By J. Thomas Laney, Associate Director, Turner Center for Church Leadership, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, TN

Guiding the life of a  church in the midst of a pandemic has proven to be an unprecedented challenge for pastors over the past year.  Congregations have had to make rapid adjustments to the way they worship, study and work together.  In making those changes, they have discovered their leaders and members frequently have very different ideas of what should be done.  The most effective pastors are those who have been able to model good leadership skills in working through conflict.  The way these effective leaders have guided their churches is a timely reminder of how to lead well in all kinds of conflicted circumstances.  

They know they must manage themselves first.  Good leaders understand that anxiety is contagious and that they need to make sure they do not add their personal anxiety and stress to the necessary conversations.  Edwin Friedman coined the term “non-anxious presence” to describe how leaders should engage difficult work,[i] but that term is often misinterpreted to mean that the leader should have no anxious feelings.  The truth is no one can help feeling anxious in challenging circumstances, but all good leaders know how to contain their personal anxious energies in order to help the community focus on the task before them.

They know they cannot solve big problems alone.  They understand the need for a group of wise, thoughtful leaders to help think through the issues from a variety of perspectives.  In the pandemic, every pastor who has effectively guided the decision making process about closing, re-opening or modifying practices first established a team of good advisors to make the necessary decisions.  A healthy team has a balance of viewpoints and mature leaders who know how to focus on what is good for the whole church, not just their particular preferences and needs.

They know their task as the leader is to guide the process of making the decisions rather than the outcome.  Even whenleaders have strong feelings about what they want personally, they know they have to let the group explore the full range of issues and perspectives on the matter they are dealing with.  Good leaders refrain from making ultimatums or pressuring others to agree with them.  They let the group do its work.

They know that the work of group discernment involves exploring the shared pool of meaning.  This term, from the book Crucial Conversations,[ii] is a helpful metaphor that refers to all of the relevant information that the group members have regarding the topic under consideration.  Exploring this shared pool fully requires the leader ensure that the conversation is safe enough for each participant to share openly.  When a group has fully explored the shared pool of meaning it is much more likely to make the best decision possible.  

They are skilled at redirecting comments from “yes…but” statements to “yes…and” statements.  Frequent use of the conjunction “but” implies an “either/or” mindset.  When we reply  “yes, but…” to something someone else has said we are effectively asserting that our idea/opinion should replace what the other person has said.  When we switch to “yes…and” expressions, we make it more likely that a group will keep adding new information to its pool of meaning and therefore more easily embrace the complexities of the issues before it.  A group that does this work is more likely to make a well-informed decision rather than fall prey to simplistic interpretations and emotional pressures

They utilize tools such as a “risk analysis matrix”[iii] that helps the group frame a variety of potential outcomes along a grid from acceptable to unacceptable risk on one axis and likelihood or unlikelihood of scenario on the other axis.  When possible scenarios are plotted on this grid, it helps group members compare both the likelihood of the scenario happening and the degree of acceptability of the risk involved.  

They are clear about their own personal boundaries without imposing them on others.  I have spoken with several pastors whose churches have wrestled with the decision of when to start meeting in person again.  They faced considerable pressure to resume in person worship and sensed that a majority of the leaders they were talking with wanted to do so.  At the same time, these pastors had close family members with compromised health situations and they were not comfortable gathering in large groups.  As the leadership body explored the issue, the pastor made it clear that s/he would not participate in person due to the health risks for their loved one, but at the same time made it clear that s/he would do everything possible (short of leading the service) to support and help the people planning the worship service.  

Working through difficult matters in a community is never an easy task.  It is especially challenging when the context for the issue is highly charged emotionally and politically.  Pastors have the unenviable responsibility of helping the community reach a faithful and well-thought out decision.  With prayer, emotinal intelligence and support, a pastor can guide the community in such a way that it emerges from the challenge stronger and more focused on its mission.  This is what it means to lead in the midst of a conflicted situation.

[i] See Generation to Generation (Friedman, 1985) and other works related to Bowen Family Systems Theory in church life.

[ii] Crucial Conversations (2012) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

[iii] “What’s right with risk matrices?”Julian Talbot on Risk, Success and Leadership

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