We live in an unpredictable and rapidly changing world. Some transitions are planned while other changes are forced upon us and, as leaders, we need to know how to provide people with context and clarity in both situations. Change doesn’t need to lead to crisis, but crisis nearly always leads to change.
In the Bible, we see Jesus leading his team through a challenging time of transition. It began with the season leading to the crisis of his arrest and crucifixion and was followed, post-resurrection, by the weeks leading up to His ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is helpful to notice the approach that Jesus took in navigating this turbulent transition with His disciples. Here are some principles that we see in His leadership at that time.
Communicate; share what you know; be honest about what you don’t know
2020 has been a prime example of leading during a time of uncertainty and ambiguity. How do you lead your staff team in preparing for an outreach, ministry project or training course when there’s a huge question mark over whether such things will be allowed to happen? A good guideline is to keep everyone in the loop as much as possible, even while things are still developing and changing.
Sometimes there’s a tendency for leaders to hold on to information, so that only a few people are “in the know.” For those we lead, this “not knowing” can cause a sense of insecurity and sometimes even of mistrust. They may draw the conclusion that we know more than we actually do and that we’re withholding information from them. It’s always better to communicate as much as possible, as long as we are not unwise or breaking confidentiality. Jesus made a point of speaking with His disciples about the uncertain times that lay ahead. He spoke openly about what He knew was going to happen and why, so that the disciples had an idea of what to expect.
But He also spoke honestly about what He didn’t know. In Matthew 24: 36, when the disciples questioned Him about the future events He was describing, He replied, “No one knows but the Father.” In uncertain times, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know the answer, but God does, and we can trust Him as we move forward.”
Allow time and freedom for people to ask questions
All through those weeks and days leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus allowed the disciples to ask questions about the things they didn’t understand. People are going to have more questions than usual in times of change and uncertainty. It doesn’t mean that they’re challenging our leadership or that they’re lacking faith. It’s all part of the process of navigating the transition and knowing how to position themselves. It’s important to allow people the freedom to dialogue, whether individually or in the group setting. Even when we’re not able to give all the answers, people are reassured by the fact that we took their questions seriously.
This is where our months or years of building community and strengthening our team dynamic will pay off. If people feel relationally safe within the team, they will be more able to move forward together, embracing the relative insecurity of the challenging or uncertain situations we are facing. But if people feel unsafe or judged within the team, they will be more likely to seek greater reassurances about the circumstances.
Listen to people’s feelings and fears
Loss is usually the first step in change. It might be a voluntary loss because of a change that we have planned for, or it might be an undesired loss (like having to cancel plans because of Covid.) Be sensitive to who is losing what; people experience loss in different ways and the anticipation of loss, even if it’s simply the loss of what is familiar and safe, can provoke feelings of fear, sadness and insecurity. Acknowledge loss and people’s response to it. As the leader, you might be the sort of person who has a high capacity for change, innovation and ambiguity; recognise that not everyone has this same capacity and be careful not to minimise or dismiss what others are feeling. Jesus urged His team not to be afraid (John 14: 27) but He didn’t judge or reproach them for what they were feeling. He acknowledged that they were facing difficult times and that the crisis wasn’t over yet.
I learned this lesson the hard way when taking a team of young people on an overseas outreach. We had planned for years, had made many sacrifices and seen God’s miraculous provision, but when we arrived at our destination, we discovered that our host church had not been quite so diligent in preparation. We spent countless hours sitting on the church steps, waiting for transportation that never arrived and preparing in prayer for outreaches that never happened. The sense of disappointment was overwhelming and the young people began to speak negatively about what was happening – or more specifically about what was not happening. I’ve always had a passion for bringing joy to God’s heart and so my typical response was to encourage them to choose a good attitude, recognising that we can still bring glory to God, even if we’re not out evangelising in the city. I was also concerned that our team would be a “good testimony” to our hosts and so I exhorted the kids not to be critical or negative in the way they spoke about the situation. Neither of these responses was wrong but, looking back later, I realised that I could have shown a bit more compassion about the loss and discouragement the team members were feeling, instead of focusing primarily on their response and how it would appear to others. I could have shared that I was disappointed too, and together we could have taken our loss to the Lord. It’s important to take time to listen to and validate what people are feeling, even if it’s not expressed in the best way, and even if you don’t feel the same way they do.
Leading our team in hearing from God and obeying Him
Of course, Jesus was speaking prophetically and had an idea of what was to come. Often we don’t have quite so much information and our task involves leading our people into a future that is relatively unknown. This was probably Joshua’s experience when he told the people, “You have never been this way before.” (Joshua 3: 4)
Joshua didn’t know exactly what the conquest of the Promised Land was going to look like or how long it was going to take, but he did know that God was with them and was leading them forward. With what he had already heard from the Lord, he understood the importance of consecration and obedience, so he took steps to help the people move forward in those two areas. They took time to cleanse and consecrate themselves in preparation for what God would do, and they began to make specific plans for following God’s instructions.
We no longer live in Old Testament days where one leader had the role of hearing from God for the people. Today’s leader has a role to play in helping the team to hear directly and corporately from the Lord, so that everyone has ownership of the vision or transition and they can confidently obey Him together. Of course, this looks different with a team of ten people than with a base of a hundred people; but, however we do it, we need to facilitate people in seeking the Lord together. Often this requires us to be good at asking questions and leading times of corporate processing and prayer; if that’s not the particular gifting of the primary leader, there is probably someone else in the team who would be able to serve in this way.
Once a sense of direction has been confirmed and agreed upon, the leaders may need to be the ones who model the embracing of risk and obeying God even when it requires us to move into the unknown. In Joshua’s situation, it was the priests who had to step into the rushing and seemingly dangerous waters of the River Jordan before everyone could experience the miracle of seeing God open up a way for them. (Joshua 3:15) It’s easier for people to embrace transition and change if they see their leaders setting an example of courage and faith.
Being true to our values and purpose
When crisis or unexpected change is thrust upon us, it’s easy to make the mistake of scrambling to adapt and trying to come up with new ideas for the new circumstances. Creativity and innovation in response to crisis are good, but it’s also important to reiterate the values and purpose that God has already given us in the past, so that the crisis won’t push us into compromising either our values or our calling. Talk together about what God has already spoken and then seek His wisdom about how to respond in the transition or changed situation.
Leading in times of crisis or change is perhaps never going to be “easy,” but these biblical principles can help point us in the right direction.