Leading Beyond the Blizzard
A conversation on leadership in pandemic times with Andy Crouch and Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this session of the online Calvin Symposium on Worship. We’re so glad that you’ve joined us today, and we look forward to learning together and having a great conversation. My name is Kathy Smith, and I serve as the senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Welcome on behalf of all of the Institute staff.
We’re pleased to be able to present this symposium for you in a virtual way this year. Our topic for this session is Leading Beyond the Blizzard. I’m here in Michigan, and I was really hoping I could say to you, “It’s so good we’re online this year because it’s a blizzard out there.” But it isn’t—it’s just a nice, kind of overcast gray Michigan day, with a little snow on the ground.
All the same, we are glad that you’re with us from all over and sorry we couldn’t meet in person, but it’s wonderful that we can meet this way and talk about leading beyond the blizzard. Because the blizzards will come. I’m sure we’ll get one, certainly if not in January, in February—and maybe in some of the places you are at, too. And some of you who haven’t ever seen a blizzard, let’s hope for another year that you can come to Grand Rapids.
We’re glad that you’re here. We have a wonderful guest today that we’re going to be talking with, and that is Andy Crouch. We’re so pleased that he could join us from New York City today.
As I mentioned, our topic is leading beyond the blizzard. That’s a topic of great interest for me. From the Worship Institute’s work in worship and leadership, one of the privileges I had was to write a book called Stilling the Storm: Worship and Congregational Leadership in Difficult Times. Blizzards of all sorts come our way as leaders, so we’re eager to hear from Andy on this.
Let me say a bit about Andy, and we’ll see if he wants to add to that introduction. Andy is a partner for theology and culture at Praxis, an organization that works as a creative engine for redemptive entrepreneurship. That sounds like a lot of fun to me. His two most recent books— 2017’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place and 2016’s Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing—those books build on the vision of faith, culture, and the image of God that was laid out in his previous books that you may have read: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power and Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.
So that’s a short version of an introduction to Andy. Would you like to say anything more about yourself and your current work?
Andy Crouch: Just that I’m having the time of my life, and I’m actually here in Praxis’s building in New York, which is a home for worship and prayer and entrepreneurship in the city of New York. Greetings from this part of the world, where it is also not a blizzard today.
Kathy Smith: I’m glad for you that it’s not. I look forward to addressing this topic, leading beyond the blizzard. Just so you know how our hour will go, I have a number of questions that I’ve prepared to ask Andy to help guide us into this topic. And then we will have some time, hopefully, for questions from those of you who are watching.
Please note, as it was put in the chat, that your questions should go in the Q&A function. Things in the chat are wonderful, if you have notes you want to put there—we see you’re logging in from all different places, so welcome and thanks for that. But if you have a question that you would like to be asked, please put it in the Q&A, and we will try to get to them, hopefully, as many as we can, in this hour.
Let me begin by saying this: You may wonder, where did we get the topic Leading Beyond the Blizzard? Well, back in March of 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, when most of us thought it was just a temporary interruption in our lives, Andy Crouch—along with his colleagues Kurt Keilhacker and Dave Blanchard—wrote an article called “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup.” They wrote that very soon after this pandemic hit, and it was a key article that many of us noted.
So Andy, first of all, if I could ask you to tell us a bit about what was in that article and how is it that you recommended already at that early stage in this whole situation—recommended that people have to lead beyond the blizzard and into the winter and even into a little ice age? Tell us about that.
Andy Crouch: We did write this week of—March 15th, maybe, was that Monday. I forget the exact date. And it came out at the end of that week, a week when everyone was realizing that the coronavirus, that some people were still calling the “China flu”—it’s very ironic now we see how well, in some ways, China has come through it, compared to many parts of the world, including our own part of the world.
But it was going to be a big deal here in the United States, and there was an infectious disease specialist, an epidemiologist named Michael Osterholm, who I had found had a really helpful analogy at that time. He said, “This is not just a blizzard; this is winter.” And it may not be incidental that he teaches at the University of Minnesota, where this is a relevant metaphor.
I’ve spoken to a couple of Latin American and other audiences for whom this is more distant idea, but in Minnesota it’s a very real idea. You’ve got blizzards. They sweep through, they shut everything down for a few days, but you quickly recover, and you’re totally back to normal. And then you have winter, which is a season. And he was saying this is going to be a season, not an event.
But as we pondered and observed and tried to assess what was going on, we actually felt like leaders owed it to their organizations and to the long-term mission they were part of to actually look beyond even just the season, the idea that this could be a couple of months. A lot of people were saying, “Well, it’s probably going to be August before this is over”—August 2020.
We’re talking in January 2021. It’s by no means over. There’s some reason to believe the next few months may be the absolute worst. I think it’s quite possible that most Americans, at least— North Americans—and many Europeans will remember the next few months as the worst of the pandemic, more than they remember what we all remember right now—the lockdowns of last spring.
So I was thinking, What is the right extension of this metaphor of blizzard and winter? And I started to think about these little ice ages that happened in Europe—the most recent of which only ended in about the beginning of the nineteenth century—which were long-term, hundred-year-long, climate changes, basically. The climate has fluctuated through the history of Earth.
And there are these seasons, there are these periods—one of them was tremendously exacerbated by a volcanic eruption in Indonesia that basically shut down the sun for two years and led to, most famously, the year without a summer in the early nineteenth century in Europe and North America, where there just was no growing season.
Now we didn’t think, and no one thinks now, that we’re looking at a hundred-year disruption, though I might have something to say about that, actually. I think we may be underestimating how much will change after all this is over. But we were realizing this is much more than months, and so we kind of coined this idea: What if it’s not just a blizzard, what if it’s not just winter, but it’s actually an ice age—that is, a relatively durable change in the environment in which our organizations need to work?
