Note: This article was published February 18, 2021 at Made to Flourish, an organization that empowers “pastors and their churches to integrate faith, work, and economic wisdom for the flourishing of their communities.”

Leading well in times of crisis is difficult for even the most skilled leaders. COVID-19 has taken crisis management to a new level, especially for pastors and ministry directors who depend on physical presence and relational connection to do their work. Quarantine, social distancing, and foiled plans have laid challenge upon challenge. It’s a good time to take stock. What have we learned about ourselves and our leadership? Did necessity lead to invention, or did we find ourselves flailing? Maybe both.

In times of crisis, we’re tempted toward misaligned activity, or no activity at all — an either fight or flight response. In fight mode, leaders often over-function, pursuing paths better left untrodden. In flight mode, leaders can be lured into an aimless under-functioning that too readily abdicates power and initiative to bring about positive change. Both responses misapply agency — the capacity entrusted to us to make things happen.

Organizational science speaks to agency in terms of people having an internal or external locus of control. In most work-related contexts internality — locating agency within the individual — is preferred to externality, which locates agency in the hands of some external (or transcendent power) beyond an individual’s direct influence. However, as Christian leaders we also understand that God ultimately stewards and superintends. Scripture, in fact, affirms both self-agency and God-agency — sometimes even in the same passage.

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.”  Proverbs 16:9

“One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: “Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love;” and, ‘You reward everyone according to what they have done.’”  Psalm 62:11-12

Love God before you love your neighbor, or your work

In a 1942 wartime lecture entitled “Why Work?,” Dorothy Sayers — playwright, essayist, poet, and novelist — offers three propositions for developing a Christian understanding of work. Sayers’ first two theses address work as a sacred calling and the church’s role in framing non-ecclesial labor as providential. Her third proposition is more nuanced; she argues that the faithful worker must aim to serve the work first, and not the community. Drawing on Jesus in Matthew 22, Sayers observes: “Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.” If we love our neighbor before loving God, she reasons, we make fickle communities the ultimate arbiters of the worthiness of our work. “To aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work,” a miscalculation she likens to trying to “make a good drive from the tee [when taking] your eye off the ball.”

Sayers’ insight is particularly relevant to Christian leaders managing in times of crisis. One can linger indeterminately above the tee, gauging distance, wind, and other environmental conditions, but at some point the golfer needs to swing her club. Effective internal agency is analogous and finds direction by answering two key questions: What can I control? With respect to what I can control, what am I called to do? The second question necessitates an understanding of God’s purposes for the world. Without such clarity, our activity doesn’t reach its sacred potential — a kind of laboring in vain that mirrors Sisyphus work at Zeus’ command to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back on him again and again.

Personal agency and God’s agency

As the leader of a large Christian study center that depends on welcoming tens of thousands of guests into its space each semester, we, like so many other organizations, had to negotiate our footing amid the pandemic. Addressing the two queries above helped us unearth new ways to carry out our mission in a season of bounded physical gathering, helping us focus on what we can control — our attitudes, work ethic, work relationships, capacity building, and community interactions.

A healthy interplay of internality and externality may be best demonstrated through prayer — a solemn petition for help within a framework of gratitude; a desire to converse and commune alongside a commitment to listen and be still. God honors this internal-external posture in the life of Solomon, who, when overwhelmed with the burden and privilege of leadership, prays for wisdom, a petition soon confirmed through his shrewd testing of a legitimate and a would-be mother. His declaration to cut the child and give half to each woman reveals the true motives of the women (1 Kings 3:16-28).

As Christian leaders, we need Solomon-like discernment, especially in moments of challenge and testing. Such insight depends on Spirit-infused vision to toggle between our agency and God’s agency. Jesus’ bestowing of the Great Commission captures this continuum.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus’ plan is instructive: God’s authority expressed; human action invited; and divine presence promised. Our team at Upper House leaned into this blueprint to reimagine vision and strategy. In the process, we focused on our unchanging end goals, rooted in our aspiration for the gospel to bring individual and institutional transformation to our university context. Personal agency and God’s agency were interwoven in reassuring ways as we moved forward in this uniquely challenging time.

Perhaps no greater benchmark for internality-externality exists than in the opening lines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”

Ultimately, a faithful posture of internality-externality can lead to power humbly and justly expressed. An internal locus of control reminds us that we are called to action as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. An external locus of control reminds us that we are not king.