Tag Archive for: adaptive challenge

The past two years have offered each of us, as leaders, numerous learning opportunities. A variety of situations and circumstances have required changes in how we work and how we communicate with those entrusted to our care. The shifts are subtle but are necessary for becoming the leaders needed for this time. Whether it is back in the office, in the coffee shop, at the kitchen table, or in person in the meeting room, these shifts will help you navigate the leadership challenges of today.  

Three of these shifts are: 

  • Rhetoric to Relationships  
  • Self-Awareness to Self-Direction  
  • Time Management to Time Value  

Rhetoric to Relationships

Courageous leaders are effective communicators, but leadership is deeper than words. Courageous leadership transforms rhetoric into relationships. When people say, “we need to improve our communication” or “you are not communicating with us,” they are saying “we feel disconnected and not a part of things.” When they say, “You don’t know who we are” or “we don’t know who you are,” they are saying, “we are not connected, and we don’t trust you.” 

The number one characteristic people want in their leader is trust… People want more than rhetoric. They want a relationship. 

To continue this conversation of Rhetoric to Relationships, explore the following:

Self-Awareness to Self-Direction 

Courageous leaders have the understanding and ability to manage their own thoughts and emotions when responding to individuals and to unwanted situations. There is a difference between reacting emotionally and responding neutrally. Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of and control your own emotions. We might call it emotional intelligence. 

The shift is from being only aware of your thoughts and emotions to directing your behavior willingly with curiosity and kindness. Your response does not invalidate or deny your emotions but trusts them as a way of learning about yourself and how to use them in positive and productive ways. 

So, as you become more aware of your feelings, you know more how to navigate through them. How do we do this? For more on shifting from self-awareness to self-direction go to www.transformingmission.org click Blog and search 3 Leadership Shifts for Today.

Explore the following: 

Time Management to Time Value

Courageous leaders not only manage their own time and value the time of others, but they know the significance of the time they have been given to relate to and lead others. 

Your workdays have changed. Your context for leading is changing. So, it is necessary to shift from managing your time to designing your time around how you work, based on what you are working on and with whom you are working.  

For more on Shifting from Time Management to Time Value go to www.transformingmission.org click Blog and search 3 Leadership Shifts for Today. You will also want to check out Deep Change or Slow Death 

Shifting to Relationships

There is never enough time in the day. But, since we all get the same 24 hours, why is it that some people achieve so much more with their time than others? The answer lies in shifting from activities to relationships. Being busy is different from being effective. It isn’t even working smarter instead of harder. It is in using your time to develop relationships with care and compassion. People want a leader who they can trust, a leader who has time for them, a leader of integrity and authenticity. Remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Other resources which are helpful in assisting you in becoming a more effective leader can be found on LeaderCast. Learn more here on the theme of Courageous Leadership. 

Take time to listen to the LeaderCast episodes and read the blogs listed above. You can only improve your leadership skills as you learn to adapt to the changing landscape and lead through challenging times 

5 Things to Keep in Mind

As you explore these resources, keep in mind the relational skills that grow from these characteristics. As you listen and reflect upon the resources above, here are five things to keep in mind. 

  1. Listen Carefully – Give your full attention and reflect thoughtfully. Use empathy to connect more authentically with others.
  2. Ask Questions – Model the behavior of being curious and encourage others to do the same.
  3. Stay True to Your Values – Model integrity and authenticity.
  4. Communicate Clearly – Remember that clear is kind. Be clear in your statements and be aware of how you are perceived in what you say and do.
  5. Be Generous – Provide useful and genuine feedback to those entrusted to your care. Give them the benefit of your best thoughts and responses and be open to receiving feedback.  

This week, what one shift will you make in becoming the leader needed for this time in which you lead? 

Who you are is how you lead. 

How are you feeling this week? You have done well in adapting to the abrupt changes brought about by the pandemic. You have discovered new ways of communicating and connecting. Just with regular use, you are perfecting the use of technology as you step into what is being called “a new normal.” As you look at the calendar, it looks like there are just a few more days to go. 

You and I can adapt to just about any situation for a short period of time.  You “have to do what you have to do.”  But this virus does not pay attention to the calendar. Have you considered that this pandemic will have you living differently for an extended period of time? Do you have a backup plan? 