At the moment we wrote, we were really concerned that no one was thinking about that and that almost every leader needed to be thinking about it.
Kathy Smith: The subtitle of the article was “Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup.” And you’re talking about: Leaders need to change, their organizations are going to change. Tell us a bit, what is the same and what is different, going forward, for leaders of all different orgs, whether it’s a church organization or a nonprofit or even a business?
Andy Crouch: We have the great privilege at Praxis of working with startups. That’s our main audience, in a way—Christians, specifically, who want to start new ventures, for-profit and nonprofit, that make a difference in the world in a new way. I think what distinguishes entrepreneurship, truly, from just small business—there are lots of wonderful small businesses—but entrepreneurs are process innovators. They’re thinking about a new way of doing something that maybe is already being done—but done in a way that’s missing an opportunity to serve customers better, missing a way to generate profit better sometimes.
And startups have this incredible ability to rethink everything. Now, our premise in the piece, and today, is you don’t have to rethink everything, because there are at least two things that for most organizations never change. One is your—there are different words for it—your audience, the people you’re serving, the people you exist for. They haven’t gone away just because there’s a global pandemic. They’re not going to go away, whatever happens next. You were drawn to them; your mission concerns them. If you’re a church, this is often a parish or a place—a city, perhaps. Perhaps a people group that you’re called to. They’re still there, that doesn’t change.
And the other thing that probably shouldn’t change is your fundamental mission. Your sense of what intervention in the world will honor the potentiality of the people you’re serving—and if you’re Christian, honor the God who made us and calls us to kingdom work and life.
After that, almost everything might need to change. So we talked about how the [inaudible] tool of the entrepreneur is the “pitch deck,” the, often, PowerPoint presentation. And we said, You can keep the first few pages of your deck, but you really probably need to redesign all the others. And that’s the how.
At this point it’s so obvious, right? Of course, that was going to happen. Of course, we’ve all lived with unbelievable transformations in how we get done our work as church leaders—worship leaders, specifically, in this context.
I would just call attention to the ice age dimension of this. So it’s not just that a blizzard or a winter is keeping your people away from normal, so that you just have to figure out a way to wait it out until normal resumes. We are living through some transformations in the way people affiliate with organizations, the way people learn, the way, perhaps, that people worship that may never change back to what they were.
And so we actually, all of us, need to be rethinking in a very deep way: We know who our people are. We know what our mission is. But what is the means by which we actually can see that happen in this new cultural environment that we’re going to be in, I think, at least for a decade? We’re going to be feeling the effects of this in a tangible way.
Kathy Smith: At least a decade—wow. That makes it a little more concrete for all of us who are still [inaudible] even though we’re recognizing we’re coming up on a year here. And yet this new normal is a little bit hard to accept—that it really is going to be a new normal for us.
Thinking about leadership then, as we try to lead in these situations, longer term than we expected, what do you think’s most important for leaders? What’s their strongest resource or the thing that they need the most to be good leaders in this kind of environment?
Andy Crouch: One of the challenging things is that many things you thought you could draw on and that might have been your real strong suit may have suddenly been taken away from you. We may have a lot of people whose—one of their primary vocations is preaching. Preaching, like, in a room with people there. I apprenticed in the Black church tradition, where it’s interactive, it’s a team sport, right?
But even if you’re Presbyterian, let’s say—you were used to having human beings whose faces you could see, and now suddenly all of that accumulated capacity and competence and all that practice, for the moment it’s on the back burner. It’s on a shelf. Hopefully it comes back one day in a different way, perhaps.
So what is it that you have left when you’re redesigning almost everything you’re doing? Our very deep conviction is it’s actually the thing that’s been most important all along, and it’s trust. It’s the trust that you are able to mobilize, if I can put it that way, that actually compels people—that wins people—to the hard work of going to somewhere different that we need to go.
I don’t know if I put that very well, but trust is needed when change is required. Because if we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing, we already know how to do that. But if we are going to, even sometimes radically, change what we’re doing, if I don’t trust you at the moment that you call me into that difficult journey, why would I go with you? Why would I follow you?
So attending to what builds and maintains and then actually mobilizes trust becomes the central work of a leader, especially in these sort of long-rolling crises. In acute crisis, you basically draw on the trust you already have, but a long-rolling ice age threatens to deplete the trust in the organization—threatens to run out of energy in the organization and in the leader. And if you’re not investing constantly in how do we deepen and build trust, you’re going to run out of the oxygen you need to lead.
Kathy Smith: That makes a lot of sense, because anytime there are changes—well, there are some churches, some orgs that say, “Oh, we love change, we love change,” and some of some of them even mean it, but there are many of them that—change is really hard, and it’s hard for leaders to build trust and really to absorb some of the anxiety that comes along with those changes.
I know Ronald Heifetz talks about the leader needing to be the calmest person in the room and the one who absorbs the anxiety in the system, but that takes a lot out of a leader in times when people are experiencing change and they experience loss as well.
What you’re talking about is people have to be leading in sort of a blizzard time, making a lot of quick changes, and leading in a season, and leading in a decade or more. So when I read that, I thought, “Oh wait, I have to lead three ways at once.” I mean, God is three in one, but I’m just one.
Could you talk a little bit about that: What advice do you have, then, for leaders who have to lead in three ways at once?
Andy Crouch: Right. The absolute-moment crisis, as well as “Oh my gosh, this is going to take a long time, and then our environment will never return to what it was, so we’re going to have to rethink the whole thing.”
