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

We Didn’t Just Survive…We Transformed.

Written by: on October 22, 2020

My team just finished up a three-day, in-person on-site retreat. It was the first time we’ve been in the same room since March and it was life-giving.

So much has changed since we last were together. During our convening in March, we were set to move into a future that would have scaled up our team and increased the reach of our work. The anticipation that captured the imaginations of our team and key stakeholders was held in tension with the uncertainty of a new global pandemic that seemed to be getting closer and closer to North America. The question was, do we launch into the future that we’d been building or do we pause to gain an understanding of how the pandemic would reshape the world and our work.

We chose the latter and, within weeks, the future that we were so close to stepping into became obsolete.

Over these months that have required physical distance from one another, we have downsized our team, pivoted our deliverables, and responded to an increase in conflict, violence, and injustice with messaging and capacity-building programs designed to move people toward rather than away from the pain. More importantly, we’ve worked hard to deepen the soul of our team and the organization, remain present to what is shifting and deepening within us, and offer space to our teammates to tend to the urgency and transformational opportunities of the pandemic. But we haven’t had the long, lingering space to reflect with one another on what it is that has shifted and deepened within us.

To begin our time together this week, we launched paddleboards and kayaks into the Deschutes River and let the current take us where it would. I’ve paddle this particular stretch of the river dozens of times in the past, yet this time was different and not just because I had my team with me. It was different because the water level had shifted. The pace of the river had diminished and previously submerged trees and large rocks were exposed. What was once familiar had become unchartered territory ready to be explored. 

As I drifted, I became aware that I was paddling a completely different river with a completely different team.

Later that evening, as we reflected with one another about what the pandemic and grown and shifted in us as leaders and as an organization we recognized that we had navigated the chaos of the pandemic as a unified team from within the uncertainty of the river rather than from the safety of the shore.  

The pause that we chose during the onset of the pandemic was not a retreat to safety, but a decision to allow the pandemic to grow and change us. While the world was changing, we had the opportunity to change (personally and organizationally) as well. 

We concluded that, rather than waiting on the shore as observers, we had let go and become “more open to the opportunities of the current.” (Renner & D’Souza, Not Doing, Kindle Location 1752). Navigating the whitewater of the pandemic had transformed our team to be more nimble, curious, and responsive than we’d been before. We trust each other more deeply because we held on to one another through the whitewater of change.

After acknowledging and celebrating that reality, we became liberated to spend the rest of our time together this week exploring the new opportunities that the current had revealed.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “We Didn’t Just Survive…We Transformed.”

  1. Shawn Cramer says:

    Beautiful metaphor. Praying that connection with each other, the Lord, and your vision & mission energize your work for the months to come.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Shawn. I’m finding that the imagery of precipice and river keep on surfacing personally, organizationally, and doctorally. One seems to speak of entering the unknown and the other seems to speak of navigating the unknown. Eager to see where it heads.

  2. John McLarty says:

    Sounds like time well-spent. I’m curious (and totally understand if this is not the right forum for a response,) was there much resistance among the team to the shift to be more willing to go with the current? Perhaps the team you’ve assembled is already well-aligned with the culture and integrated into the vision you have for your organization. But if there were any who seemed hesitant, scared, or rebellious, how were you (or the team) able to bring them along and not allow them to keep you from fully exploring the new opportunities?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Great question, John. In hindsight, it seems that team that we’ve developed and the culture that we’ve tended caused us to choose, together, that entering the current was the right way to go. We discerned this extensively together such that it wasn’t a top-down decision. Together, we agreed that the only way forward is to step in and to stay vigilant to the changes that would occur in us as leaders as well as the new opportunities that the river would take us into. Throughout the pandemic so far, we re-designed the weekly rhythm of our staff meetings in an effort to create as much space as possible for each off us to reflect on our experience, what we’re noticing in and around us, what seems to be shifting within us, as well as the hunches that are emerging. Based on how this retreat just went, my sense is that the decision to enter the current and expect that it would change was a good. It has matured us, focused our message, deepened our trust, and further awakened our imaginations to new possibilities. As an example, one conversation we had this week included sunsetting one of the initiatives that our organization is known and respected for. The way that the conversation went gave evidence to the maturing and deepening of trust that has occurred.

