“I just don’t know what to do,” the pastor said several months ago. “Everything has changed, and I think I’m getting too old for this. Half of my congregation understands the need to worship online, but the other half is abusive toward me. I am choosing to follow the science by social distancing, wearing face masks in public, and not conducting meetings in person. I am preparing sermons to deliver by video every week for those who choose to be together in the sanctuary, and I attend meetings by Zoom or conference calls. It grieves me, however, when I am bullied and even threatened because I am following the conference COVID guidelines.”
How do you and I lead through this incredible time when we have to learn something new every day? How do we care for our congregations when some dismiss the science and others insist on following precautions? How can we be resilient and thrive in the midst of constant change?
In November 2020, Tod Bolsinger published a book called Tempered Resilience; How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change. Some of you may know Bolsinger as the author of the 2018 book, Canoeing the Mountains; Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.
The premise of Tempered Resilience is that in order to lead our churches to a new place during the Pandemic, we need to lean into the Holy Spirit, learn how to absorb disturbance, and deepen our capacity for spiritual growth and resilience. In the process, we create a new normal for rebuilding community, reaching out to our neighbors, and embodying justice, mercy, kindness, and generosity. (Click here to listen to a podcast with Tod Bolsinger about resilient leadership.)
Dr. Bolsinger uses the image of a blacksmith to describe the kind of change that is needed right now. Participating in an urban blacksmithing class in Los Angeles, Bolsinger learned how raw materials can be turned into something useful and beautiful. How? By fire! If you want to transform steel into a tool, it first has to be broken down and become molten and oozing. Only through heat, tempering, and shaping will beauty emerge.
Any time deep change is required, we tend to resist. However, discerning when to stay in the fire and keep on keeping on is essential for growth to occur. Even though it may feel as if we are getting burned up, we are experiencing tempered resilience. Bolsinger says, “Resilience is not about becoming smarter or tougher; it’s about becoming stronger and more flexible. It’s about becoming tempered.” To temper “means both to make stronger and more flexible.”
Retired United Methodist Bishop Janice Riggle Huie writes in her December 2020 paper, Reservoirs of Resistance in Uncertain Times; Reflections on Hope, Courage, and Purpose, “Ecologists define resilience as the capacity of a system or enterprise to absorb disturbance and reorganize so that it retains its core purpose and identity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”
Leaders who can persevere under trial are teachable, attuned, adaptable, tenacious, empathetic, and humble. The most challenging aspect of leading change, however, is facing our own vulnerability through the heat of self-reflection. We often try to protect ourselves from vulnerability because it requires the kind of deeply personal and organizational change that feels as if we ourselves are breaking down and losing our bearings. Discerning that we need to stay in the fire in the midst of the resistance of others is critical, for leaders are formed in these crisis moments.
In fact, the heat may be at the heart of vulnerable self-reflection. The very best leaders have to allow themselves to move in and out of the heat in order to bring about transformative change. That’s called tempering. As President Harry Truman put it so well, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He realized that our best selves are forged as we are tested in the fire.
I believe that two critical questions need to be asked. How can we personally stay deeply and creatively engaged with our faith communities, embodying resiliency and courage as God calls us to imagine and create a new normal? Bishop Huie writes, “For people of faith to thrive in such a time and continue to build toward the world that God imagines, I believe we will need to drink deeply from reservoirs of the Spirit, particularly the dimensions of hope, purpose and courage…”
“In such disordered times, we need substantial reservoirs of resilience so that, in drinking deeply from those waters, this season might be not only a time of loss but also a time of spiritual deepening and new life. In another period of profound change, the Apostle Paul writes, ‘All creation is groaning as if in childbirth.’ (Romans 8: 22-23) Even as we groan and grieve, people of faith intuitively sense that we also inhabit a pregnant season, ripe with amazing possibilities and new birth.”
The second question is yet more vital. How might you help lead your congregation to live out “tempered resilience” during this liminal time? Some congregations have the capacity to deepen and grow and will emerge from the Pandemic stronger and more purposeful. Some will become clearer about their purpose, reach out to their neighbors, and rebuild their communities. Others will focus on ministries of justice, mercy, and generosity. Still, others may regretfully choose to close and leave a legacy by offering their land to become green space or affordable housing. But they all need to be led to these understandings.
Can you catch a vision for a new heaven and earth, where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”? (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)
- How will you become a more tempered and resilient leader with the capacity to maintain core purpose and integrity in the midst of a disordered and changing world?
- Will you dare to make the movement from expert to a vulnerable leader by embracing the spiritual formation of the forge?
- Do you have the resilience to engage the resistance of others and become more attuned to the voice of the Spirit?
- How might you lead your congregation to understand that they, too, are being tested, purified, and molded through the fire of this time?
- In times of extreme change, failure, and even destruction, people of faith need additional spiritual disciplines to deepen their reservoir of faith, hope, and love. What practices will ground you in clarity of purpose and courage in order to increase your capacity for resilience?
- What new visions will you see of a world that God already imagines?
How is God calling you and me to a tempered resilience?
 Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience; How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change, Intervarsity Press (Kindle Edition), p. 4.