Let me give you maybe the most hopeful thought I have, which is: Is the counterintuitive reality the ice age? Blizzard and winter are really tough conditions for human beings. We shut down a lot of things. We do go out skiing and find things to do in the winter, but there’s a lot of things we just stop doing in the winter. The ice age is different. The ice age is a new condition in which a new kind of thriving is possible. And so, while the work of blizzard and winter is largely survival, ice age is actually the opportunity for tremendous creativity.
Human beings survived these little ice ages, even though they radically transformed the agricultural world and many other aspects of the world that human beings lived in. People found new ways to live. There’s this Scandinavian word—I’m sure I don’t know how to pronounce it: hygge. Have you heard about hygge? H-Y-G-G-E. It’s this word that basically means cozy. I think it comes from Sweden originally. It’s become this huge thing in the last couple years here in the U.S. It’s basically a set of cultural inventions designed to deal with the fact that you live in an ice age, which you do if you live in the northern parts of Europe.
Think about all the cultural creativity that goes into creating a cozy home and new kinds of cooking and new kinds of clothing. And so I would just say, don’t think of it—it is really overwhelming if you think “I have to manage three crises—one happening now, one happening in the next few months, and one happening for years.”
But while you do the crisis management of the moment, what opportunity is there to involve others around you in discovering new possibilities that you never would have pursued if this crisis hadn’t come upon us? To me that’s the—the ice age sounds threatening, but actually we have so much evidence that human beings survive and thrive in ice ages. It’s just they do so differently than they did before.
Kathy Smith: Well, that makes sense, too. That we have to adjust and maybe discover some new gifts along the way because of the situation that we’re in, right?
Andy Crouch: To build on that just a bit, the gifts don’t all have to be resident in you, the leader. This is another thing: In the blizzard moment, organizations really need someone to call the shots, to step in and say, “This is what we’re going to do. We got to do it now.” It was very important that that kind of leadership happened back in March of 2020.
But in the ice age adaptation, that’s actually primarily not your work as a leader. That’s the work of the people around you. They’ll have ideas. They’ll have capacities that you haven’t seen yet. And that’s when leadership is fun, is when actually you aren’t even doing anything. You’re just kind of creating the context and asking people to innovate. And you’ll find you’ll try some things that won’t work, but other things will be amazing and better than they ever were before.
This has happened for us at Praxis. We were really, at one level, really devastated by what we saw coming. Our entire model of everything we did was based on gathering people—usually by putting them on planes first—in nice places (New York, San Francisco, wherever) from all over the world, especially all over North America in intensive, small group events. And we realized every single thing we do right now is done, for months or maybe years. It’s turning out to be at least a year.
That could have been paralyzing. What was amazing was how our team actually—and I would say especially the people who are technically thought of as the more junior members of our team, though that’s not how I felt this past year—they found ways to redesign what we do. And some of those things, we’ve discovered, we’re never going back to what we did before without these new things that we’ve only developed because of the constraints we’re living in and the creativity of our team.
So that’s waiting for you—you, Kathy, and also all of you who are part of this today—if you set people loose to experiment and discover.
Kathy Smith: What you just described about your work describes a lot of our work at the Worship Institute as well. A lot of gatherings, a lot of—we haven’t reimbursed many plane tickets this year versus other years. And this conference is quite different, but it has been quite an amazing opportunity to think totally out of the box and come up with a completely different setup, where we’re having these sessions throughout the month in different time zones. And accessibility is actually far greater. We have the highest attendance we’ve ever had by far, by thousands.
And then when you see people coming up with new ideas and ways to present ideas—I have a feeling we won’t go completely back to the old way either. Maybe there are hybrid efforts ahead. But we’ll see. I’m not making any announcements about that; don’t worry, staff.
That’s really true. I like the way that you’re accentuating the positive. It’s right that there’s creative opportunity. What we know, the wisdom of Scripture (is) that it’s through the refiner’s fire that we grow spiritually and that we grow as a community. And it’s usually the difficult times that lead to newer efforts, more faithfulness and more experimenting and more spiritual growth. So often I’ve said to churches, “You know, when you’ve got a crisis coming your way or a big conflict, you have to think about, How are we going to learn from this? Isn’t this an opportunity for growth?”
And it’s hard to do that when you’re in the middle of a blizzard, but you’re saying that’s really the impact, right?
Andy Crouch: Yes, and I think this is obviously evident in all of our lives as individuals, as well as the communities we’ve been part of. And I would just underscore, I don’t know if suffering by itself leads to growth. It’s interpreted suffering, it’s suffering that’s put in a story, suffering that’s put in a context of meaning, and that is one of the central roles of leaders at times like this—to interpret what we’re going through.
And I will say, a pandemic is in some ways the hardest thing to interpret because it really is, to use an old word that had this meaning once upon a time: absurd. The absurd is that which just doesn’t seem to have meaning. And when you fight a war, when nations fight wars, they at least tell stories in which the enemy is evil, we are on the side of good. There’s narrative frameworks available for wars; whether they’re true or not is another matter.
But when a virus shows up and it just floats through the air and without intending it at all, I might infect you if I’m not careful, and it hits some people and spares others, there’s this absurdity to it. It’s like the ultimate test of leadership. Can we nonetheless find—not in the virus itself or even in the narrow, medical responses to it, perhaps, but in the work we do to adapt to it—can we discover something we didn’t know about the truth and about our community and about God?
That’s the work of leadership, is to name that when it seems like what’s happening around you is kind of absurd.
