I recently was discussing my plans for Easter service with the lead pastor. My hope is to try something different. To give some context, the church I attend meets on a campus with four other churches. One of them requested to use the main sanctuary for baptisms on Easter and inquired to see when we might finish our service. That inquiry prompted a thought: is there a better way to celebrate Easter than to celebrate new spiritual life? That pastor and I began to discuss what it might look like for their baptisms to take place as part of a joint worship service. Not wanting to take-over their celebration, we will have that baptism time take place in predominantly Mandarin (their language of choice) with translations happening both through a live translator for parts, and for longer portions (testimonies) just on prepared slides. When I briefed my lead pastor on these discussions, his main concern was a need for me to communicate my hope to the other leaders at our church and to the congregation. The reasoning seemed sound: if people come expecting a “normal” Easter service and are taken completely by surprise, it might be hard to worship. He was asking me to build anticipation by taking any unexpected uncertainty out.
Peter Northouse’s book Leadership: Theory and Practice, outlines and discusses different aspects of leadership as well as leadership theories. The book reads almost like a manual. I imagine it will be helpful to keep it as resource to be referenced. In his chapter on leadership and culture, he explains that there are dimensions to culture. One of those dimensions, uncertainty avoidance, stuck out me most.
“This dimension refers to the extent to which a society, an organization, or a group relies on established social norms, rituals, and procedures to avoid uncertainty. Uncertainty avoidance is concerned with the way cultures use rules, structures, and laws to make things more predictable and less uncertain”
As I chewed on this concept, I realized that Christianity, in the forms that I have been a part of and have observed, has formed its own sort of culture. In the culture of Christianity, there seems to be high uncertainty avoidance. Even in varying forms of liturgy across denominations and individual churches, liturgical practices generally don’t change from week to week at the same church. What seems to be helpful is a general sense of rhythm and cadence in services and weekly programming. I did find it interesting that Northouse notes the United States as having a high tolerance for uncertainty. Perhaps the religious element brings a more careful approach.
Simultaneously, the higher tolerance for uncertainty in the United States can be seen in church leadership structures. In one of my master’s level pastoral leadership classes, we were discussing how to share vision, mission, and values. I shared how at the Chinese church I served at, the leadership could come up with a vision and have a sermon series, but the real work of getting everyone onboard would come in small group and individual conversations. My professor thought this was a terrible leadership structure. It seems that maybe he didn’t understand the different dimensions of culture could influence how leadership happens. Making big decisions in Chinese churches is difficult and takes a long time. It also requires “cultivation built on a level of trust and reliability that comes with a long-term commitment.”
 Peter Northouse Leadership: Theory and Practice, (Thousand Oaks : SAGE Publications) 2018, 626.
 Ibid, 626
 Ibid, 626
17 responses to “Uncertainty”
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Caleb, I love what you are doing for your Easter service. What a beautiful way to celebrate. Our church is doing something different as well. Last year, we went to a Saturday night service and we rent our facility to another church on Sunday mornings. So this year for Easter, we are holding a Saturday Easter service and focusing on the waiting between Good Friday and Easter. I appreciate the thoughtfulness you are putting in to making sure people know what to expect. Given what you have learned from Northouse and culture, how might you respond to that professor today? As you said, he clearly did not understand the cultural frame. What are some ways we can help others go deeper in their understanding of cultural differences?
Becca, honestly I don’t think there’s any method or way I could have conveyed something meaningful to that professor. The relationship dynamic wasn’t right for it and he made it clear in our conversations that he had nothing to learn from me.
Thank you for your post, especially how you ended your post on“cultivation built on a level of trust and reliability that comes with a long-term commitment”
I remember my bible college teacher saying you had to earn the right to speak into peoples lives.
Greg, what a good word from your professor!
