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Amid the Languish of Lebanon, Christians Lead with Resilience and Prayer

The conflict over daylight saving is the latest moment of chaos in a country where believers’ management principles—shared in a new book—challenge the regional authoritarian mindset.
Amid the Languish of Lebanon, Christians Lead with Resilience and Prayer
Image: Lucas Neves / AP
Beirut, Lebanon

For four days, Lebanon had two time zones.

Scheduled to switch for daylight savings on March 26, the nation’s Sunni and Shiite political heads postponed it until the end of Ramadan to ease Muslim fasting.

Christian politicians ignored it and carried on with the international standard. Airlines stuck to the government decision, throwing schedules into confusion. Some schools adjusted, others refused, and parents juggled clocks to show up at work on time.

Not that there is much work these days. The government eventually relented.

But these decisions were taken while Lebanon has no president, no prime minister, and a fractured parliament. The economy is in free fall, emigration is soaring, and justice still escapes the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

It is the last place one would look for lessons on leadership.

While laughing at the absurdity of the four days, Mike Bassous believes differently. Author of Leadership … in Crisis, published last July, he says Lebanon is uniquely situated to assist an entire region regularly subject to chaos. Surrounded by dictatorships, there are not many traditional examples to choose from.

“For books on leadership, the Arabic library of the Middle East is empty,” Bassous said. “But Lebanon can absorb the best of Western principles and contextualize them for the East.”

Such is the goal of his book, combining personal experience, the professional corpus, and Christian reflection. And as general secretary of the Lebanon Bible Society, he is offering his insight to Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox friends around the region—starting in his home country.

Last year, 44 Lebanese leaders gathered in Cyprus for a retreat from the crisis in their country.

“We need this in our churches—from A to Z, we need it all,” said Linda Macktaby, principal of Blessed, a school in Beirut for special-needs children. “We teach the youth the Bible, but not how to lead.”

One of Bassous’ key principles is confrontation.

Serving at Blessed since 2010, Macktaby resolved to address the Arab assumptions about leadership head on. Contrary to the “typical manipulators” who avoid conflict, promising solutions while buying time amid acolytes reluctant to make any decisions, she instead empowers her staff.

Each is given a “kingdom,” she called it, with authority to carry out assigned responsibilities. And if she interferes, her staff is instructed to confront her.

Since this is not an easy adjustment, Macktaby implemented an exercise where everyone stood in a circle to symbolize their equality, holding hands in prayer. And drawing names, each first took the baby step of publicly saying something good about the colleague picked.

The final test was criticism—herself included. No one knew how to do it, she said.

“They want to receive critique, just not from me,” said Macktaby. “It took two years for them to get it, but confrontation is necessary when you care.”

Once exemplary, the Orthodox Youth Movement (OYM) is trying again.

Formed in the 1940s, the social and humanitarian protest movement revived knowledge of the church fathers and devoted itself to poor villages and urban centers, clashing with many hitherto inactive priests and bishops. Surging in popularity after the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, leaders facilitated over 1,000 prayer and study groups that kept solidarity despite clerical opposition.

Over time, many OYM graduates entered the hierarchy, and relations improved—but at a cost. Fadi Nasr, elder statesman and spokesman for the youth movement, said the graduates lost their edge.

“We used to be very critical [of clerics], and now we are appeasing them,” he said. “We thought cooperation would increase our unity, but this spirit has been lost already.”

A top-down institutional mindset, Nasr found, curbed the dynamism of their charitable outreach. Amid overall Lebanese emigration their membership dwindled, though 300 groups remain active. To recover, they had to go it alone once more. But despite it all, they kept going.

It illustrates Bassous’ principle of stamina.

Following the port explosion, the OYM created the Beirut Community Center, designed it to be independent and professional, and appointed a younger member as director. But while these gains align with the OYM heritage, amid a new beginning, Nasr reflected on the opportunities lost.

“We needed more self-criticism,” he said, “and failed to turn it over to the next generation.”

Ramy El Khoury has already identified his successor.

A Greek Orthodox serving with World Vision since 2018, he said leadership development in Lebanon is rare, even in the NGO community. But as the economy tumbled, the traditional organizational expertise in development had to pivot on the fly to relief work.

And it needed to implement Bassous’ principle of agility.

