Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

An Undefended Leader Emerges from a Pandemic

Written by: on April 19, 2021

I am what you might call a recovering “controlaholic.” I have spent my career in ministry either in church planting or “strategic turnaround” settings (churches with high potential that have either underperformed or have become stuck.) These assignments have been exciting for me personally, as I like to diagnose problems, explore solutions, and work toward favorable outcomes. My personal leadership style has been described as the “benevolent dictator.”

I know and appreciate that church leadership is a shared task. But I am also aware of what happens when there is too much ambiguity in the structure. A leadership vacuum can create situations in which either no one is leading and nothing gets done, or where the wrong person steps in and leads in self-serving, unhealthy, and/or toxic ways.

Over the past few months, I have enjoyed conversations with Simon Walker and his outlines of different leadership strategies and how they can be most effectively deployed for certain times and situations. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model for leadership, but it has been helpful to see how different styles and strategies might work in particular seasons and situations.[1] Walker is fairly exhaustive, but there was no chapter in “The Undefended Leader” about the specific steps of leading a church through a global pandemic.

These past thirteen months have been a season of trial and error, of attempting to do “the next right thing,” and of staying open to what others are learning and doing while also staying focused on what is best-suited for my own context. Most of all, Covid-19 has reminded us all of just how little control any of us ultimately have. And that has not been an easy admission for a leader like me.

For whatever reason God in God’s providence had in mind, this season has coincided with my doctoral journey, a journey I never really desired to take. I have had the privilege of a weekly cohort of colleagues, challenging and thought-provoking books with which to interact, some travel (though not as much as I had hoped) to interesting places, and a project in which some of my energy could be directed. And here is the blessing: all of this has given me new language and perspective that has enabled me to accept that I am not in control.

Hello, my name is John, and I am not in control.

And that is okay. It is okay not to know it all. It is okay not to do it all. It is okay to work on myself as a differentiated, non-anxious presence, willing to accept what is mine to carry and content in not picking up what belongs to someone else. It is okay to live into a more undefended posture to lead out of who I am, with nothing to lose and everything to give.

Here is the concern. As the world starts showing signs of returning to “normal,” I fear I will be tempted as well. Tempted to pick up where I left off. Tempted to allow the anxiety and tension of the unknown stifle the opportunities that might emerge to creating space for new things and new ways. Can I retain what I have learned? Can I hold on to what I am becoming? Can I embrace a style of leading without having to control every outcome, while still being effective?

Time will tell.

[1] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010.)

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

12 responses to “An Undefended Leader Emerges from a Pandemic”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Thanks for this, John. It’s awesome reading about the journey of transformation you’ve been on with your conversations with Walker, Friedman, and the rest of the authors you’ve read.

    What are some practices you could take from the readings to help safeguard that return to “normal” and the temptations that come with it?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      And how might you invite your team into your process of remaining out-of-control (you get my meaning) and, in so doing, invite them into their own processes? How might this awaken the collective imagination of the team and toward new possibilities?

    • John McLarty says:

      I hope to start by avoiding the temptation to pick up every ball that got dropped over the past year. To be intentional about what I take on and invite others to pick something up if they express frustration or anxiety about something that isn’t happening.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    What is normal? Are you concerned about going back to normal or going back into what is comfortable? I find that their is little that is normal about life. As I get older what was normal last year isn’t normal now. I also find myself longing for comfort, comfort based on the predictability of life. Comfortable that allows for a level of complacency. Yet I find that this last two years has also bred in me a desire for change and growth. Change and growth aren’t predictable nor are they comfortable.

    • John McLarty says:

      It’s more about managing the anxiety that will arise as people process their feelings around what’s different and what’s gone. I’ll start by not absorbing the anxiety of others and try to remain differentiated and undefended in the midst of that- focused on where we’re going, not where we were.

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    “Hello, my name is John, and I am not in control.” Saying that every morning to yourself or your family would be a beautiful spiritual practice.

    This semester you have done marvelous work synthesizing material into a cohesive whole. I wonder when you take all you have learned about leadership and the church (and how we got to where we are), have you had a chance to envision a new reality, a different way to follow The Way than what you see in your context? If you could dream what your corner of the Church could be, what would she look like and how do you move your people in that direction? What stays? What goes? Who helps to dream, lead, and make that happen?

    • John McLarty says:

      For now, I’m really just focused on keeping myself from getting sucked back into the vortex of what was and what some will expect us to return to. If I can keep from picking up the anxiety of others and focus on what’s next rather than what was, I think I’ll be on a good path.

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    My counselor/therapist says he has the greatest job security ever because the majority of what people care about is entirely out of their control. It’s in that tension that he finds his ministry.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    John, I always appreciate your honesty.

    Thankful that this time has allowed you to explore a new way of being.

    It’s interesting how being ‘at ease’ can feel liberating yet, in the next moment, for the sudden unknown, panic can wind us. Breathe deep, in that next breath.

    God bless you, bro.

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