How do you lead the way forward when the rules change?


There’s a reason why “pivot” became the word of the year for 2020. It’s what we’ve all spent the year doing. Over and over and over again.


With every ebb and flow of this pandemic the rules of the road changed. Meetings, travel, and holidays were shut down. I’ll be honest, the lack of an ability to plan nearly anything more than a couple weeks into the future has been the hardest for me.

And, that’s why this season creates the perfect context for a BIG leadership conversation. How should leaders respond when the rules change? Whether those rules are concrete external restrictions or the subtle but just as imposing changing dynamics of culture doesn’t matter. When the rules change we are forced to respond. What is a leader supposed to do?


As I have watched leaders navigate this crazy year I have seen certain patterns repeated. What I have seen is that in addition to denial or resistance—both non-starters—there are four paths of response leaders can follow during times of game-changing disruption.

Rather than talking in abstract principles, allow me to utilize local churches as a case study as I unpack what I have seen.



Four Pathways of Response


#1 ACQUIESCE

To acquiesce means stop fighting against reality. That is actually a helpful step. When cities and states forbade the gathering of anything more than a small group, even churches with little digital presence acquiesced and moved their weekend services online.


Granted, they didn’t change much of anything, but they surrendered to reality and found a way to point a camera at the platform. Many in this initial stage chose to record the service earlier in the week and post it online for viewing on Sunday.


In this stage, we often view the demand for change as an enemy rather than an opportunity.

#2 IMPROVE

Improvement begins with a deeper embrace of this new reality as something that won’t go away quickly. It asks, how could we do this better? How could we improve our execution in light of these circumstances?


Churches at this stage began thinking a bit differently. Some began the shift to live-streaming to capture the live dynamic rather than delivering a video replay. Others began adding new video offerings. Pastors posted a weekly or even daily devotional. Other churches began to post stories that highlighted church members or ministries.

#3 RETOOL

Retooling happens when we admit that we cannot just work harder doing the old stuff better. Retooling literally means new technologies, different staffing, changing what we offer.


Churches who embraced this pathway recognized that just pointing a camera at the old thing does not communicate very effectively under the spotlights of digital media. They hired new kinds of production help, they invested in video production equipment, They realigned staff, they learned to work with new technologies, etc.

Some began to retool the way people gathered. Forming small groups who would watch the church service together and talk about it over brunch. Other Bible study groups moved into a Zoom room.

Let’s pause for minute.

Is it possible that some of our “Zoom fatigue” is the result of trying to use Zoom to host the things we’ve always done, the way we've always done them, rather than re-designing the things we do to thrive on Zoom?

Is it possible that in this re-invention stage, we are still trying to deliver the old things the old way by adding new bells and whistles?


Retooling is a bold step. However, is it possible this deceives us into staying on the pathway of incremental change in spite of radical change in the rules of the game?

The problem is, “Incremental change is the pathway to slow death.”

[see Deep Change, chp. 2. Robert Quinn]

#4 REINVENT

The process of reinvention begins by acknowledging that when the rules change we are actually playing an entirely different game. A new game requires all new strategy.

Reinvention starts by returning to foundational questions with fresh eyes. Why do we exist? What need do we intend to meet? What are we trying to accomplish? How will we measure success?


Only after surrendering our love for our favorite methodologies can we answer these foundational questions clearly. And only after answering these core questions clearly can we begin to think outside the box of history to reinvent a new way to carry out that mission.


I don’t see very many churches at this stage yet. However, I believe this is EXACTLY where we should be moving right now. If we are going to do so much online, we need to start operating according to the laws of effective video and television. If the average scene on a TV show or movie lasts about 60 seconds, maybe we should reinvent the way we deliver teaching/sermons. What if a 30 minute sermon with no interaction is not the best way to communicate.

Maybe there are a host of questions worth asking. Like…

  • how could we share stories of ways God is on the move?

  • how could we create interactive teaching, training, or worship?

  • how could we help people create supportive relationships?

  • how could we equip people to engage your community?

  • how could we establish new rhythms of generosity for the poor?


Reinvention starts with challenging old assumptions, asking new questions, and then having the courage to experiment with abandon.

When the rules change, everything and everyone goes back to the drawing board. The leadership challenge is to embrace these changes as an opportunity rather than a threat.

As we come near the end of the year, I want to issue a challenge. Seize the restrictions of this season as a chance to reinvent the way you deliver on the promise of your mission.


Embrace the principle that when you utilize new technologies you are playing by new rules. And, new rules mean you are playing in a new game. So, go back to the drawing board and reinvent the way forward.


Fight against the gravity of incremental change and choose the path of deep change rather than slow death.

Photo credit: thank you Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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© 2020 by Gary Mayes