But first El Khoury faced a challenge from his church, fielding countless calls from officials asking him to hire from within its patronage networks.

He is descended from seven generations of priests.

“We follow a process,” El Khoury said. “And when we sensed a crisis coming, we sought out training for our leadership team.”

In early 2020, Lebanon’s early currency devaluation amid the COVID-19 pandemic was already stretching the team. Specialists were brought in to coach four area managers and five program managers, who communicated the skills they learned to a total of 25 middle-management personnel. They extended it to 100 employees—just in time to cope with the Beirut explosion.

Proud of World Vision’s professionalism, El Khoury initially balked at one thing: weekly devotions. He came to the job with 15 years of experience and found no use for the institutional imperative. But when his national director told him it was “crucial,” he semi-reluctantly instituted it among his interfaith staff.

It changed his life—and leadership.

“We honor God in every activity we do,” El Khoury said. “We wouldn’t be as responsive without the hand of God.”

But God’s hand does not eliminate hard decisions. Sensing a coming crisis in summer 2019, the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD) emptied its accounts to pay salaries and settle debt. The intuition proved crucial by October, when banks froze dollar withdrawals, allowing only a trickle of local currency at now-devalued rates.

And then LSESD had to cut salaries in half. Running the umbrella organization for Baptist institutions that include a school, seminary, and publishing house, Nabil Costa had to draw deeply on 25 years of trust.

So doing, he proved Bassous’ principle of resilience.

“We communicated from the start about the difficult situation and spoke transparently,” said Costa. “We showed vulnerability as leaders and struggled along with them.”

Prayer was central to the common cause. Distributed meals also helped keep up morale. And key was a sliding compensation scale that weighted any extra funds received to go to lower-ranking employees.

Patiently enduring, LSESD was eventually able to restore all the salaries initially reduced. But it was hardly a happy ending, as the understandably self-centered focus on survival convinced Costa that his team needed an extra boost—for others.

With essential medicines disappearing from Lebanese pharmacies, LSESD designated funds for its staff to be able to help their needy friends and relatives.

“Blessing others helped us pass the test,” Costa said. “But with our social capital expended, how do we keep staff from emigrating now?”

United Nations data reports 24 per 1,000 Lebanese leaving, the highest tally in the world. Suffering a yearly net population loss since 2018, the rate has accelerated rapidly since the 2019 economic crisis.

Costa’s brother Nadim has found an answer.

“Thinking of ministry as a job will ruin the ministry,” said the younger Costa. “But when you see God at work, it becomes addictive—and you want more and more.”

It illustrates Bassous’ ultimate goal. After absorbing chaos and calming nerves, a leader must find a way to impart a hopeful vision for the future. For Costa, it was the thrill of a disciple-making movement.

NEO Leaders provides social services to vulnerable communities, such as refugees, the disabled, and the abused. The Near East Organization model is decentralized, working with over 300 local churches. But these networks have a clear purpose, he said: to lead people to a personal relationship with God and live it faithfully in the marketplace.

Relying on volunteer leaders, themselves scraping by, the outreach exploded.

“No one should respond more actively than the church,” Costa said. “We did not want to waste the crisis.”

And neither did his team. Of 18 local full-time employees, only one left the country. But this was possible in part since the vision was also shared by over 150 staff in NEO Leaders’ 20 countries of service, who each donated a month of their salary to their hard-hit colleagues in Lebanon.

Yet also helpful is Costa’s own practice.

Devotional, he has all personnel pray before serving. Motivational, he bucks cultural norms by yielding the leadership stage to subordinates. And confrontational, he once had to remove a key staff member from service—but kept the man on full salary for three months, walking with him until he could be restored.

The staffer’s loyalty—and devotion to Christ—are now sky high.

“Model Jesus to people,” Costa said, “and they will want to become like him.”

For Bassous, Christian leaders already have the right starting point.

Jesus’ servant nature is an antidote to the authoritarian spirit. At the same time, many of the Lebanese reflected that the lessons in Bassous’ training—drawn largely from Western principles—added a further antidote to their cultural leadership foibles.

Seminars are scheduled next for Iraqis and Jordanians.

“Jesus’ movement grew stronger when he left, and top CEOs stay put for only a few years,” said Bassous. “Let us develop our leaders and not reinvent the wheel.”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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