We all know the saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Effective pastors and leaders not only preach and teach the Bible well and shepherd those under their care; they also lead strategically. Strategic planning has become a significant part of church leadership, which is a good thing.
But events like a global pandemic have the tendency to upset the apple cart of our strategy. What do we do? Do we throw our hands up in despair, hold on as best we can till this is over, and then reinstitute our plans? I don't think so. What God is doing matters more than our plans.
The Question to Ask
The wrong question is to ask how to save our plan or keep our strategy intact. The better question is how should we respond in a way that keeps us moving forward on mission? How can we walk with God through the events of our time?
Here's what many were doing before the pandemic: We would develop a strategy and work feverishly to implement it. It's not unlike developing a business model or plan and implementing it. This approach became an important part of church life as part of what I call the “rise of the evangelical entrepreneur,” utilizing sound principles from outside the church to help the church fulfill her mission. People like Peter Drucker and others helped church leaders learn how to be effective in areas like strategy.
That's not a bad way of doing things in a normal context where life is somewhat predictable and we can plan confidently regarding the near future. We are not in that space right now. The pandemic has broken out with a ferocity that is causing massive suffering.
As much as we would like to imagine life without COVID-19 and a return to life just as it was before March 2020, that’s not where we are.
We might ask the question, “What can we do in our community outside our church building that is consistent, maybe not with our plan, but with our mission?” Our plans may have to change; this year they certainly have. But our mission never does.
Leading By Responding Well
We need to ask in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, how can we respond in a way consistent with our mission?
Think about Paul. He had a clear sense of his mission to take the gospel to the world. As he traveled on his missionary journeys, he planned to share the gospel. He didn't have a pre-packaged strategy he pulled out of a box each time he arrived at a city.
When he sailed to Cyprus, he proclaimed the gospel (Acts 13:5). He had to confront a false prophet to continue his mission. He preached at Pisidian Antioch to almost the whole city (Acts 13:44). But when the Jews caused a problem, he shifted his focus more to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).
He shared the gospel at Iconium and was almost stoned to death. He went to Lystra, healed a lame man, and proclaimed the gospel. This time he did get stoned. In Acts 16 he received the Macedonian call, then went west. He saw people converted in Philippi and got put in jail. What did he do? He proclaimed the gospel, and the jailor and his family got saved.
In Acts 17 we read how in Thessalonica he started from the Old Testament to proclaim the gospel to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, but in Athens he started from creation to preach the same Jesus to a Gentile audience.
In other words, Paul's ministry was guided by the mission of proclaiming the gospel, but most of his practice of ministry was in response to the circumstances in front of him. He had no vision of a beautiful church building for people to gather freely each week. He didn't need that to fulfill his mission, but he did need to be able to respond to whatever circumstances as he preached.
It's possible that our very good desire to implement a strategy that may be gospel-focused, missional, and useful may make us so intent on implementing the strategy that we miss what God is doing in our community.
A better approach to leadership would be to keep in mind our mission, our why, and in particular in unprecedented times like ours, to be responsive to what is in front of us in a way that is consistent with our strategy.
How do we respond?
We respond with hope.
People are desperate for hope, and hope is consistent with the gospel. We have the blessed hope. What if believers across social media platforms chose not to promote anxiety through posting politicized views nonstop and instead gave testimonies of loving their neighbors, doing good to others, and the hope we have in Christ. You can be the person who checks on others, who goes beyond the ordinary to show honor to others (Romans 12:10).
We respond with peace.
Demonstrate the peace of Christ. Paul told the Philippian church that by prayer we can experience peace that passes understanding. We don't help to show the way of peace by adding to the angst of this time. It could be that the best way we show our witness for Christ right now is to demonstrate peace in the midst of this storm. We show calm and trust in the Lord, even when a family member contracts the virus, even when some think it's overblown.
We respond with faith.
We can be those who show faith in God even when we can't be sure of the near future. We can show the faith of the early church: "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord" (Romans 14:8).