let go of our need to manage and fix in order to become leaders who are forming local communities that join God’s transformational work in our neighbourhoods?
Several months into the project we paused to review the work we’ve done and check in with one another around where we are and what we’re experiencing as we start the next stage.
I wasn’t prepared for the group’s reflections. Again, these are thoughtful, well informed veterans in leading congregational and educational systems. They’re good at what they do. They have been bonding in a community of trust over a number of months which is why we could invite them to name where they found themselves in the unraveling. As each triad group reported on their listening to one another’s reflections, common words and sentences emerged. They were feeling themselves in an increasingly uncomfortable space as they were being asked to do things that took them out of their normal roles and required them to take risks as leaders. They named fear and anxiety as real experiences. As one group reported, the work we had asked them to do creating simple experiments (ex: listening to the movement of the Spirit in the lives of others, listening to the stories of people as they do lectio together, being present to others outside of one’s role) had pushed them out of their comfort zones and was raising questions about how they could lead others into these kinds of practices.
At one level, these experiments seem simple, obvious, easy actions to take. But for these competent women and men, they were pulling back the curtain on the defaults of their professionalisms – their need to develop strategies and come up with actionable programs. They were coming to realize that not only had they no idea how to listen to the Spirit themselves, but they had no clue how to lead a congregation into acts of discernment.
They are awakening to a new reality – that almost all their activities as leaders among God’s people are based on their default skills of planning, teaching, caring, visioning and strategy development. They are finding themselves in a place they’ve never been before. It makes them feel very vulnerable. One member of the cohort summarized everyone’s experiences when she said: “We’re experiencing a personal unraveling. How do we lead when we’re in this kind of place? How do we figure out what the Spirit has in mind? What is the Spirit preparing for us and how do we figure that out?”
It has been amazing to confront such honesty. These leaders are not professing a kind of complaint about tiredness and exhaustion or about having no band width to do anything else. This was not the tenor of their conversation. Committed to their God-shaped call, they feel the unraveling deep in their souls, but don’t know what to do to step outside their default story.
What is energizing me about the Leadership Project is that these leaders are cautiously discerning hope right in the midst of the ordinary congregational life of their communities. There remains that false hope that there could be a plan out there, ready to be revealed, that will fix things. But it’s fading as a new, tentative hope emerges that we are discerning God ahead of us and discovering practices that are taking us into unanticipated places.
*New Leadership Project cohorts are starting in September 2022. Learn more here.