What should healthy Christian leadership look like post-pandemic?
This was the parting question I faced as I hopped on my bike following a Mind and Soul Foundation training afternoon recently. It stopped me in my tracks because it was such a good articulation of something that I hadn’t explicitly discussed in my talk, and yet was very much in its implications.
I had been reflecting on the ‘Phases of Collective Trauma Response’; Impact, Heroic, Disillusionment, Recovery and Wiser Living. My primary argument being that, unlike single event traumas, Covid was creating micro-cycles of the first three, basically leaving us disillusioned but not able to move into recovery, let alone wisdom.
The landscape that we currently inhabit is unlike anything we have experienced before and therefore makes leadership modelling very difficult. However, as Luminex Group suggests, “The toxic sludge of cynicism forms around the nucleus of disillusionment.”
After three lockdowns and a wholesale change of life experience over the last year it is no wonder that leaders are feeling disillusioned. This invariably leads to a form of cynicism that works as a defence mechanism, whereby we question goodness and hope in everything as a way of avoiding the pain of further disappointment. Biblically speaking, cynicism is the sickness of disappointment: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ Proverbs 13:12.
Coaching leaders really helps me get a window on a broad cross section of mindsets. Leaders (including myself) are deeply tired and overextended to a level that many of us have never known before. Our natural buoyancy and resilience is at a low ebb and the result is that we are less able to appraise or frame more difficult emotions. . What I see in this moment is a powerful interplay between cynicism, fear and anger. Specifically, it is the interplay between our own pandemic disillusionment, a fear of the erosion of pre-pandemic ministries and a frustration at the natural cynicism of others.
It may be helpful to unmask 3 leader counter-reactions to pandemic cynicism. In this way we can identify how our leadership decisions that flow out of the ‘cynicism/fear/anger’ matrix are unlikely to produce good fruit:
I am reminded of the story Jesus tells in Luke 10:30 where the Priest and Levite who, despite seeing a body on the floor, rushed away. I have always wondered what they were rushing towards. Whilst we can only speculate, we know that it was something more ‘important’ than attending to a wounded man.
Carlin said, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” Cynicism often drives us away from making the right decisions for the sake of our idealised dreams. The pandemic and its aftermath becomes a body on the floor; a diversion from our ‘true calling’.
Our impatience to realise what we had dreamed for drives us away from what God has called us towards. In this instance it would mean effectively erasing the past 18 months from memory, vision and significance. It becomes simply a frustrating delay to the agendas that we are really called to achieve.
Nearly every major event of human suffering is levered to a degree by political agenda. It is a period during which leaders release bad news stories, aware that the distraction of suffering will lighten the scrutiny they face. It is also a time when unscrupulous governments exact malign agendas that would otherwise face international condemnation. The World Economic Forum comments, “Deepening human misery comes not only from more war and violence. It also comes from the manner in which many actors – whether leaders, governments or non-state armed groups – are pursuing military and political objectives. Too often these actors gain from human deprivation.”
Those of us called to Christian leadership have to be aware of the temptation to use the ‘convenience of suffering’. There is in my estimation a huge difference between learning from a disaster and using a disaster. Sadly, I believe that a zeal for a redemption story for our church lives can lead us to misjudge this tension. Our cynicism can lead us to say, ‘I am going to use this pandemic to get x, y or z.’ Instrumentalization can seem virtuous in the moment, but it never is. We must never justify using people’s suffering as a means of achieving the ‘greater good’. To do so is to jeopardise the very essence of that goodness.
As we have discussed, cynicism breeds suspicion, fear and aggression. After a period of extreme dislocation there can be a suspicion that, “No one is going to come back”. This is a fear felt particularly strongly by those in Christian leadership. It can also be infused with generalisations about people’s mental health or emotional state. “Everyone is going to be traumatised/depressed/disillusioned…”
These negative and unsubstantiated assumptions can drive us to corralling, where re-gathering or grouping is an emotionally or spiritually aggressive activity. Again, the balance between healthy Christian exhortation and corralling is a delicate one to determine externally. However, it is the responsibility of every leader to discern this within themselves, and is most helped by being honest about one’s own cynicism, vulnerability and fear.
The reality is that the world has fundamentally changed over the last 18 months and we need to give up notions about going back. Both worry and curiosity are Cognitive Elaborative Processes, but one will take you backwards and one will take you forwards. We need leadership that is curious about what the Lord is doing, not leadership which is cynical to the disappointment we may feel about unrealised dreams.
Much is being asked of us at this moment in history. Not just our ability to guide Christian people through a global pandemic, but also to guide them out of it. I believe that this is a critical moment for us and one that finds us vulnerable, both through our exhaustion and cynicism. I believe that ‘how we lead’ in this moment is far more important than ‘where we lead’. Ultimately, we have to trust God with the where, it is His church after all. What we need to take responsibility for is tending the sheep, who are currently vulnerable too and in need of space to grieve, breathe and reflect.