Kathy Smith: That’s a helpful way to look at it. And just to live into that, the challenges that are faced, especially a lot of our folks who are watching are pastors and church leaders. And a lot of churches have really struggled over the past months of this pandemic. I’ve talked in the last few weeks to several pastors who are, “I’m getting out of this church,” or “I can’t do ministry anymore; it’s too hard.”
It’s like they’re fatigued by having to change everything—change everything up and do things in new ways and not be connected with people. But there’s also the conflicts and the struggles in some churches over, Do you wear a mask or not? Are you required or not, and what does that mean? It’s just really been hard on pastors, and I’m wondering, what word do you maybe have for those pastors that are trying to do this leadership in a difficult time, but it’s really tough?
Andy Crouch: It is so hard. Being a pastor wasn’t an easy assignment back in normal times, so it is tremendously difficult. And I first want to simply give people permission, if you need it from me, to just complain to God about how bad it is. I think this is the basic practice of lament. We might talk about that more. We’ve written quite a bit more about it at Praxis and we’ve found it to be essential to survival in these times—is to know how to complain faithfully, how to be depressed faithfully.
I went through three seasons in 2020. In the spring, thanks to this article that we’re talking about now and some other things, I had this burst of capacity to offer something that was helpful to the world. It was kind of amazing. It felt like the Holy Spirit was somehow involved. I never want to claim too much of that—that’s up to God—but it was just this energized time.
And then I hit the summer and I went into one of the deepest depressions of my adult life. I didn’t ever get clinically diagnosed that way, but I certainly was very low energy, just despondent about how little difference I could make in things I really cared about—not just the pandemic, but racial justice and so many other things that were unfolding and unraveling before our eyes.
There is a faithful way to be absolutely worn out, and there’s a less faithful way. I mean, God’s got you no matter what, but there are more and less productive ways to just lie on the couch and not know what to do. And I had some of both in the summer, but I was very fortunate.
This is probably the other main thing I would say. You’ve got to have friends. You’ve got to have friends. Who are your friends? Maybe you haven’t called them in a while, maybe you’d be embarrassed to call them. But if you don’t have people who you can tell the truth about how bad it is—and I am almost sure they cannot be in your congregation. It’s probably not your district superintendent or your bishop or your deanery or whatever your judicatory is. It’s someone who’s known you for long enough that nothing you’ll say can disrupt the relationship in a fundamental way, and someone you trust to have God’s Word for you in some way.
And I had a handful of people who kept me kind of breathing during that time, even though I was very unproductive. I cut back my time at Praxis. I started sending back a fifth of my paycheck every week because I just knew I wasn’t pulling my weight here.
But I had friends. And so, find a way to lament. It’s okay to lie on the couch for a day, with God, and then call a friend and that’s—what else can we do? It’s so difficult to lead in these times. But then try to get up and do the next thing.
Kathy Smith: That’s really wise advice. Even that it’s okay to spend a day on the couch. I think people need permission to realize that. Because that is a form of lament, a form of grieving, really. And we have plenty of reason for it right now. I was thinking about—to my knowledge, I haven’t had COVID-19, but my husband had it this past summer. Some of my kids have had it. I’ve lost some very dear friends who’ve died from it and some relatives, extended family relatives. And I know there are people out there that can say that as well, as far as their family and friends.
So, just that idea of lamenting—you’re saying that’s so important. It’s a form of grieving. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that and maybe apply it to the context of worship. What would you recommend? Are there ways that we can express that lament or that grief in worship, that can be on the journey towards health?
Andy Crouch: Well, here’s a thought. My first thought—I thought, Well, this isn’t going to work for Kathy’s question, but then my second thought was, Why not? So let me tell you what my first thought was. Then I’ll tell you why I didn’t think it would work, and then I’ll say why I think it might actually work.
I have found it very, very helpful to write out my laments—to sit down and actually compose a psalm of lament. If folks want more on this, we have a venture partner at Praxis named Donna Harris, who did a wonderful interview with me based on work she’s done, where she just laid out the structure of biblical lament and then how that actually can inform creative action.
She points out—and you can find this in other resources as well—all these different elements: of crying out, of complaining, as I mentioned earlier, of expressing outrage and rage, of making arguments. It’s interesting how often the laments include almost legal arguments, like, “Well, God, you’ve said this, but this is happening; therefore, you have to do this” or “Don’t you care that your name is being profaned before the Gentiles?” or whatever the argument may be. As well as expressions of assurance: “Yet you are the one who brought me out of my mother’s womb.” As well as promises of trust: “I will praise you in the great congregation.”
So you combine the negative pole—lament involves this powerful negative pole—with a positive pole of trust and affirmation of God, and that’s really the recipe, in a way. And for me to write those out and then read them aloud, alone or with others, has been tremendously helpful in making concrete what otherwise was just this swirl of emotion.
It sort of helped me specify—I wrote a lament back in November of 2019, when Donna first did a teaching for our community on the role of lament in creativity, and one of the lines in it was about the founder of WeWork. I don’t know if you follow this kind of business news, but this guy is named Adam Neumann. He had just obtained a $1.3 billion exit from a company that was basically a house of cards designed to enrich Adam Neumann, and he’d succeeded at it and walked away with $1.3 billion. And this caused me to lament. So one of my lines in my lament was “Adam Neumann worships a false God”—because he does not claim to, nor does he, worship the Christian God—and obtained a $1.3 billion exit based on lies.
Now, I could have just let my resentment about this fact from the Wall Street Journal sort of bounce around in the back of my head. But somehow putting it on paper and saying “Yes, I am angry about that. I’m angry—there are many, many other injustices in the world, but this is the one I’m mad about today” and then actually reading it aloud both made it very clear to God that I cared about this, but it also puts it in its proper place. It kind of shrinks it a little bit, in a way.
