By Eddie Pipkin
I was watching a college basketball game last weekend, and the whole thing came down to the final seconds. In fact, the clock had officially run out, and the team my friends and I were pulling for appeared to have lost by a basket. BUT, hold on a minute. The other team might or might not have made a mistake and stepped on the out-of-bounds line. The refs were having a looooong conference about whether the game should continue for a one-last-chance inbounds. This blog, however, is not about what the officials decided, and it’s not about which team ultimately won and which team lost. It’s about the insight I gained as the cameras zeroed in on the coaches during the timeout while the refs were looking at slow-mo replays and sorting it all out. In the crucible of uncertainty – potential hopeful chance or potential calamity – those coaches were doing something we all can learn from.
Here’s what caught my attention. The fans in the stands (and the fans watching the TV) were perched on on the edges of their seats, focused on the officials who were leaning their heads in closely in intense discussion. The fans were dissecting the video replays, arguing among themselves about available evidence, shouting their conclusions at the TV and the refs. The fans were looking for the slightest hint of body language from those refs that might provide a clue as to which way the game-defining call would go. Time had come to a stop for those fans – all meaningful activity had ceased until such time as the critical call was made. The fans were living in a kind of emotional purgatory in which they could only wait (and performatively hope or despair – it really is quite astonishing how many postures of prayer are assumed in public spaces in such moments).
But that was what the fans were doing. That was not how the coaches and the players were using their time.
The coaches and players were grouped together in an intense huddle. They were very actively making plans for what came next if the game was extended, and the ball was put back into play (which, it turned out, it was). They weren’t just sitting around like the fans, wringing their hands and shouting suggestions to the referees. They were doing everything they could to prepare for the possibility of what was coming next. Plays were being drawn out on clipboards. Players were being given instructions which defined their precise roles for the potential 2.0 seconds of game-deciding drama. They were all in and fully committed.
The debate across the court didn’t matter. It didn’t matter which way the narrative was about to spin. They would be ready. I was impressed at this level of passion and professionalism. It really is the flip side of practice. Teams practice for countless hours, developing and refining fundamental skills so that when critical moments come in games, they will have patterns of performance that lead to winning decisions. Having a “game plan” for every scenario is essential. Adapting that game plan to meet every fluid, changing moment of every high-profile game is essential to a winning season.
It’s positive energy. It’s kinetic leadership: leadership that is always moving forward. Leadership that hustles, that’s ready for the next challenge, that moves players around to maximize their skill sets, that does not dwell in the past or become obsessed with the unknowableness of the future.
As we move out of two years of intense COVID restrictions, there is a clear distinction between local churches that have been holding back on initiatives as they have been waiting to see what would happen, contrasted with local churches who forged ahead with planning and dreaming and embracing future potential. Suddenly, people seem eager to be out in community – I was at an Ash Wednesday service last night that featured an unexpectedly robust crowd – even as some churches are mired in tentative, hybrid plans that seem fitted for the days of mask-clad social isolation. (Obviously, we want to continue to help people feel safe and comfortable, but the majority of vaxxed and boostered folks are ready to get back together in a configuration that feels like normal. A new Zoom-based study being launched right now feels like it’s missing the spirit of the moment.)
That’s a very specific example, however. The principle is general.
When we manage from crisis to crisis, vacillating, half-timorous, and holding back in fear, we miss many opportunities. When we manage with our eyes looking forward into the future, despite the challenges and calamities of any given moment, we invite those opportunities for joyful growth and engagement.
I love this story of the Fresh Hope small group ministry for people with mental health issues. Here is an example of people who continued to dream, plan, train, and respond even in the uncertaintly of the past year. They started something new rather than waiting for the COVID dust to settle, and they are responding in a relevant way to a longstanding need, which the suffering of COVID has made more relevant than eer.
Here are ways to stay kinetic:
- Keep planning. Don’t let the train wrecks of the moment keep you from laying track for the future. We should always be working different planning levels: the details of the current project, the preliminary preparation for the next projects down the line, and the visioning and dreaming for future projects. Each of these phases has an allocation of time and bandwidth. A healthy distribution helps us avoid lurching from project to project, and often the joys of next-stage planning can offset the frustrations of current derailments.
- If you don’t have time and bandwidth for future planning, you don’t have enough planners involved. The common church scenario of tightly controlled teams in which only a few people are making all the decisions makes it hard to stay kinetic. More teams with more people involved mean more planning – and more creative planning – can happen.
- In the ‘waiting’ moments, keep doing what you can with what you’ve got. Sometimes there is a natural timeout in the scheme of things – hello, COVID – but during those times, keep innovating both with the possibilities at hand even in the ‘waiting’ moments, but also in anticipating a future in which the waiting will be over. Obviously, there will be challenging times for churches in which a program falls apart, a key leader departs, a natural disaster strikes, or some other dramatic change arrives. It is good to catch one’s breath and embrace prayer. But even those healthy practices are not exclusive of kinetic leadership. Our prayer, even our catching of breath, are not exclusively passive. For instance, it might be the time when we pivot from talking and directing to listening and discerning.
- More planning, more practice (more training) means more potential for pivoting. Like coaches and teams in the final seconds of the game, the more advance work we have done to build foundational skills, and the more time we have spent brainstorming possibilities, the more skilled we are at pivoting on the fly and in the moment. Don’t neglect training and skill-building with your teams.
Avoid falling into unhealthy seasonal patterns with your staff and leadership teams. I’m calling you out “goof-off summer.” Because ministry is seasonal by nature, many local churches lurch, if not from crisis to crisis, then certainly from season to season. We only allocate enough bandwidth during the seasons of Advent and Lent for the crush of Christmas and Easter events, and we get comfortable in this pattern, even fetishistic in celebrating just how demanding they can be. I have sat in on leadership teams that laughingly referred to “holy hell week,” a phrase that always made me deeply uncomfortable. There certainly was not space during Lent for thinking much about what summer was going to be like, but then, suddenly, after the mandatory recovery period after Easter, summer was suddenly upon us (at which point it was time to go into all-encompassing VBS panic, etc.). It is possible to imagine a world in which separate teams had responsibility for focusing on different phases of the calendar, rather than everybody being in a panicky all-hands-on-deck as we lurched from season to season.
The very real need for sabbatical should not be confused with a lackadaisical approach to what should be kinetic leadership as a rule.
By the way, if you and your leadership team have been planning tentatively and easing back towards a sense of normal events, because COVID is so slippery and unpredictable as an adversary, so that now you find yourself out of synch with a worshiping public that is ready for a fully engaged return, get yourselves in a huddle and adjust your game plan. That’s what good coaches and good teams do. Make a quick pivot and do something fun and fresh that embraces the zeitgeist.
Do you think of yourself as a kinetic leader? Always leaning forward to anticipate and empower the possibilities of the future, even as you are dealing with the details of the moment? How do you maintain the balance between past, present, and future? How do you equip your teams to be ready to pivot and maximize their skill sets?