Always Have a Backup Plan

I have a friend who enjoys hiking and backpacking.  When he was younger, he hiked parts of the Appalachian trail, spending several days and nights at a time alone in, what I call, the wilderness. In a recent conversation, he told me some of the best advice he received regarding hiking and backpacking comes from an older hiker who said, “Always have a backup plan.” The older hiker talked about having a mindset that could get him through if things happened in the wilderness that was unexpected. The older hiker asked, “What if you had to be out there for an extended period of time?   

My friend took the hiker’s advice to heart. He formulated an outline, a backup plan, for such situations. In our conversation, he told me the outline had been helpful both practically and spiritually in the midst of our current situation.  

Wilderness Plans

This pandemic is our wilderness.  We are going to be in this wilderness period longer than what we have planned. What is your backup plan? Here is what my friend shared with me. 


If unexpected circumstances come your way, you need to adapt quickly. It is not easy, but it is needed. Accept the reality of your situation and move from that point. Simply bemoaning the situation does nothing. Both trusting God to help you see things as they are and leaning on God for strength and direction are key.  

Again, you have done well in adapting to the changes. The situation has called for living and leading differently and you have risen to meet the challenges by adapting. 


Knowing that the situation might continue longer than expected, you adopt a different way of living and approach each day for what it has to offer. Because your original situation has changed, different practices, perspectives, and principles will be called for. The sooner you adopt a new way of living, the sooner your mind, body, and spirit can move forward. Trusting God to show you the path and trusting what you are learning is essential in moving forward

Now is the time to adopt new procedures and to develop different systems to carry you through to the end of the pandemic.  What have you been doing that you need to continue?  Then consider, what have you put on hold that now needs to be implemented in a different way? What new practices, perspectives, and principles need to be communicated? The time has come to adopt new ways of living and leading. 


Then you work at becoming adept or skilled at living and leading in and through these changes. The new practices, perspectives, and principles are not temporary things to be tolerated. You must begin by developing abilities to function and live well under new conditions. Use the new situation and circumstance to grow in new ways. Again, you are trusting God to lead you as you are shaped and molded by God’s love in relationship to the people entrusted to your care.    

I know this pandemic is not a backpacking trip. Even as much as I wish it was, the reality is we are in this wilderness for an extended period of time. This perspective of adapt, adopt, and adept can assist you spiritually, physically, and mentally during these difficult days. 

Pause to Reflect

Take a moment now to reflect and then act on the following:

  1. Make a list of what you have adapted over the past two months.  Include how you have been living, working, leading, worshipping, etc. Once you have made your list, give God thanks for the ability to adapt during a difficult situation.
  2. Now make a list of the practices, procedures, and principles that you think, and feel are the things you need to adopt or incorporate into your living and leading for an extended period of time. Consider how you are connecting and communicating with family, friends, and the people entrusted to your care. What needs to be adopted for worship, bible study, and pastoral care? Once you have made your list, ask God to give you insight and wisdom to lead in through this crisis.
  3. Now make a list of what skills you need to learn and to sharpen to live and lead through this time of crisis. You know what you know and what you need to learn. Model for the people around you ways in which you are stepping into a new reality. Ask God to give your wisdom and strength for stepping out and learning new ways.
  4. What one behavior will you focus upon changing or sharpening this week? When you have decided, call a trusted friend or colleague to journey with you as you become more adept at leading during this time.  You were created to lead during this time.  You are not here by accident.  Now is the time to step up and be the leader God has created you to be.  What one behavior will you focus upon this week? 

You and I can adapt to just about any situation for a short period of time.  Knowing our current situation, the time has come to meet the challenges of living and leading differently for an extended period of time. Wherever this journey leads, trust God and lean into God’s new future. God has called and equipped you for this time. So, what is your backup plan? 


Last week I shared that the first task of a leader is to identify the type of leadership challenge you are facing. We also introduced the idea that leaders attempt to address an adaptive issue with a tactical solution, leading to more challenges. Today, we’re exploring ten adaptive leadership skills you can learn, practice, and engage when you identify an adaptive challenge.

What leadership skills do you need to navigate an adaptive challenge in your local context?

