Traits Over Trends: The 4 Essential Church Leadership Qualities for 2021, Part 5
Traits Over Trends: The 4 Essential Church Leadership Qualities for 2021, Part 5
Effective leaders are agile, but not aimless.
Agility—the capacity to shift and adjust—is an essential quality for any leader today, but especially for church leaders. The ongoing struggle with COVID continues to restrict gatherings in most parts of the nation. Not only that, but every indication is that even when the numbers come down and large gatherings (including concerts and sporting events) return, many of your previous attenders will not come back to in-person meetings. And if they do come back, they will not attend in-person as often.
Church leaders are faced with a massive challenge and opportunity in 2021—to reshape the fundamental structures and systems of the churches they lead. The most effective leaders, the ones who will guide their churches to growth in the future, will demonstrate consistent agility, shifting as appropriate to implement the strategies that will move them toward their vision.
This is the fifth and final post in the Traits Over Trends series. In just the past few days, I’ve seen several posts about church and leadership trends for 2021 from widely-trusted church leaders, some of them are friends of mine. Following trends is fine, but wise leaders cultivate the essential leadership traits that will enable them to lead well no matter what may come in the next year.
Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.
The invitation and command to renew our minds is woven throughout the New Testament.
While it is most important to have our minds renewed in relation to our personal spiritual formation, for a leader, I believe the renewal of our minds can have another dimension.
Especially in today’s world, an effective leader must have the ability to think in new ways, embrace new paradigms, and consider new strategies. While this certainly needs to happen right now … this leadership agility will always be necessary to a certain degree. If the leader is stuck, the church will be stuck.
The 3 key elements of agility are perfectly described in a famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As mentioned above, I’m going to apply this passage in terms of leadership, understanding that they also apply to the process of spiritual formation for all disciples of Jesus.
“I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14
Borrowing Paul’s language here, the three elements of agility are:
forgetting what lies behind,
straining forward to what lies ahead,
and pressing on toward the goal.
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
You won’t be able to make the shifts and adjustments required of you if you’re too emotionally tied to the past. As you probably remember, earlier in Philippians 3, Paul lists his accomplishments (verses 4 & 5). So when he talks about his practice of forgetting what lies behind, he’s not just talking about his mistakes or struggles (although I think it’s safe to say those are included). He’s specifically talking about forgetting what he previously considered to be his credentials and proof of his success.
The same is true for you if you want to cultivate leadership agility. Don’t rely too much on what you’ve accomplished up until now—those could be the very things you need to leave behind to be successful in the future. It’s been said so often, it’s difficult to know who said it first, but it’s still true: “The greatest enemy of future success is past success.”
Agility Requires Stretching Out Toward the Future.
The future is going to come whether you prepare for it or not. But if you want to maximize your church’s disciple making potential, you need to strain and stretch out to reach it. The key idea here is that agility requires effort. It’s not something that simply happens automatically—you need to make a practice of stretching yourself and your team in your ability to imagine what a new future could look like for your church.
What are you doing on a consistent basis to stretch toward the future? An agile leader will have a consistent rhythm of planning and goal-setting (see my recent post on goal setting during COVID). I usually encourage churches to set a single milestone goal each year and then 4 supporting objectives that you can attack every 90 days. In the current environment, because of the rapid changes we’re experiencing, I’m advising churches to shorten the time horizon on their goals. Set goals for the next 90 days … or for the next 6 months at most. Then, put in place a consistent rhythm for your team to revisit those goals on a monthly basis to evaluate if you need to make adjustments.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
Paul says that he is going to “press on toward the goal ….” The word for goal there is skopos, which carries the meaning of a distant mark that you have in view. It immediately brings to mind the idea of a scope on a rifle. Paul doesn’t say that he is pressing on in a general kind of way, he says he is pressing on “toward the goal.” He’s got something in view that he’s aiming at … and that’s what he’s pressing toward.
The effective leader is agile, but not aimless. When you’re making adjustments based on a shifting environment, it’s not the mission that’s changing … it’s simply your strategy for how you will pursue that mission together. By keeping the mission in focus, you’ll avoid the trap of aimless agility, which really just means “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Nobody wants that—and you won’t make any meaningful progress that way.
Get After It.
It’s appropriate to end this series with this Philippians passage. The leadership traits of security, positivity, simplicity, and agility mean nothing unless you get moving.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that Paul uses one greek word 3 times between verses 1 and 14. It’s translated very differently the first time, which is in verse 6: “... as to zeal, persecuting the church….” The same word that’s translated “persecuting” in verse 6 is translated as “pressing on” in verses 12 and 14.
Paul is saying, “The same drive, passion, and propensity for action that drove me to hunt down and kill followers of Jesus before has a new target. The drive and passion haven’t changed—but now they are being directed at the goal Jesus has set before me.”
My prayer for you in 2021 is that God would rekindle a leadership fire inside of you that drives you to pursue God’s unique call on you and your church with a renewed fervor that cannot be stopped or hindered. Secure in God’s presence and calling, you can overflow with positivity and hope. Having done the difficult work to communicate with simplicity, you can lead with agility toward the vision God has for you. Now get after it!
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