So then I thought, when I was about to give you that answer—I thought, But Kathy asked about worship, and we don’t write things down in worship. And then I thought, It’s COVID-19. Who knows what you’re supposed to do in worship? Clearly, it’s not working to point a picture at an empty sanctuary and have the pastor stand behind the pulpit—like, that can’t be the best possible use of this moment for worship.
So what if we actually incorporated into a virtual worship service, where everyone’s in their home, everyone has access to pen and paper—you can play with time in ways you might find awkward in a large gathering, an in-person gathering—why not stop and have everyone in the congregation, from the five-year-old to the eighty-five-year-old, write out their complaint, their frustration, their promise, their assurance. And then ask a few of them to read it aloud.
We’ve done this at Praxis with our entrepreneurs. You might think, why would entrepreneurs need to do this? I can just tell you, it unlocks amazing things in people’s lives when they’re able to name what’s really going on and bring it to God. It actually unlocks new energy, creativity, and, strangely, hope, as we affirm our trust in God in the midst of what’s not right.
Kathy Smith: I love that idea. It’s a type of testimony, right? It’s a testimony to our laments and to the hope that we can find out of them. And it’s really like the Psalms. Before we started, there were some from the Psalm Gallery on here.
Andy Crouch: Psalm 137 was one of them. That’s a major-scale lament.
Kathy Smith: Sometimes I think people are afraid to express those feelings, like they shouldn’t say that in worship, or we shouldn’t say that to God. One of my friends talks about lament in worship as being, We have to learn to be sad and mad in worship, and we can do that through expressing our laments. And to do that by giving by giving those testimonies. … I’m glad you came back to that idea. I think it’s a really, really helpful one. And it’s a sign of a healthy expression, and our God is certainly big enough to receive all of that and in handle that and, as you said before, hold us. We know that God has got us through this, no matter what—especially in the blizzard but also in the winter and the ice age.
You wrote this article back in March, and we’re looking at March pretty quick here again. How do you assess that statement now when you think about it, as far as, where are we in this time now? Are we really through the winter yet, or does it matter? Are you really saying that these skills for leadership, this approach, has to become a way of life for us?
Andy Crouch: I have a couple thoughts. One is: The crisis is always deeper than any community is willing to admit, and so, in some ways, to have the veil pulled back—that’s part of what apocalypto means—to have the apocalyptic moment is a gift to our communities, because any number of things you could name—the vulnerabilities that have been unveiled by this terrible sequence of events that we are all living through—they actually were all there.
We already had a public health crisis in this country. We had metabolic syndrome, which is one of the main dispositions toward severe COVID, which afflicts a lot of us, in one way or another. And it’s ultimately a syndrome of inactivity because our technological world so much disrespects our bodies, you might say. And then we have the differential effects of metabolic syndrome and other related things on communities of color, and that was all there before and that’s now just heightened by the pandemic.
We had the question of whether we can trust experts—whether experts, so-called experts, speak with truth, no matter what, or whether it’s always tinged with politics. That’s been tested—unfortunately, not always passed the test, I would say. But that was there long before—we had all of these things.
In a way, as terrible as it’s been—and we would all want to wind the clock back and find ways to mitigate the pandemic much more than we were able to do—the underlying things that we now are wrestling with were always there. And the best leaders were already on the case. It’s just that now all of us have to be on the case.
Another huge one is, if I can put it in very bald terms—and some might disagree with me, but let me just put it this way—the collapse of discipleship in North American Christianity, the collapse of our ability. Even when we could gather people, were we making disciples in the way that Jesus asked his church to do?
And I think in 2019, you would honestly say, “Lots of bodies, lots of people in seats, to some extent, though declining somewhat—but are we making disciples? I’m not sure.” Well now it’s kind of clear that a lot of people who were marginally affiliated have disaffiliated, have drifted, have just sort of wandered off.
All this is material for leadership. And all the pandemic does, or any crisis does, is intensify the stakes and clarify what’s really going on and give us a chance to build. Does that make sense? Does that answer your question?
Kathy Smith: That’s helpful, and I have a couple more questions. But folks out there, if you want to put questions in the Q&A, there’s a button at the bottom of your screen for Q&A. So go ahead and do that if you have a question that you would like Andy to respond to.
Now, we started with that article about leading beyond the blizzard. After that, you wrote another article called “Strategies for Winter: Redemptive Leadership in Survival Times.” What did you mean about redemptive leadership, and how does that play out?
Andy Crouch: This is a word we kind of stake our lives on at Praxis. We talk about advancing redemptive entrepreneurship as our mission. We have a vision for leaders of all kinds who act redemptively in the world, and so it is something we put a lot of weight on. And it’s to be distinguished from two other ways of being in the world.
The most obvious alternative to redemptive leadership, I would say, is exploitative leadership. So exploitative leadership, basically, is about using my position for my benefit. Using my position, leveraging whatever access or resources I have or I can command, to benefit me and people like me. And I do think that in times of crisis we discover some exploitative leadership. You discover that some people who seemed like sheep were actually wolves, and stories come out when normal evaporates. Warren Buffett has this sort of famously vivid line, “When the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked,” and you suddenly realize there actually have been practices of leadership even tolerated in our communities that were really self-serving.
So we obviously don’t want to be that, and we also don’t want to—maybe we were doing fine until the crisis and then in the midst of crisis we just become very self-protective. So the goal is to avoid turning inwards, turning into self and protecting myself. That’s the exploitive side.
