Over the next several weeks, we’re taking a step back to take a journey forward. 

As leaders, we face challenges every day. As we seek to move toward our goals and purpose, challenges emerge. If you said, “I’m not facing any challenges,” it’s likely you’re either in denial or you’re not leading. Challenges are not bad or good. Challenges are simply a part of leading.

Is the church you lead facing a challenge?

Here are a few conversations we have with leaders on a regular basis:

  • A church leader receives notification from a high school parent about a potential conflict that weekend. The school music program needs all students participating in any music program (and their families) on Sunday morning to unload the marching band trucks from their competition. The youth are to lead worship that Sunday. What do we do?
  • The church is in a growing community where it seems sports participation is replacing worship attendance on Sunday morning. The pastor wonders what to do about worship times and locations. She wondered, “Do we change worship times?” “Can we take worship to the soccer, baseball, and football fields?” “The world is changing and no one seems to be talking about it.”
  • A third leader noted, “We’re getting older.” “We don’t have the same number of people to lead the meal program. But we’ve done it for 45 years and it needs to continue.” “We need younger people.”
  • A fourth leader shared that participation and giving “tanked” in October. The leaders recognize a problem but are at a loss for what is happening. The church’s highest worship attendance since spring occurs one Sunday in November. “I’m afraid we’re not going to address the real source of what is happening because of one good Sunday.”

You can likely find yourself in one or more of these scenarios. They are common. In each scenario, the church leaders face a challenge…often challenges out of their control.

The first role of a leader is to identify the type of challenge you are facing. Often, we jump directly to a solution before we ask, “What type of challenge are we facing?” Can we be the first to say, “Don’t jump!” And please “don’t jump” directly to the most common response: tactical solutions.

What type of leadership is required?

Begin to address what is happening around you by answering the question, “What type of leadership challenge are we facing?” This is an essential first step. Without identifying the type of challenge you are facing, you may unknowingly create others challenges.

Let’s explore the three types of leadership challenges.

Tactical Leadership Challenge

The first type of challenge is tactical. Experts solve tactical challenges. If the toilet is leaking, most of us call a plumber. If your car stops working, you take it to a car mechanic.

When a task emerges that requires someone with knowledge, expertise, and/or skill in a specific area, it is likely a tactical challenge. Leaders respond by asking tactical questions. Here are a few great tactical questions.
• It’s time for the annual financial audit. Who has the financial skill to perform our audit?

• We need to paint our Sunday School classrooms over the break. Do you know someone with painting skills?

• Who knows how to network a building for wi-fi?

• We have a legal issue. Who knows a lawyer who can assist a church?

• We need to buy or sell a parcel of land. Who will we contact to buy/sell the property?

Notice that each question points to a specific skill, knowledge, or expertise. You know it is a tactical challenge when you need an expert to fix it.

Strategic Leadership Challenge

Strategic challenges relate to external changes and to the future. When leaders offer strategic direction, there is likely change that is needed. Change, as you might imagine, can bring about adaptive challenges (see below) as change is resisted.

At its best, strategic leadership is the art of leveraging strengths in order to minimize weaknesses and capitalize on opportunities. When you see external changes and/or direction for the future, you are likely encountering a strategic leadership challenge. It’s time to ask strategic questions. The questions that follow are oriented to the future and external changes:
• The population of our community has declined by 20% in 5 years. How can we adjust our ministry, budget, and leadership for this new reality?

• Where do we want to be in 3 years?

• What assets do we have to accomplish our dream?

• What are we doing well?

• Who do we need at the table for a visioning conversation?

• What path(s) can we take to accomplish our goals?

• What has changed since we last asked these questions?
Notice the future, external orientation to strategic questions.

Adaptive Leadership Challenge

Adaptive challenges relate to values, behaviors, and attitudes. Often, adaptive challenges are interconnected, involve competing values, and mutate over time.
• What do we see from our vantage point?

• What are you noticing about your current context of ministry?

• How do you express your purpose?

• In this time, how can we lead people to encounter the love of God in Jesus?

• What anxiety exists that we can anticipate and address?

• Is there “tension” that we need to be introducing? What disappointments are we encountering?

• How can we respond to what we are experiencing? What can we do to equip local church leaders for this work?

Adaptive leadership challenges are multi-faceted. The questions above are open-ended, seeking to draw out multiple perspectives and identify competing values. As you might guess, adaptive challenges are often found in the local church.There is good news! We can learn to be adaptive leaders by employing specific skills. Next week, we’ll share ten skills that can help you lead when encountering adaptive challenges.

