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Palms at beach

Uncertain Times Beg for Sound Leadership

Deborah Stollery

This is the third blog in a series of six designed to assist ecclesial leaders in thinking about and then acting in these pandemic times.  I’ve already written about the need to think systematically and to identify the signs of the times.  Read the White Paper on which these blogs are based.

In so many ways, what has been is not what is called for or even possible today.  That is as true for your approach to leadership as it is to the changes in gathered worship, meetings and outreach.  Covid19 continues to disrupt what was and so creates the perfect climate for considering what must become and then making the appropriate changes.  This blog is going to focus on three topics all ecclesial leaders must approach:  identifying what kind of leadership the signs of the times call for, assessing your current leadership team and where necessary, calling forth new leaders.

Uncertainty, high stakes, lots of loss, and no end in sight are general descriptors of the signs of these times.  Each of those descriptors is laden with emotion, emotion that followers are looking to their leaders to help them navigate.  So what leadership characteristics are most necessary when these are the signs of the times?  Here are some of those characteristics:

  • You are in this storm with everyone else and you’ve never done it before. 
  • Ongoing learning. Because this experience is a first-time-for-everyone moment, leaders have to be leaning into that high learning curve, and be generous with their discoveries.
  • Self-aware. You are not immune to the stressor and dangers of this time.  How are you feeling?  Acting?  Re-acting?  Leaders manage their own emotions and share them appropriately.
  • Empathetic listener. Emotions are running high.  People need someone to listen to them and may be turning to pastoral leaders.  You’ll need lots of empathy.
  • Now is not the time to be silent, distant or absent.  It is the time for compassionate, clear, concise, consistent messaging.
  • Openly faithful.  Share how faith is helping you navigate these times.
  • Be transparent, honest and nimble with messages that need to change sometimes hour-by-hour.  Say you do not know.  Admit mistakes.  Cite sources.  Accept responsibility. Tell the truth.

These times call for leaders with these characteristics.  They are often embodied in those who practice servant leadership, who are experienced team leaders and by leaders whose Catholic Christian identity infuses their style.  Now is the time to reflect on your own leadership and on the leadership qualities evidenced by those who serve the parish/congregation with you.  Who excels in these qualities?  Are they empowered to continue to excel when the need for them is high?  Who needs coaching?  Whose style may not be effective right now and so needs to step away from their leadership for a time?

Said another way, ecclesial leaders need to assess those who share leadership with them at this time.  Effective leaders match the signs of the times to the leadership qualities those signs require.  Everyone on your leadership team may not have these characteristics developed.  Some may have characteristics that are not on the list but are serving others on the leadership team well.  Others may have characteristics and approaches that, while having been effective in other times, are not as effective now.  Who’s serving with you?  Where are you flush with effective leadership characteristics and approaches?  Where are there gaps?  How will an abundance of some characteristics be shared within your faith community and perhaps beyond?  Who can coach or mentor those who need to develop skills on this list?  How will that take place?

Finally, ecclesial leaders are most likely going to need to recruit new leaders, form new leadership teams and ask some who have exercised leadership to step aside for now.  Most ecclesial leaders are  likely going to need to develop some new skills, some of which will ask them to go way outside their norms.  But this is not the time to shrink from serving the Lord and His beloved people.  Pray, prepare, practice.  Get better where you know you need to get better.  Lead with your heart, with humility and with purpose, trusting God’s abiding presence in the Spirit.

Here are some areas that will need leadership now and as we navigate the unknown future of Covid19:

  • Digital leaders. Who knows how to use the technology effectively, weaving together its strengths with messages of faith, hope and love?  Who can train others in the use of these platforms?  How many people will you need on this team and how will they be recruited, trained and supported?
  • Pastoral care leaders. People are afraid, uncertain, hurting, grieving and more.  Reports are now emerging about the mental health crisis emerging as a result of the pandemic.  Who on your leadership team is equipped with empathetic listening, spiritual direction, skills in discerning the difference between a mental health crisis and a spiritual need?  How many more pastoral care workers will you need?  How will they be called forth, trained and supported?
  • We are not going “back.”  So what will emerge?  Who are the creatives, the innovators, the visionaries?  How will they be called forth to enable the Spirit’s new creation to take shape first in language, and then in who knows how many other ways?
  • The storytellers. Who is helping you craft a narrative for these times, based in faith, grounded in Christ and the Church, honest and hopeful?  How many storytellers do you need?  How will their gifts be called forth and then matched with those with the skill to use the mediums necessary to get the stories shared?
  • The safety/health conscious. Who’s on this team?  Who should be on it?  How are their perspectives integrated into decisions?  What is the process you use if their perspectives offer different choices?

I am sure you are discovering more areas that need leadership.  The point is this.  Now is the time for ecclesial leaders to be assessing what leadership is present, adjusting roles, developing skills and calling forth new leaders.  In this way, you will be assuring those entrusted to your care that you are engaged, aware, empathetic, and concerned…enough to be empowering an entire team of people to help you share in leading the people of God in these uncertain times.  And that…that…will provide light in the darkness that is Covid19.

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