Leadership in a Time of Great Change: A Call To Lead

Over the past fourteen years as Regional Minister for Congregational Health, the workshop I have most often been asked to present is entitled, ‘Eldership as Spiritual Leadership’. In this workshop I encourage elders (ruling and teaching) to embrace their calling as spiritual and physical leaders of their communities of faith. This challenge is not always easily received.

In order for the call to leadership to make sense, we need to understand what leadership is. An easy way to understand leadership is to contrast it with management. Management guru, Peter Drucker, famously said,

Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right thing.”

As Presbyterians we are wired for management. We brag about doing things decently and in good order. We are complimented when things run well and smoothly, and challenged when we want to bring about change. Management is measureable. It is what is expected of us. However, it also allows us to be “busy-very busy-without being very effective.” (Stephen Covey)

Obviously there is a place for management. Leading With Care is a policy for managing the safety of our congregations. Likewise, a secure and transparent financial system for your church is management that every church needs. There are times when management makes sense; a time of rapid change is not one of them. Working in response to a pandemic is not one of them. This is a time for leadership.

The last couple of months have brought more change to the world, and to the church, than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. A global pandemic with churches, and workplaces, and schools all closed is unprecedented. It is a crisis in the fullest sense of the word. 

As we have responded to this crisis, many church leaders (ministers especially) have been forced to adopt different models of leadership. In some cases they have been required to lead, perhaps for the very first time. Our polity encourages wide consultation and a collaborative, consensus building leadership style. Our polity is geared to management. COVID-19, provincial and federal shutdowns, and the limits of technology have required a much more authoritative model of leadership. A good example of this is a colleague who, having moved to a new congregation a month before this all happened, called his elders and said, “I know I am new, and I know you don’t know me, and I know I don’t have the right to make this decision, but I have just cancelled worship.” Those kinds of decisions have been made – in that way – over and over again in these past nine weeks.

For some, this has been a welcome change. For many others a source of profound angst as it doesn’t feel like the way we do things in the church. I would suggest that there is a place for different types of leadership, especially as the pandemic and its consequences will likely play out for years to come. 

Over the coming weeks, I will be offering some thoughts on leadership and what this could look like for our leaders and for our churches. Today, I would like to offer some thoughts around our own emotional responses to this new set of circumstances.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that this has been a fearful time for us all. Recently I read a post from a fellow in England who was quoting his 92 year old mother. She was speaking of the Blitz during the Second World War. She said, “At least then we could hear them coming; we could hear the planes and the sound of the bombs and we could prepare. COVID is invisible, we don’t see it or hear it coming and it could be anywhere.” Even with the easing of restrictions, I share her sentiments. At the same time, I hear people talking about “when we get back to the way things were.” I am not sure when we will or if we will. Tori and I love to travel and are, even now, realizing that the travel industry will be changed for years to come. We are questioning under what circumstances we might get on a plane or if we will ever feel safe on a cruise ship again. Likewise with church, we may not be able to worship together for months and when we do, it will likely be without singing and we may never physically ‘pass the peace’ again.

I don’t know where all this will lead or when it will end, but, I do believe that as leaders we have an obligation to lead our communities towards health and transformation, especially in these times. With social distancing we are obliged to do things right (management) but now more than ever we are called to ensure we are doing the right thing! (leadership)

On social media and in worship, I have noticed that we are gravitating to scripture passages of comfort and assurance. Psalm 23 springs to mind

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

  I fear no evil; for you are with me;
  your rod and your staff— they comfort me. (Psa. 23:4 NRSV)

We need comfort and assurance in these days! We need to remember that God is bigger than a pandemic and that the story of our faith is a story of hope!

At the same time, I wonder if there is, in scripture, words of challenge and courage that we as leaders might also embrace.

The story of scripture is the story of new beginnings, beginnings that come in ways and at times the people of God did not anticipate or expect.


  • Moses’ call to leadership at the burning bush
  • Esther’s call to save her people from Haman’s scheming
  • The disciples’ call to follow Jesus
  • Mary and Mary and Salome’s call to testify that Jesus was alive 
  • The disciples’ call to lead after Jesus’ ascension 
  • Paul’s conversion and subsequent ministry

The point is simple, all these people found themselves in situations not of their making. All of these people were called to lead God’s people into something new, often in the midst of crisis.

Even before social distancing, Tori and I were watching a silly British game show called Taskmaster. Each week, at the end of the show the host, Greg Davies, says “And what have we learned today…” followed by a silly comment about one of the contestants. One episode however, his answer to his question was this:

“Surely the task of the leader is to take the people where they have never been before.”

Surely that is our task in these days, to take our people where they have never been before.



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