But the other thing we distinguish redemptive work from, redemptive leadership from, is actually what we would call ethical leadership. A lot of people think, “Well, I don’t want to be exploitive, so I want to be ethical.” And we think of ethical as, to be sure, a baseline for certainly any Christian leader, but basically having to do with maintaining existing norms in a healthy way.
The problem is that in a crisis, the preexisting norms—just sort of maintaining them, maintenance of them is not enough. Because part of what’s happened, as we’ve mentioned and as comes very close to home for all of us, is that what happens in a crisis is you have actual loss, damage, brokenness that enters into the systems you’re responsible for as a leader. And at that point, just being a good person, just sort of showing up with integrity and doing what you said you would do, is actually not enough. Because you’re actually in a situation that needs restoration because something’s been really lost.
The word redemption sounds very theological to us now, but it was originally a commercial word that had to do with people or property that had fallen into bondage because of a crisis. So a family in the ancient world will have a health crisis, all the money would go to doctors. Now how do they live? They have to indenture themselves or, at the limit, enslave themselves. Or they have to indenture their property, give away all the family land. And the redemption of the person or the land from servitude or even enslavement was accomplished by someone stepping in—this is the kinsman-redeemer in the Old Testament, who steps in and says, I will sacrificially cover the cost so that this can be restored to its original capacity.
That’s the kind of leadership we need now. It’s definitely not exploitive, not ethical even, but actually, the way we think about redemptive is creative restoration through sacrifice, where you’re actually restoring what’s been lost—often with sacrificial elements that are required of the leader and of others in the system—with a creative effect that in the end is often better than it was before, in some way. Even though you can never fully take back what’s been lost, you can restore in a beautiful way.
That’s what we’re going to need for the next—that’s the decade part. I don’t mean by a decade, by the way, that we’re all necessarily going to have to sit in our homes and do Zoom. But to restore what’s been lost in these twenty-four months? That’s the work of ten to twenty years. And that’s going to require redemptive work and redemptive leadership.
Kathy Smith: Thank you. That’s really helpful. In the on-demand section of this symposium, there’s a panel discussion about leadership in difficult times, and Tod Bolsinger from Fuller Seminary spoke about this topic. He just has a book out about it, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change. That sounds familiar to what you’re saying, too. That leaders—it’s through the difficult times that we are formed, right?
Andy Crouch: And you were made for this. God called you for this. Sunday’s lectionary reading in our tradition, which we read at home—we actually just had family church on Sunday. It’s actually very unsettling and moving to have my daughter read it aloud; she’s twenty years old. It’s the story of the calling of Samuel. That was our Old Testament lectionary. And the calling of Samuel—he goes in, finally, after figuring out that it’s God calling, not Eli, and what God says is, “I am going to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears it tingle.”
And it’s a horrible, horrible message that the young boy Samuel receives. It’s that God is going to cut off Eli, because of his sons’ idolatry and disobedience, from a legacy in Israel—and in some readings of the text, from life with God at all. And then Samuel has to go and tell Eli this. And then Samuel is a young boy, and he’s going to have to live through all that this means for Israel, all the disruption and upheaval.
It’s terrible news. But it’s also Samuel’s moment, right? He’s called to be a prophet of God, and he’s going to see the fall of Eli and all that Eli’s family represents. He’s going to see the rise of David with all the—well, Saul first and then David, with all the complexity and wrong turns as well as moments of providence that that represents.
Not all of us heard the divine voice in such specificity, but if you’re in leadership and a duly constituted community of Christians has said, “We discern in you the gifts of leadership,” then this is what you were made for. This is what you were made for. Nothing less than radical transformation, because isn’t that what we knew had to happen all along? It’s just that we were so darn comfortable. We had so much Bubble Wrap up till March 2020 that it was hard to get anybody to move. We were all just sort of bubble-wrapped around—in the affluent world, I mean. And now everybody’s in the same boat, everyone sees it’s broken.
There’s this really stunning article in the Tablet this past week called “Everything Is Broken.” It’s by someone who sees very clearly what’s wrong, but she’s really struggling to articulate what could be. This is what leaders in the church could do right now.
Kathy Smith: Called to radical transformation. That sounds like what the gospel’s about, isn’t it?
Andy Crouch: What did you think you were signing up for, you know? It’s not a cruise ship.
Kathy Smith: That’s right. Well, I’m going to ask some of the questions from our audience here. Here’s one: How do you build trust and go new places with people who seem to inhabit a different mental world than you and, for example, have a fundamentally different understanding of what has happened over the past year?
Andy Crouch: Yes, this is a huge issue, and it scales all the way up to the president of the United States—the president-elect, for whom we should pray with all our being because how do you do that? A couple things come to mind.
First is you just have to keep telling the truth, because the truth is true and lies will eventually fail. And when the lies fail, God help the people who didn’t tell the truth—so that the people who have been failed by the lies have someone to go to. The lies can last for a long time and the untruths can last for a long time, but they don’t last as long as the truth. And when they fail, someone will remember that you told the truth. And also, you’ll save many people along the way by telling the truth.
Second, though—and this is important—I actually think is a kind of de-escalation. Because there’s a lot we don’t know, and there’s a lot that we believe is true as best as we can understand it, but it’s not revealed truth. Certainly anything having to do with when and where should you wear a mask. I think there is good evidence for prudent use of masks in public places, and I certainly wear a mask everywhere I go where there are other people. But that’s not like divine revelation. That’s a provisional assessment of the best we understand of how this particular virus works.
