Leading in Unprecedented Times

Scott Arbeiter | President of World Relief | Thursday, August 6, 2020
A pondering man with a Bible in the woods, Leading in unprecedented times

Leading in Unprecedented Times


That these times are unprecedented is undeniable. We’re reminded daily by politicians, health experts and our social media feeds that the world has shifted dramatically to a new state of (dis)order – and the uncertainty feels crippling.

Many of us are trying to find new wisdom to meet the challenges of both living our lives and leading our ministries in uncertain times. Fair enough. It is abundantly clear that we need to learn and adapt. But I want to suggest that for leaders of faith, reacting to what is uncertain is the wrong starting point.

Our best leadership is anchored in what we are certain of, not what we are uncertain of.

I believe one of the great challenges (and privileges) of leadership is to bring perspective to those we lead – to bring especially what might be obscured in the wash of news reports that are too often marked by soundbites chosen to create controversy. It is easy to get drawn in to shallow analysis and a narrow, time-bound perspective.

As leaders, we need to be like the men of Issachar, described in 1 Chronicles 12. Men of various tribes were joining David as he was fleeing for his life from King Saul. Most of these tribes were comprised of thousands of men, armed and ready for battle. The tribe of Zebulun, for example, had 50,000 soldiers. But the tribe of Issachar was the smallest, with just “200 chiefs” and their relatives. Although they were the smallest in numbers, they were mighty in their knowledge and their certainty. They were, we are told, “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

These were extremely uncertain times for all of the tribes – David had been anointed by Samuel but was in exile and running for his life. What if Saul was successful in killing David – would he turn next to them? Seeing with clarity the work of God through Samuel (and in David) they stood on an unshakable certainty that was stronger than the uncertainty that loomed so large in the moment.

We, too, will do well to evaluate each uncertain season within the long, redemptive arc of God’s revealed plan. If we don’t, the current moment can overtake us, causing us to live and lead simply in the moment, myopically focused on the immediate problem alone.

In Acts 4, the apostles also faced uncertainty. They had been given a wildly unpopular and challenging mission – to convince the world that a carpenter from Nazareth was, in fact, the fullness of God in bodily form. This might feel at a human level as challenging as convincing someone today that a plumber from Pittsburgh, executed by the state and with support of the religious authorities, was God Incarnate. As a result, they were being persecuted and imprisoned. But they “raised their voices together in prayer to God,” evaluating the uncertain present in light of what they knew was certain in the long arc of God’s reign. In prayer, they reminded themselves that God was sovereign, that he was the Creator of all flesh, and by doing this they put Rome and the Sanhedrin in their proper place. They then reminded themselves in prayer that trouble was not new to the people of God and that he had chosen his people (and now them) to declare his purposes. After anchoring themselves in these truths, they made their request. But, they didn’t pray to be delivered; they prayed to be enabled.

In the Bible, we see that leading out of what is certain makes us fit for leading in times of uncertainty. Perspective creates a shift in us: from being caught in a moment to being part of God’s grand movement, from reactionary to responsive, from fearful to wildly bold. It takes us from being self-absorbed to seeking God’s glory, and from relying on human agency to relying on divine power. We are not paralyzed, but know the times and what must be done.

But when we lose perspective, our wisdom and our resilience are lost, and we become focused on solving immediate problems in ways that may not align with God’s long-term vision. We seek pain avoidance instead of value creation. Urgency overtakes wisdom, and we fight to manage and control, trusting ourselves too much and God too little.

So, how should we lead in these times? At World Relief, we see crisis all around us, among vulnerable refugees and immigrants in the U.S. and in refugee camps, as well as the already poor and marginalized around the world who now face a health crisis that threatens to throw them deeper into despair. This is why our staff and volunteers are going from house to house and village to village in places like Cambodia and South Sudan, bringing prevention messages and teaching hygiene practices. It is why we train healthcare workers in Africa, work in the refugee camps and distribute food to thousands of households.

While the paths for future service are uncertain, complicated by travel restrictions, social distancing, broken health systems and dwindling food supplies, we are certain of God’s preferential love for the widow, orphan, stranger and poor. We are certain of his call upon his church to rise up with unfettered courage and unbridled generosity. We remain certain of his love to us and through us, of resurrection power and the enabling of his Spirit. And in this, uncertainty melts away in the full light of our certainty.

May God grant wisdom to all of us called to lead in ministry such that later generations who observe our faithfulness will rise up and call us blessed.

Photo courtesy: Ben White/Unsplash


Scott Arbeiter is president of World Relief.