Effective leaders must not only be agile in navigating a changing context, but they must be anticipatory as well, perceiving what’s ahead before it is clearly manifested.
Business strategist Daniel Burrus makes this point in a recent blog post and suggests that such leaders must create change and drive disruption “from the inside out rather than being disrupted from the outside in.”
Ministry leaders are not very good at this approach in my experience.
We tend to be reactive rather than proactive; we want to prevent any disruption in churches and not-for-profit organizations because it is hard to control. The status quo always appears safe until it is no longer.
Burrus suggests three principles for anticipatory leadership, which led me to wonder this: How might these apply in a religious setting?
First, make the future more visible by identifying the changes that are common and those that are uncommon.
Burrus states that there are two types of change—cyclical change and linear change—and there are clear cycles of both types even in church life.
We can expect giving to pick up at the end of the calendar year as folks “catch up” on their tax-deductible contributions; we can also expect rather clear attendance trends based on holidays, school vacations and other calendared events. We can plan for those upturns and downturns.
Linear changes, however, are those events, processes or discoveries that change the playing field.
Digital communications is one of those. Once you launch a church website, for example, you will not go back and will be required to continue to improve it if you want people to access it.
Because cyclical and linear changes require different responses, it is important for leaders to ask “What types of change are we addressing in our church?”
Second, Burrus urges leaders to “identify the Hard Trends—the trends that will happen—and ask yourself, ‘What are the disruptions on the horizon?'”
“What are the changes on the horizon that the church must anticipate?” should be a continual source of reflection for congregational leadership.
The choice is to sit back and wait to see what happens or be perceptive and become what Burrus calls “preactive,” taking positive action before something happens.
For example, if property around your church is being purchased by a real estate development company, what does that mean?
What are they planning to build: commercial buildings, homes for seniors or condos for professional young adults?
These observations and considerations may help your church to decide what your ministry emphases will be in the coming years, assess your capabilities and decide if the Spirit of God is leading you to begin new types of ministry for the area.
Third, Burrus suggests, “look outside your industry for the solutions you need.”
This involves asking questions such as: How are the merchants in your area adapting to the changes in the neighborhood? How is the city government or educational institutions addressing change? Are there technological or logistical approaches that might help us to do more with the resources we have?
Although we are involved in building up the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot by talking with and observing people in other areas of life.
I am convinced that many dying churches and not-for-profit organizations could have survived and prospered in a changed environment if they had been more “preactive” in the ways that Burrus outlines.
Leadership to do this, however, is never easy.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, BarnabasFile, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter: @ircel.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.