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COVID-19 era leadership

October 13, 2021

In his article, “The Personal Qualities of Leaders during the COVID-19 Era,” Terrence MacTaggart cites interview findings highlighting the necessary leadership qualities of college and university presidents. Seven vital traits were identified: Grit, Enterprise Perspective, Pragmatism, Social Intelligence, Imagination, Team Leadership, and Integrity. Specifically, these times require a president who has the passion and perseverance for the work; can understand and manage the business analytics of their enterprise; and can pragmatically adjust to changing circumstances. Additionally, presidents must be able to interpret the attitudes of others in a social and political context; balance the demands of the moment with possible future alternatives; develop teams that are diverse, assertive, and imaginative; and demonstrate the will to do the right thing even when difficult. Effective leaders exhibit these traits given the uncertainties of our COVID-19 era. It is an era influenced by the lingering nature of the pandemic with proliferating variants, where second and third order effects remain unknown. Recognizing the disruption that will continue for the foreseeable future in this era, the combination of these personal qualities is particularly needed.

As I read these recommendations, I considered pastoral ministry because the church has been significantly affected by the lingering impacts of COVID-19. While society has been unable to return to pre-pandemic norms due to vaccine hesitancy and variant strand contagion, many churches never reopened to Sunday worship. Those that did may be rethinking their decisions given the Delta variant. Then questions arise regarding mask mandates and whether people will feel comfortable to gather. But such questions overshadow looming issues that impacted churches prior to the pandemic—chiefly decline and aging. In this context, pastors may need to exhibit similar traits as academic leaders.

Pastors need grit, that passion and perseverance to do the hard work during challenging times. Many pastors saw the first months of the pandemic as a welcomed break. It was unsafe to gather, and our physical edifices were closed to the public. That meant no in-person counseling sessions, Bible study, or committee meetings. All that was necessary was to deliver a sermon perhaps via Zoom or Facebook Live. That worked for the first months. But as the pandemic continued, churches had to up their game, calling for gritty pastoral leadership. If you as a pastor are still believing that this is a time of ease, you need to question your grit. The word of God must go forth even when the normal channels have been thwarted. Grit requires that we press toward the high calling with great determination to meet the church’s goals.

Pastors need an enterprise perspective. Like the academy, the church can claim that we are not businesses, but we need to function like businesses to succeed. For example, our churches quickly realized that in this pandemic, mechanisms were needed to receive offerings. In response, churches whose offerings primarily came from congregational plate passing immediately found themselves creating online giving accounts or instructing members how to use banking bill pay functions. Such is the enterprise perspective in action. We recognized the business need and created ways for people to give.

The church has been significantly affected by the lingering impacts of COVID-19. The COVID era and its related impacts are here to stay. We would do well as pastors to understand how we can be most effective as we lead.

Now, will pastoral leaders continue to seek adaptive ways to function in these uncertain times? A business perspective requires us to innovate to ensure that the ministry goes forward, and it is about more than electronic giving. Every aspect of ministry should be operational in virtual, in-person, or hybrid forms. Use funding to install air purification systems so that it is possible to come together in person. Invest in audio and video equipment and hire sound technicians to ensure that livestreamed services are excellent and of high quality. Offer virtual Bible studies and prayer gatherings. Find new and innovative ways to do ministry.

But do ministry with an eye toward pragmatism. Your fifty-person church may not be able to host the livestream worship of the 2000-member megachurch, but that should not stop the forward progression of good ideas. MacTaggart writes that pragmatic leaders “adjust quickly to changing circumstances without grieving over desirable options that are no longer possible.”

The additional characteristics are not less important but work together in tandem. Social intelligence is needed to understand behavior and attitudes given the political and social context. Contextual understanding enables leaders to exercise imagination. Pastors will know how far to stretch their congregations toward new ideas and insights based on the context and will be able to balance receptivity for change when it comes to casting a vision for the future. Then pastors need to gather leaders from diverse backgrounds and experiences to challenge the status quo. Finally, pastors need integrity, not just to do the right thing, but also to admit what they do not know and demonstrate the willingness to make space for the leadership of others especially when their experiences and leadership does not meet the demands of the day.

How does your pastoral leadership rate? MacTaggart suggests that leaders should undergo leadership assessment and development to improve. Seventy percent of current academic executives can benefit from leadership development, he says. What might that number be for pastors? Do we engage coaches to help us improve or do we believe ourselves beyond such supports? We did not learn in seminary how to manage the challenges that confront us now in this COVID-19 era. Arguably, we did not learn how to manage confronting challenges prior to COVID, so the need for development is even more urgent. The COVID era and its related impacts are here to stay. We would do well as pastors to understand how we can be most effective as we lead.

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is Dean of the Business School of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a premiere Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) based institution that develops technically minded students into adaptive leaders who use business acumen and technology to innovate, creating sustainable solutions that deliver globally responsible impact. Her book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership,” is available through Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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