Misapplication & Better Questions

In the scenarios introduced at the beginning of this article, each case presents an adaptive challenge. But many of the questions are tactical or strategic. Ask as many questions as you need to identify the type of challenge you are facing. Failure to do so will likely create more challenges.  It’s important to remember, offering a tactical or strategic solution to an adaptive challenge will result in more challenges.

Here are common tactical questions misapplied to adaptive challenges. Please, we beg you, don’t do this. 🙂 These questions often create more barriers, confusion, and/or a diversion.

Declining worship attendance leads you to ask,
• What program can we do to get more people in the church?
• What tools exist to get more people in worship?

A better question may be, “Are we willing to develop new relationships with new people?”

Another set of tactical questions misapplied to adaptive challenges revolve around “experts.” We can certainly learn from one another. But, the learning must be translated to our local contexts. Misapplied, the questions sound something like this:

• Who are the experts in a particular type of church, region, and/or size of church? What are they doing?
• Who theologically aligns with my views and can tell me what to do and how to do it?

A better set of questions may be, “What changes are we experiencing? What anxiety is it raising? What is God inviting us to do or be in this moment?”

Learning & Change

We have all attempted, at various times, to apply tactical and strategic solutions to the adaptive challenges of the local church. Let’s learn from our missteps and choose to behave differently in the future. Leading during times of change is not for the faint of heart. Leading with a true sense of the challenge you’re facing can guide us forward.

As a leader seeking to focus on our purpose of making disciples and transforming the world, embrace the task of answering the question, “What type of leadership challenge are we facing?” Then, with courage and grace, lead.

If I could give one quality gift to each of my family members and to all my friends, it would be the gift of gratitude. If I could have God do anything for you, I would ask that God make you grateful. Gratitude is the central virtue of the Christian faith. Over my 40+ years of ministry, I have never known a person who was grateful who was at the same time bitter, hurtful, mean, or vengeful.

One Returned in Gratitidue

In the story of the ten Lepers found in Luke 17:11-19, all ten are healed but only one, an outsider, returned in gratitude. Lepers, because of their condition, were required to stay outside the boundaries of the community. They were socially, religiously, and physically isolated from family, friends, church, and all that was important to them. They had no quality relationships outside of the leper community. Not only were they isolated, they had the responsibility of announcing their condition to everyone who came close. Then into their lives walked Jesus. They cried out, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.”

Jesus gave them the direction, to “Go show yourselves to the priest.” What I think is interesting here is Jesus gave each of them what was needed for healing and wholeness. His direction was an act of grace. It was on their way to see the priest that all of them were healed. All 10 were healed and given new lives. All ten received the same treatment, the same grace. But only one returned in gratitude.

I believe, without any stretching of the truth, that leprosy in the scripture is a symbol of our fallen human condition before God. We are sinners, disconnected from God, one another, and our communities. In our condition, we do not have the capacity within ourselves to reconnect with God and to one another. Our hope is that Jesus, the embodiment of God’s grace, comes into our lives. Just as with the lepers, our relationships are restored, God’s peace takes root deep within us, and we live new lives. New lives in Christ.

Are We Grateful?

In the story, ten lepers are healed but one returned in gratitude and praise.

I confess that I have always thought of the church as the community of the grateful. We gather in response to God’s grace to offer ourselves in gratitude for what God has done, not only for us, but for all people. We connect with people in our communities in response to God connecting with us in Jesus. Recently, I have wondered what it is like in the churches in the Capitol Area South District. All of us have been offered new life by God’s grace. My question is, “Are we grateful?”

There is a story told about Rudyard Kipling. He was being interviewed by a reporter who said, “Mr. Kipling, I just read that somebody calculated that the money you make for your words amounts to over $100 a word. The reporter reached into his pocket, pulled out a $100 bill, gave it to Kipling and said, “Here is a $100. Now give me one of our $100 words.” Kipling looked at the money. Put it in his pocket. Looked at the reporter and said, “Thanks!”

There were ten healed. Ten who returned to the world from which they had been isolated. Ten who had been invited by grace to a new life. But only 1 who returned as an expression of gratitude.

The words “grace” and “gratitude” have the same root in the Greek. In other words, if there is no awareness of grace, there is no gratitude. There is no gratitude without an awareness of grace. In the story, all received grace but only one returned with gratitude and praise.

I was just wondering…are you the one? Are you the one?