How Not to Waste a Crisis–Even When You are Exhausted

By Tod Bolsinger

September 16, 2020

De Pree Journal

“If I could retire today, I would,” a pastor told his executive coach recently. But he can’t retire and he wonders how he is going to make it through this most unprecedented moment.

As the global pandemic and the economic recession stretch from the summer into the fall—with reports in many circles being that quarantining, social distancing, economic shut down and mask-wearing could extend for another year, it is becoming clear that a deep weariness and disillusionment is being felt by many.

“Exhausted and exasperated” is how the Washington Post describe the state of our nation in a recent article, with those in leadership feeling it even more as the reality of “leadership burnout” are becoming more apparent every day. Church leaders report “soaring” levels of stress as struggling to adapt to new technology and dealing with congregations that are experiencing high levels of conflict and vitriol have taken their toll.

It’s tempting to just want to give up, binge watch another show, or pull the covers over our heads and hope it will be 2022 soon. But could there be another way.

“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” Brother David Steindl-Rast told poet David Whyte.

“What is it then?”, David Whyte asked.

“The antidote to exhaustion is whole-heartedness.”

Brother David continued, “You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers.”

In their 2009 article in Harvard Business Review, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky wrote about “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis”.  A crisis, they write has two distinct stages: The Acute Phase and the Adaptive Phase.

“Crisis leadership has two distinct phases. First is that emergency phase, when your task is to stabilize the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.”

The emergency, or Acute Phase is the disorienting and almost desperate stage that is like being wheeled into an emergency room.  The goal of the Acute Stage is survival. Calm down. Stabilize the situation.  Protect the organization, the team, the leader.  Rest. Sleep. Breathe.  This is the phase that many of us experienced when the pandemic first started.  In the Acute Phase everyone pulls together so that we will make it through.  Need to stock up on supplies? Check!  Need to call every member of the congregation to see if they need anything? Check! Need to cancel worship services and go online?  No problem.  (Well, it’s not easy—but we are on it!).  The Acute Phase is like the “blizzard” stage in the now famous article by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and David Blanchard.  In that phase we are hunkering down for some days or weeks and riding out the storm.  The goal is to survive.

The Adaptive Phase comes next—if you choose to enter it.  The Adaptive Phase is when “the emergency has passed, but a high-stakes, if somewhat less urgent, set of challenges remains. Having recovered from the surgery, how does the patient prevent another attack? Having survived, how does he or she adapt to the uncertainties of a new reality in order to thrive? The crisis is far from over.”  The Adaptive Phase is when a leader chooses to utilize the shock of the crisis to “hit the organizational reset button.”  It’s the opportunity that is available to a leader to address “legacy practices” that have been off-limits up to now. It’s the moment to look deeply at the underlying issues that people have not had the will to confront before the crisis. It’s the opportunity to bring real, deep change.  

Many of us are familiar with these ideas because of the pandemic, aren’t we?  We know that the real danger of Covid is to those who have underlying conditions that they haven’t previously addressed.  Diabetes, heart diseases, obesity and other conditions make the virus especially dangerous. And structural and systemic underlying conditions put specific populations at even more risk too.  Poverty, lack of access to medical care, financial exposure that requires needing to work in risky situations all point to underlying issues that while present before the crisis are even more evident now.

Church leaders report the same kind of “underlying conditions” that put their congregations at risk but which they haven’t been able to address before: a lack of deep adult discipleship for a resilient and persevering faith, a lack of deep community that can withstand the polarization and disconnection of this day, a lack of leadership development that can be mobilized for a more decentralized mission, a lack of wise, prophetic courage and will to work for the whole church because of decades of cultural privilege.

In now over 50 webinars and interviews since the pandemic, I have spoken to and talked with over 15,000 leaders around the world. And every time, I am struck by two realities at the same time:

These leaders are giving all they can right now.  And, they would give even more to take on these deeper issues and make a real difference in their churches, their communities and the world.

In short, they would give anything NOT to waste this crisis.

Sure, there is a temptation when the immediate crisis calms down to just try to get “back to normal” or to “hunker down” and wait it out, but Heifetz and his colleagues say, there is a greater opportunity too. Using the metaphor of patients who come out of the “emergency room” but never make the deeper changes, they write:

“High stakes and uncertainty remain, but the diminished sense of urgency keeps most patients from focusing on the need for adaptation.

People who practice what we call adaptive leadership do not make this mistake. Instead of hunkering down, they seize the opportunity of moments like the current one to hit the organization’s reset button. They use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past. In the process, they change key rules of the game, reshape parts of the organization, and redefine the work people do.

And that opportunity, when met with the right training, coaching, and approach to leadership is for many leaders the game-changer. What I have learned from these leaders is that the answer to the crisis of the exhaustion that comes in the Acute Phase is to enter wholeheartedly into the Adaptive Phase. It is to make sure that your organization, your congregation comes through this crisis

So what should you do if you find yourself both exhausted and inspired?

First, make an honest assessment of where you are as a leader.  Maybe you are in the acute phase.  Maybe it really still is an emergency for you right now.  Then please, please, please. Don’t go it alone.  Leaders in the Acute Stage need wise, strong, sturdy relationships that will function like an anvil for holding you in the vulnerability and the shaping of a crisis.  Reach out for support. If nothing else: Write me. I will connect you to a whole host of coaches, spiritual directors and therapists I know that love working with pastors.  They understand what you are going through and would love to walk with you through it.

Second, if you are finding yourself ready to NOT waste this crisis, then gather your key teammates and consider joining a cohort of churches who are going to go through the next 18 months of this crisis together looking at and learning about how to lead through the Adaptive Phase.

This is a once-in-a-century crisis. Let’s make the most of it.

Tod Bolsinger

Executive Director

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Associate Professor of Leadership Formation Fuller Theological Seminary Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and he now serves as Senior Fellow at the D...

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