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May 17, 2022

‘What is the urgency?’

By Victoria Atkinson White

Victoria Atkinson White is the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. In this role, she encourages traditioned innovation among Christian institutions and their leaders. For eight years, Victoria was a chaplain at the 900-resident Westminster Canterbury Community in Richmond, Virginia. Before that, she worked as minister to alumni at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Victoria is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Rhodes College. She is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

In this pandemic-informed season, churches and their leaders should not feel rushed into decisions that can safely wait for fuller information and deeper discernment, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

A local church is facing a number of pressing decisions over the next several months.

Attrition and the “Great Resignation” have created opportunities for budget revisions and have prompted much-needed discussions about staff responsibilities and mission alignment.

Identity conversations have required consideration of worship styles and outreach partners.

The potential sale of campus property has generated questions about impact, legacy and stewardship.

Denominational shifts have raised inquiries about tradition, affiliation and authority.

After listing these cascading challenges, the pastor told me, “There is so much coming at the church at once, I don’t know that we can handle all of it. No matter what decisions are made, there will be some sort of loss along the way.

“I worry that we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make so many important and different yet related decisions one after the other. It feels like there isn’t a break in sight.

“And we are just getting our stride back, figuring out who we are again in the same space. Then bam! — we are hit with this mountain of deferred decisions we couldn’t make in the last two years, in addition to whatever was coming our way in the normal course of the year. I wish we could just rest for a while. I wish we could just be together and regain our strength for a season before we have to address what feels like a spewing fire hose of major challenges that all need attention right now.”

“What would happen if you did that?” I asked her.

She was flummoxed. “We can’t just stop. People are relying on us. We have to…”

Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents. Some forms of urgency limit our vision of the opportunities before us and create false binary choices.

“We have to do this now or never.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“If we don’t act on this, someone else will.”

Sometimes urgency makes sense. Emergencies and crises necessitate expedited decision-making practices. Thanks be to God for our leaders who know how to do this well.

The season that follows a crisis, however, requires a different kind of leadership and decision making, as well as alternative timelines for deciding.

It’s like in the movies. After a storm or an alien invasion or some other form of devastation has come through an area, those who reemerge are timid, unsure whether the environment is as safe as it once was. Will infrastructures still bear weight? Is the ground safe, or might it collapse? Is all the bad stuff gone? What is different and what is the same in the places we love, where we share history? What will our future be like?

In those grand cinematic moments, a leader predictably rises up to reassure the people: “We are here. We are OK. This isn’t the world we left, but it is the world we have. Our future will be bright. We are strong, and we will prevail.”

Triumphant music swells to a crescendo, and the people cheer in gratitude, affirmation and hope.

Perhaps the church should live into Oscar Wilde’s saying, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

It is OK to emerge from this season slowly. Taking time to be together and renew relationships is good and holy work. Reinforcing the church’s relational foundation in order to be able to better serve the surrounding community is vital and slow labor. And rest is part of the equation, not a future reward for reaching a benchmark. Resting in and with one another is part of God’s perfect vision of Sabbath.

There are very few “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities when we worship a God of abundance. What might happen if we fully trust in God’s timing and generosity when we feel the tyranny of urgency pushing us to make decisions before we are ready?

What might happen if we delay or stagger making some decisions today to refocus our efforts on healing, resting, renewing relationships and re-becoming who we need to be in order to serve as the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors tomorrow?

We’ve seen the end of the movies. With a slow and steady pace, we discover that the infrastructures do bear the weight. The ground does not collapse. The church is strong, and we will prevail.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.