      • John McLarty says:

        That’s cool. I’m a bit jealous- it seems like the team I have has really just been able to make adjustments to what we do, not so much reimagine a totally different future. I’ve daydreamed a little about what it might have been like back in the church I planted, with the team I specifically and intentionally built, but that doesn’t get me very far. Chemistry and culture are crucial to getting groups to step out into the unknown.

        • Jer Swigart says:


          If you were to invite your team to move beyond programmatic pivots to embrace the pandemic as an incubator of personal and organizational transformation, where would you begin? What is the invitation you would offer during this week’s staff meeting?

          • John McLarty says:

            I might start just by asking them to think about just that- what pivots have you/we made that were really just about programming or maintaining some semblance of continuity versus truly transformational or representing a possible shift in philosophy? Then follow up with: What have we stopped doing that we don’t need/want to start back up? What have we stopped that absolutely has to come back? What are we doing now that we want to keep doing? What are we doing now what we want to stop doing? I might also try that exercise at our next leadership board meeting as well. I don’t think it will produce much immediate fruit, but it might plant some seeds.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Jer, (your blog kicked in my coaching mind)
    In my younger years as a fly fisherman I tried to spend time on my favorite stretch of the Clark Fork River in Montana at all times of day and the year. I by no means am a professional fly fisherman and my technique leaves something to be desired. But every fisherman knows the importance of learning to read the water. Subtle lighting changes throughout the day can cause things to look differently requiring a different fly or casting technique. At different seasons water rises and falls creating different feeding opportunities for fish. The current changes, temperatures drop, and fish activity changes. Each item requires a different approach and a great level of flexibility. A fly fishing purist’s approach will be much different that one who is an opportunist and seeking a release from the daily grind. (I fall into the later.) As a fisherman drifts a river they allow the current to lead but it is their broad understanding of the river, the skills they have learned, a great level of flexibility and the knowledge of when to change techniques that make the trip a success. In this new environment what criteria do you have in place to make quick adjustments? As seasons change what processes of change do you need to be more affective at as adjustments are made?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Greg. Sounds like you and I need to spend some time on the river tossing some flies together. I really appreciate your illustration here. See my comments to Darcy as I include there some interactions with your really good questions.

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    As one who has been watching your organization very closely from the outside, I appreciate this peek within. Evidence of this “flow with the current” way of living is present in your work. You have remained steadfast in your commitment to your core-values as the swiftly flowing currents shifted on a moment by moment basis. Your ability to step and speak into the tumultuous times we are in is testament to your deeply relational foundational beliefs as an organization. Going with the flow can also be exhausting. And while it seems you’ve built in supports for that, how do you envision navigating the river that is ahead? You can’t do so utilizing the old ways, because you aren’t those people in that place anymore. So what supports are in place to help you navigate the foreign terrain that lies ahead? What are the practices or disciplnes you will lean into more intentionally as a group?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Darcy. Your words here mean a lot.

      Considering your and Greg’s comments, I, too, am curious to see how we navigate the road ahead. For starters, I think we’ll consider the long-term potentials & implications of the decisions we make. I think we’ll take care not to become too attached to a particular idea or method. As the world shifts, so must our approaches to cultivating leaders who are building a restorative theology, walking a contemplative path, and embodying the peacemaking way. Some values and convictions will remain constant, yet the we want to always be adaptable with regard to the “how” of the transformation.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    Thanks Jer, apologies for the late response this week. ‘Always in the white waters’ can get tiring. Here’s to wu-wei 🙂

    So appreciate that you’ve found some time to break free with your team. That you and your team/organisation have made it through together to this point, when so many haven’t, what a blessing!

    I love the idea, ‘opportunities of the current’. And, to open up to them.

    I remember windsurfing, in the days before I became embittered with the wind, at a beautiful location way off the grid: Nitnat Lake. Classic how the currents can push the board one way while the wind another and being in the middle of this push and pull. Pushing with the feet and legs while pulling the sail in with the arms.

    There’s a sweet balance called ‘planing’. Where the balance is steady, the board is pointed slightly upwind, the wind and current held together, ripping. And, in the midst of this wild emotion, peace. Wind could be 25+ knots, waves could be peaking in the middle of the lake 2-3 feet yet, there’s Peace in the planing state.

    Thanks for encouraging perspective and imagination, bro. It is such a personal journey. Yet, out there, when you see others in the midst of it too, somehow taking courage in the raucous, there’s sweet conversation for by the fire.

    Pray for continued encouragement for you and your team as you enter into the whitewaters!

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