Before I answer that question, let’s go to a familiar place…

You gather with other leaders around a meeting table. You are facing a decision. Together, you come face to face with the fact that something needs to change. And then someone speaks a familiar phrase. It’s a phrase that can become an opportunity for you as a leader. What’s the phrase?

“Things aren’t like they used to be.”

There are many variations of this phrase.

We’ve all said it at some point. I confess there are times I find myself irritated by that phrase. I know in the depths of my soul, “Get over it” is a less than gracious reply. Responding with a one-word question, “So?” doesn’t help move us forward. “That doesn’t help us” is a little too obvious. “Moving on…” dismisses the person who offered a truthful statement of current reality. But, the group is unsure what to do.

Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic to make a point. As a leader, it’s my place to help guide the conversation toward decision-making.

So what is a leader to do?

Seeing a New Way Forward

I’ve learned several skills that help me look at the conversation in a different way. Today, I see the statement “things are not like they used to be” as an opportunity. What’s the opportunity? To invite conversation about the competing values at play. Because if there are competing values, it’s likely I’ve spotted an adaptive challenge.

As you might remember from our previous post, the first task of a leader is to identify the type of challenge you are facing. If it’s an adaptive challenge, there are different skills needed to navigate a way forward. Each skill is isolated for clarity. You’ll use several at a time.

10 Adaptive Leadership Skills

Skill 1: Observing

Observing involves getting on the “balcony” and take a “higher” view of what is happening. This could be the most important skill of leadership. Look down on the “dance floor” and identify patterns. Here are examples of a few patterns we’ve noticed:

  • In 2014, it took an average of 26 worshippers to yield one new profession of faith in the West Ohio Conference
  • Since 2002, the UMC worship attendance decreased annually. Worship attendance decreased between 53,200 – 75,600 every year.
  • Rhetoric and actions around us are increasingly hateful, hurtful, and extreme
  • Division among theological perspectives, political ideologies, and social outlook continues to grow
  • We increasingly talk about the past and “the glory days.” We celebrate anniversaries of buildings and do not celebrate as many baptisms.

Skill 2: Identifying the competing values within an adaptive challenge

When there are multiple perspectives, you’ll likely find competing values. Use this leadership skill when you sense the verbal and non-verbal responses to an issue are conflicting, emotional, and/or extreme. It’s likely you’ve spotted competing values. In the example above, change draws out competing values. Here are examples of the competing values we see around us.

  • Guaranteed appointments AND pastoral accountability
  • Increasing rate of the boomer generation retiring from pastoral ministry AND fewer Gen X and Millennial Pastors
  • Personal needs, wants, and desires guiding choices AND proclaiming the kingdom of God
  • Kingdom priorities AND local church maintenance
  • Christendom mindset AND a post-Christian reality
  • Contextual ministry AND personal preferences
  • History/memories AND a future with hope

Skill 3: Interpreting

Listed below are two interpretations we hear, followed by an interpretation of reality that points to our purpose as a church. Pastors, you do this every week in preaching a sermon on Scripture. An ancient message is brought forward to the present time. This is what interpreting is about: translating information for understanding.

  • We’re telling ourselves a story that is division is near
  • The story we’re telling ourselves is there is not enough
  • The story we need to tell is about the love of God we know in Jesus Christ who has provided abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Skill 4: Intervening

Intervening is about taking action. Based on a hypothesis of what’s happening, lead. Intervening happens one step at a time. Interventions are also experiments. Don’t put more weight (or less) on the intervention than is necessary. You’re offering the best current guess to go forward. You’ll want to continue to observe, identify, and interpret. Doing so will mean continuing to collect “data” in all its forms. Here are a few examples of intervening:

  • Fewer middle school youth are attending Sunday School in the fall. You add a short-term, mid-week small group to explore a new time to focus on spiritual growth.
  • There are multiple deaths in a short period. You call on a care team to offer a monthly support group for grieving family members.
  • Several businesses have closed in a short period of time in your neighborhood/city. You explore with other leaders how to respond with short-term assistance and long-term community development.

Skill 5: Directing the focus.

