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