And ten months ago, we had no idea that’s how it worked. We all thought we needed to be washing hands and singing “Happy Birthday” seven times. It turns out you don’t actually have to do that for this virus. Very good for other viruses, doesn’t matter for this virus.
So part of what’s happening is everyone is getting so attached to their accounts of truth, even the people who probably are right are so attached to it being right that it escalates emotion. And I think part of the job of leadership right now is to acknowledge how limited our knowledge is, how changeable it is, how we may have to revisit our current practices in a couple months because we will have learned more. Try to convey how provisional much of what we believe to be true about the world is.
Then I think you have to pick your battles. You are not going to be able to build trust with people who are absolutely swimming in a sea of propaganda from any side—and there’s propaganda on all sides. But there are a few people who are maybe wading in the sea, tiptoeing in the sea, who you have enough relationship with now to get them into a small group of people that you share your heart with, share what you’re learning with, share the truth as you see it with, and you could actually build trust beyond your most natural circle.
Trust is basically only built in small groups. And this is why we should pray for the president-elect, because how you do this at the scale of 330 million people? Above my pay grade. But I actually think, even for the president of a nation, it comes down to having a circle of people, ideally those with the authority to influence others, who really trust you.
And your job as a leader is not—if you have a congregation of, say, the median-size congregation of a hundred people in the United States—it’s not to get a hundred people to trust you today. It’s to get three people to totally trust you, ideally one of whom is pretty different from you and hangs out with the people who don’t see the world the way you see it but who can come to trust you. And then those three build to twelve and then the twelve can eventually reach the hundred twenty. That’s at least how I tend to think about these things.
Kathy Smith: That’s helpful. The next question is similar, but maybe you have a little more you want to say. This person asks, “Do you have thoughts about how churches can engage with the information/news-cultivating practices of their congregation?” He says, “It strikes me that discipleship is impossible when congregations are living in alternate universes of facts. So are churches called to address this epistemic crisis, and how might they do that?”
Andy Crouch: I know that different church traditions do this differently, so I don’t know that I want to give a blanket answer because I’m just so aware of how limited my perspective might be.
But I would say—I mean, you’ve only got so many hours in the week. I think the greatest contribution to epistemic health you can offer as a Christian leader is the preaching, teaching, study, marinating, meditation, lectio of the Word of God. And by that I don’t mean anything biblicist or narrowly fundamentalist. I mean helping the people that you’re entrusted with hear the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation—absorb its varieties of expression, absorb the incredible varieties of context from which it came and to which it speaks, and help them become hearers and doers of the Word.
I think that’s probably a greater contribution we can make than trying to sort of out-Facebook Facebook in its ability to feed people the information they want to hear. We need a much deeper epistemic revolution than we’re going to get by adjusting our news feed preferences. I don’t mean to trivialize that really good question, and I know you were asking a very deep question. But I guess my deep answer is, I think it is actually the immersion of the people of God in the Word of God that creates a different kind of ability to read the signs of the times, as Jesus said, which includes reading the news these days.
But with the limited time and authority you have, teach people to read the Psalms. Teach people to read Proverbs. Teach people to read the histories. Teach people to read the saga of Genesis 1 through 11. Teach people to read apocalyptic and marinate in that.
I really think lectio divina is an amazing practice, where you just take a small text and spend thirty minutes, at least, hearing it several times, letting it sink in, realizing how much there is in it you don’t understand, realizing how much there is in it that speaks to you. That’s what we need right now, I think, more than any other single thing.
Kathy Smith: Thank you. The next question is really a question of context, and a specific context, but maybe you have a broader comment about context as well. The question is, Do you have any specific insights, ideas, or encouragements for suburban ministries during these times? What new opportunities or challenges—for example, working for racial justice—do you see for suburban churches?
Andy Crouch: Let’s not forget that the suburbs are tremendously diverse, racially. They have been constructed in American media as white or European, but in fact more than half of African Americans, for example, live in suburbs. So there’s a great deal of diversity in the suburbs, especially if you’re just—if you just go one town out from whatever your town is, you’ll find a very different group of people in one way or another. So don’t underestimate the work that’s to be done right around us.
I live in a suburban town outside of Philadelphia, and one town to the west is considerably more affluent than in my own, and one town to the south, literally bordering our town, is one of the most challenged post-industrial cities in the entire state of Pennsylvania and in the entire country. Chester, Pennsylvania. And that’s all within reach of my suburban environment.
The other thought I have is, I think the great advantage of the suburbs at this moment is you’ve got outdoor spaces and sufficient density to gather people. The cities—I’m in Manhattan right now. I live in Philadelphia, I work in Manhattan. I’m here sometimes; during the pandemic, less. And churches in the cities are of course really having to be creative. And there are ways to do it, but the suburbs have the great advantage of relative amounts of open space. But unlike truly rural areas, a lot of people are actually pretty nearby.
So even in the dead of winter, there’s things you can do to actually gather people in person. I would be maxing out any chance to get people together outside with masks, as law may require and as public health authorities may guide. But take advantage of the gathering possibilities and the availability of people to gather right now, even while you can’t gather indoors—or if indeed you can’t gather indoors. Those are two responses.
Kathy Smith: Another person is wondering what power forgiveness and its demonstration may have to break down the barriers between us. Is there something to that? And if so, how do we lead as those kinds of ambassadors of reconciliation in this time?
Andy Crouch: Oh man, that’s so good. Yes. I’m sort of chuckling because this is the whole thing and I somehow didn’t get around to talking about it, so thank you so much for pointing it out. If we’re talking about trust, one way to think about it is real trust, I think, in organizations and communities, families, at any level comes from rupture and repair. Trust comes from rupture—that is, something went wrong—and repair. Something was done to restore.
