They never taught us…how to pastor a church during a pandemic.  

They never taught us…what to do when news channels trained the members of our churches to look at the exact same events and see them in two totally different ways. 

They never taught us…what to do in a disagreement with law enforcement.

Sense a pattern here?  

There’s a set of words that I find myself using all the time these days—unprecedented, unpredictable, unique, extraordinary.  Nobody is an expert when it comes to pandemics.  Nobody is an expert at resolving violent, cultural fragmentation, and certainly no one is an expert at trying to handle both at the same time.  The world has gone crazy and we’re all struggling to respond.  

And that brings us to the question of leadership. In uncertain moments, leaders are the ones who give us confidence, right?  Leaders provide answers to people’s questions.  They calm us down and help restore order.  Right?  Then again, maybe not.

In their genre-defining book on Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz and Alexander Grashow tell an interesting story about leadership.  Here’s what they say: “Exercising adaptive leadership is dangerous.  The word leader comes from the Indo-European root word leit, the name for the person carrying the flag in front of an army going into battle…and usually died in the first enemy attack. They go on to say that the sacrifice of the leit “would alert the rest of the army to the location of the danger ahead.” According to Heifetz and Grashow, leaders aren’t the ones who stand in the middle and calm things down, leaders are the ones who get out in front and blaze a trail.  

The confusion shows up when we start equating leadership and authority.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been a person of authority.  I’m an authority on preaching because I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.  I’m an authority on staff dynamics because I’ve hired (and occasionally fired) multiple employees in the churches I’ve led.  You get the idea. But the problem is that so much of the authority that we have exercised as ministers emerges out of doing well exactly what our congregations expect. They expect us to preach well and they reward us when we do.  They expect us to provide answers to their questions, and they reward us when we do.  

So what happens then, when we suddenly find ourselves completely outside the realm of expectations—a moment exactly like the one we’re in now?  

A friend of mine was hired a few years back as the Director of Marketing at a medium sized company. The company had been struggling for about a decade and they were trying to reverse their downward trajectory.  To do that, my friend was hired to bring a degree of professionalism, and attention to detail to a department that, seemingly, had lacked it.  In other words, he was hired to be an authority not a leader.  Thankfully, my friend is as curious as he is creative  He saw up close and personal the old adage that there are no dysfunctional organizations, because every organization is perfectly calibrated to achieve its current results.  And so rather than managing down, he started leading up.  Instead of trying to re-establish old patterns of success, he started asking curious questions and occasionally stepping out on limbs (that could have easily broken under him) in order to accomplish what he was really hired to do…which was lead not exert authority.  

This is not a moment of authority for the American Church; a pandemic, massive cultural conflict, and the death of Christendom alone, much less all three of these together and more, should be enough to convince us. The world is coming apart at the seams. Trying harder and harder to do what we’ve always done may calm a few people down, but it won’t provide the answers to questions that people don’t even know how to formulate yet.  

This is most definitely a moment for leadership.  So if you find yourself throwing your mind, body, and spirit at problem that no one ever taught you how to solve, you’re probably right where the rest of us need you to be—out front!

Matt Cook
Dr. Cook joins the Center as a full time Assistant Director after having
served local congregations for more than twenty-five years with nearly twenty years as Senior Pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.He is completed his undergraduate degree at Samford and his M.Div and Ph.D. (Church History) at Baylor University. He has been highly involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a both the state and national level, having served on the Coordinating Councils of both Texas and Arkansas, as well as having served as the Moderator of CBF National. He was also the founding conveyor of Current, CBF’s young leaders network. He can be reached at mattc@chchurches.org.