We live and lead in a dark, chaotic world.  But, you’ve noticed that already, haven’t you?  How do we, as church leaders, lead effectively in the future?

Leaders see disruptive forces everywhere.  Church leaders feel overwhelmed by the instability of their ministry fields.  The U.S. military describes a “VUCA” — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — environment, challenging their global planning and leadership efforts.

In our shifting contexts, let’s explore what future leaders do differently.

First, future leaders look long and then back-cast.

Faith-full leaders always look beyond their present moment to discern what God is doing just over the horizon.  Amid instability, future leaders expand their time horizons, look farther forward, peer carefully through “a glass darkly,” and ask “longer” questions.  What does God have next for us?  What does God have for us after whatever is next?

In more stable eras, leaders found where they were and then forecasted from here-to-there.  This step-by-step sequence of progress used fixed maps.  During implementation, these maps had no way to adjust when their targets moved.  I can’t count the number of strategic plan notebooks I’ve seen in pastor’s offices half completed and finally abandoned.

Future leaders plan in GPS-style.  We target goals, move, and recalibrate as we learn.  I met Edward Lindaman, key leader of the Apollo lunar mission and noted Presbyterian layman, after the Apollo program was concluded.  We asked Lindaman how the Apollo project leaders planned.  He said, “First, we found the moon.”  We all laughed at the obviousness of that beginning.  “Then, we back-casted from the moon to where we were.”  They identified stations between the earth and the moon, and then they moved ahead by trial-and-success.  The universe became the Apollo team’s laboratory.  They discovered new pathways and recalculated constantly.  Foresight is fueled by insight and hindsight.

Finding the moon and then back-casting calls for constant learning when you’re dealing with two moving targets.  Do you suppose that’s part of what Jesus meant when He called us disciples, lifelong learners who are always rookies in our world?  Are you ready to take longer looks at God’s actions in the world and then to back-cast in order to move in His directions?

Second, future leaders cultivate “edge” change.

Cultures and social systems are most dynamic and change-able on their edges.  Think about the lively changes we see where seas meet shores, where neighborhoods connect (or collide), and when families interact at funerals.  Margins are permeable, “yeasty” places.  Edges invite creativity and new directions.

In fast-moving contexts, congregational leaders steward edges in flexible ways.  Edge leaders are bi-focal.  We stand on edges and look back at the centers of our faith communities with more objectivity.  Then, from edges, we turn and look over horizons to see what’s ahead.  Finally, we put those two “from-the-balcony” perspectives together for a clearer-eyed view of where we are now and where we’re going next.

Edges are high-potential ministry arenas with lots of possibility.  But, edges aren’t easy settings for leaders.  On emerging edges, there’s a lot leaders don’t know.  We feel outdated and outgunned.  We travel light and shed outmoded practices quickly.  We need partners who are strong where we aren’t.  We find safe places “to be” while we discern, at God’s pace, what “to do.”  We create practice spaces to try new approaches on small scales and then, with fresh experiences, we try again.  So, we ask, listen, pray, and learn as we move ahead.  We live on the edge in a literal sense.

Third, future leaders tell “face” stories.

2008 is considered a “watershed” year by futurists.  On the brink of a dangerous depression, we elected America’s first minority race president.  But, most dramatically, a new world-wide connectivity jelled.  For the first time, digital connectivity became possible for everyone.  This technological breakthrough challenges future leaders to wed stories with electronics.  Print, prose, and pictures now merge with pixels.

Think about the “3Ms” of future communication — message, mastery, and media.

With the future in mind, leaders sharpen and “story-ize” their message.  Future leaders put faces on goals and needs to make their message more personal, more concrete, and more immediate.  They know stories are 22 times more apt to be remembered than simple facts.

Then, future leaders master the all media at their disposal.  Finally, future leaders match their available communication media options to their audiences.  Leaders help their audiences hear comfortably and respond confidently.

From a practical viewpoint, since media is a major generational divide, future leaders will develop multi-generational staff teams.  Then, every communication medium will be native to someone on the team.

In summary, to become a discerning and effective future leader, think longer horizons, promising edges, and eager faces.  Ready?  Go!

Bob Dale
Robert (Bob) Dale, is an Oklahoma Baptist University graduate and former assistant executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. He is a noted author, consultant and coach has been a thought-leader in the world of congregations as they engage the question of health and vibrancy for nearly 50 years. Following a distinguished career as a pastor, seminary professor and denominational leader, Bob now turns his focus toward coaching. In that role, he is helping guide a generation of clergy and laity toward a healthier understanding of leadership and maturity. He is also a consultant for CHC.