And that rupture doesn’t have to be sin. It’s as simple as the two-year-old kind of wandering just a little further than their parents said they could and then running back to their parent. You know, it’s that gap that every child is sort of exploring—can I go out here and still come back, and is Mommy still here, is Daddy still here? That’s a little rupture and repair that doesn’t involve any kind of violation.
But really powerful trust is built when there has been violation, when there’s been neglect, when there’s been active, you know, missing the good of the other and not pursuing the good of the other. And then, when someone takes responsibility, confesses, and asks for forgiveness and repairs that, you have trust on the other side of that you did not have when everything seemed nice.
So yes, this is one of our fundamental works as leaders, is to be quick to repair, be quick to acknowledge ruptures. Even small ones can be of great value in building trust. It may not have seemed like a big deal to you, but someone noticed that moment, when you—say you just forgot their name. And if you just instead of breeze past it, you say, “Kathy, I’m so sorry I forgot your name the other day in front of that group. I don’t know why, but I’m just so sorry because you really matter.” And that little moment that you notice that you forgot and you stepped in and said “I wish I had not forgotten,” even if there was no fault, you’ve just repaired something that had been torn a little bit.
And how much more when we start to address really big issues, whether in our own communities or in the world around us. We become people of repair. And the path to that is forgiveness. That’s so, so good. I’m so grateful. I don’t have the name of the person in front of me who said it, but thank you so much.
Kathy Smith: And thank you for that fine answer. One person is asking about lament: Do you have any suggestions for doing this kind of lament or adaptation to the transformation in circumstances where folks don’t have any IT capacity? Is there a way we can do this without that technological capacity?
Andy Crouch: If you don’t have technology, you’re going to need people. So you’re going to need to go and even if you can’t go in, you can go to the window. You could meet on the porch even for a moment. The early church had a certain amount of technology or media, we might say, available to them, but they always sent a person. Even when they sent a letter, they sent a person. When they sent money, they sent a person. They never relied on the tool itself; they always sent it with a person.
So you are not—this can be done. It requires travel, it requires going out, it requires mobilizing a large enough community of people who are trained to go out and accompany people in what they’re experiencing, but this is actually the way the church has cared for its people for most of history. And at its best times, it’s been the primary way, only supplemented by media.
And instead in our time, media often has become the kind of the horse. It’s always been the caboose for the church at its best moments. So it’s hard, and it’s hard in our world that kind of expects people to have this kind of access. But go—walk, drive, bike, whatever it takes to get to the people that God’s entrusted to you.
Kathy Smith: There’s two more questions and we are at our hour. So I’m just going to combine them. One person is asking if you’re speaking about a new jubilee period of time. And then the other is of the decade-long impact of this mini ice age: What things will we feel the longest?
Andy Crouch: If I’m not mistaken, what we’ll feel the longest is the collapse of trust in institutions. The collapse that the people who occupy positions in institutions know what’s best is going to be under a lot of stress. Even while some will ardently defend the institution, it’s going to be a battle in a way that it never was, and I think that’s going to be long.
And I think that’s going to really affect how people affiliate to institutional churches. I think membership is going to have to feel a lot more like that word originally meant. It was originally a word that meant the limbs of the body, the members of the body. I think we need much more organic pictures of what membership is, because I think membership in institutions is going to be really under stress for quite a while.
And I totally forgot the other topic.
Kathy Smith: It was about jubilee.
Andy Crouch: Which, in a way, is exactly—is strangely—connected. Every fifty years there was meant to be—we don’t have any record that Israel ever did it, but there was meant to be this great reset in which all that had gotten systemically out of joint and led to bondage and alienation of people from one another, from their land, from their rights, from their liberty—was to be reset. Along with worship and celebration.
I do not know how we could have that in a couple of years, once the worst of this is behind us. I know it’s what we need. We need a reset, where debts are forgiven and people are not held to their worst moment or the ways they even benefited from their neighbors. Because that’s all that enslavement was, was your neighbor’s in trouble—back before race-based and chattel slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was just somebody got in trouble and somebody took advantage of them. In jubilee, that was dissolved without sort of exiling the people who had held the debts and who for forty-nine years had been able to collect the interest. But it ended.
And we’re going to need some jubilee moments, and maybe that’s a very deep task for us as leaders over the next decade, is how do we at least, as Jesus did, kind of offer a foretaste of that, in the midst of a world that’s really in debt and bound, in many ways. That’s going to be, maybe, the deepest work—without which I don’t know that anything can be restored, but with which amazing things could happen in the future that we can’t even imagine right now.
Kathy Smith: That makes me think that as we hopefully get through this time and start to re-gather and reestablish, or establish new practices, maybe some of the repairing from this big rupture has to be like a reset or, as you put it, a jubilee, or figuring out what does jubilee mean for our churches today and in the next decade? I think that’s a pretty profound thing for us all to ponder going forward.
Andy, this has been such a rich hour. We have really appreciated your wisdom and your willingness to share this with us. We’ll be watching for the article when you tell us about where we are in the blizzard, winter, ice age, whatever—
Andy Crouch: Volcanic eruption is next, I think.
Kathy Smith: I do hope there will be a follow-up from what you at Praxis are learning and what you’re doing through that important ministry. Thanks so much for spending time with us and for answering our questions today. We’re really grateful for you and for your ministry among us. Thank you, Andy.
Andy Crouch: Thank you so much. Thank you all.
Kathy Smith: And thanks to all of you who have been watching and those who will watch the recording of this session. We’re really grateful for your participation. Thank you and go in peace.