Your post reminds me of Dr. Peter Enns’ book “The Sin of Certainty.” How great is that title? Yes, I too am surprised Northouse notes Americans as having a higher tolerance for uncertainty. That may be due to the history of American expansion under the vain assumption of American exceptionalism. But that’s just my guess.
What are ways you intentionally lean into uncertainty? I am someone who definitely struggles with the sin of certainty.
David, thanks for your question! It’s definitely really hard. I think I have the privilege and gift of an unwaveringly supportive leadership team. I think it really allows me to try new things without the fear of being reprimanded if it doesn’t go well or perfectly smoothly. And that’s honestly kind of what happened on Easter. Not everything went smoothly, I gave out the wrong passages for people to read. (oof) and people still celebrated and worshipped in three languages!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on uncertainty avoidance.
I appreciate your desire to be adaptable in your approach to Easter Sunday service. I hope this Sunday works well. I am sure it will go well with your congregation’s knowledge of a unique service.
I like David’s question. What are ways you lean into uncertainty?
Kristy, thanks for your and David’s question! I mentioned above in my response to David the gift I have in a supportive leadership team that is helpful in giving me confidence to try new things. I think I’m also fortunate that the people at the church I attend have been generous with their trust in me and faithful in their openness to experiencing God in new ways.
Caleb – I can’t wait to hear how your Easter worship goes. As the creative director at our church, I’m also in favor of mixing things up. When people experience the unexpected, it is easier to form core memories and I think worship should be part of that! At our church, we intentionally do not follow an order of service that stays consistent. It took some time and rattled feathers to make that change, but I think people pay more attention when they are no acting out of rote behavior. Way to go!
Laura, it was amazing! I definitely made some mistakes and not everything was as smooth as it could have been, but we spent Easter celebrating the fact that Jesus is alive in three languages.
Caleb, You have to circle back with us! Whats the final plans?
How does high uncertainty avoidance in the culture of the church affect decisions made by church leadership? How can we lean into the uncertainty in situations like you mentioned as a leadership team and in turn get acceptance/positive feedback from others. Does that make sense?
Sorry for the late circle back! Easter service was lovely. As I’ve been mentioning in my other replies, I made some mistakes, things didn’t go as smoothly as they could have gone, and I’m so blessed with a leadership team and a volunteer team that was willing to go above and beyond to accomplish this new thing together.
The leadership team at Common Ground has been supportive of me and encouraging me to try new things, even if they don’t always pan out. That assurance has been so helpful as I seek to try new things. On my end, something that has been helpful is to acknowledge that the teams are a blessing in that way by telling them and supporting them however I can when they want to try new things as well.
I am reading through these comments.
All the creative people are waiting to hear how things go. I am praying you have a wonderful Easter service!
Kristy, I’m so late to these comments and I appreciate your prayers from a month ago! I’m convinced that our Easter service was a blessing because it was prayed over extensively by so many people. So thank you!
The way you interweaved the story of the upcoming Easter service with the high uncertainty avoidance was insightful and thought-provoking at the same time.
As organizations grow there is also a need to add more structure, rules, and guidelines – which also brings intolerance to uncertainty. Assuming this is also relevant to Churches, how would you recommend to an up-and-coming pastor to guard against trading spiritual creativity for the sake of structure? If you do not see this as causative – feel free to respond to that instead.
Wow, what a great question! I’m not sure I have the best answer to this question. Recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses, I think I fit best in a smaller community that has a little more capacity to flex.
With that being said, I’ve navigated that tension on a small church scale by building the relational trust and social capital to do different things once in a while. I think it might be exhausting if people consistently didn’t know what to expect or were consistently expected to flex in ways that they weren’t comfortable flexing. But if I take time throughout the year to build that relational trust through acknowledging all the work that already goes into our normal routines and by being supportive however I can when others want to try new things, it makes it easier when I suggest something new or pitch the vision for something different.
Leaders sometimes get the hard jobs. We have to make decisions are come up with solutions that will benefit those we serve. I am sure that you can handle it though.