This leadership skill is about focusing on the purpose (of the church, a ministry, and/or event). If our overarching purpose is to make disciples and transform the world, let’s keep our focus there. Ideas will come and go. Directing the focus is not about rigid adherence to longstanding traditions. It is about asking how you will live into the purpose in this time and place.

When it’s time for a new ministry experiment, start with the purpose. Then, “date” the ideas. Do not get married to the ideas when it first appears. We cannot be wedded to where you think we will end up. We must focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about directing the focus:

  • What is our purpose for this ministry?
  • Is division, empathy, and/or nostalgia preventing us from focusing on our purpose?
  • Will we claim the reality of changing people and financial resources? Then, will we lead toward new ways of being in ministry?
  • Will the mission guide our focus and serve as a filter for what we do?

Skill 6: Regulating the stress.

You might think of this leadership skill as “regulating the temperature” in the room. This is where you’ll need to turn up or turn down the “heat” in your midst. If the stress level is getting high and impairing decision making, it may be time to lower the stress. If the anxiety among the leaders in the church is invisible, you may need to introduce tension/anxiety/stress to lead change. But first, you must regulate your own stress. Here are a few ideas to explore this leadership skill:

  • Leaders add anxiety to a team ONLY for the purpose of movement. Do not add anxiety when it reflects your emotional state.
  • Explore how the competing values listed above increase your anxiety. What will you do to manage the anxiety?
  • What tension/stress/anxiety needs to be introduced to elicit action?

Skill 7: (re)Framing the issue

If you’ve ever cropped a picture on your cell phone or with an application on your computer, you have reframed a picture. This skill is about looking at an issue in a new way. It involves naming the competing values so they can be explored.

For example, the Gap Assesment we use with churches involves rating the personal importance and congregational effectiveness of 25 items. One of the items relates to integrity in thought, word and action. Often, there is a large gap between how important integrity is to individuals (very important) and the effectiveness of the congregation (ineffective). When confronted with the reality that they are the church and the effectiveness of the church depends on their personal integrity, the conversation shifts. The conversation was reframed for understanding and engagement, moving leaders beyond “us/them” mentality.

Skill 8: Giving back the work

This leadership skill focuses on the “owner” of a leadership challenge. Pastors and chairpersons do not have to own the entirety of an adaptive challenge. Giving back the work invites participation. It also invites other people to own the challenge you are facing. Here are three ways you can give back the work:

  • Identify 2-3 people who can complete a task. Ask them to work together to bring it to completion.
  • Contact a homebound person to make phone calls to 5-6 people for an upcoming ministry.
  • Divide the responsibilities for hosting an event between 3-4 people.

Skill 9: Tolerating ambiguity

Get comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know. Then clearly communicate it. Don’t confuse hearsay with facts. We do not know what 2020 will bring. But the reality is we do not know what tomorrow will bring either!  We do know and believe in the God we know in Jesus. Here are a few reminders about the ambiguity we live with:

  • We do not know everything that is happening in the lives of the people in our church
  • You cannot predict local, national, or world events that can impact ministry
  • We can stand firmly with our mission and not be anxious or afraid of what will come

Skill 10: Providing a safe environment

This leadership skill focuses on the culture of the local church. The customs and unspoken expectations of a group often create a safe or unsafe environment. No, you can’t simply state “this is a safe environment” and it becomes so. Integrity in words and action are important in creating safe environments.

  • Ask yourself, “Is there space for people to risk, share, and be authentic?” Now ask other people. If anyone says “no” there is work to do.
  • Safety unfolds on emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical levels. All four are important.
  • Do you regularly experiment with new ideas, concepts, and challenges? Some experiments will fail. Failure can be a learning tool. When it is, it’s likely you’re creating a safe environment.
  • How do you provide ongoing feedback? Natural, ongoing feedback that is given and received with grace is a sign of a safe environment. Again, you can’t declare this. Ask and listen to how feedback is received.

Every day is an opportunity for you to lead. There are adaptive challenges in every local church. Practicing the above leadership skills will help you be and become a more effective leader.

Do not attempt to work all the leadership skills for every adaptive challenge you face. Instead, ask the question, “What skill do I need to practice in this leadership moment?”

In Christ,

Sara Thomas



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.


The Task of a Leader

If the first task of a leader is to name current reality, what is your current reality?

Read more