I feel beyond blessed to have worked in a wide variety of roles and industries throughout my career. While I’ve gleaned insights from all of them, my time serving in the U.S. Air Force forged most of my attitudes toward leadership, teamwork, and perseverance. I vividly remember a combat training course that dealt with the military’s expectations of airmen trapped behind enemy lines, or worse, captured by the enemy. While much of the course addressed survival techniques and ways to evade and resist the enemy, many other aspects focused on a survival attitude. It was ingrained in us that we were expected to find every possible way to live.
In my role as the director of church publishing at Group, I spend a lot of time speaking with pastors, denominational leaders, retail storeowners, and other Christian publishers. All of these groups are under ever-increasing pressure to survive in today’s challenging cultural and economic climate. It’s abundantly clear that the church in America is declining and any entity or organization with ties to the local church is experiencing the same downward pressures. I’ve been intrigued by the ways people are dealing with these challenges. Here are the most common responses I’ve encountered among pastors and business leaders.
• BLAMERS. “If it weren’t for weekend sports, we’d have more kids [in church].” “If it weren’t for Amazon, we’d have more customers.” “If it weren’t for the erosion of faith in the family, we’d have more believers.” Sure. All of those factors influence our desired outcome, but we still have to find ways to do what we can to make a difference within those constraints.
• WAGON CIRCLERS. Back in the days of massive westward migration, pioneers learned to circle the wagons for two reasons: to construct an emergency fortress to keep enemies out and to serve as a corral to keep livestock and people in. I see so many church leaders take the same approach by doing everything they can to keep the perils of the culture out and their remaining congregants in. The downside to this approach is that circled wagons do one thing: They stay put. There is no forward progress. And it’s just a matter of time before those safely contained within die out.
• OSTRICHES. While it’s a myth that ostriches stick their heads in the sand, I do see people take a similar approach to challenging times. They say things like “This is just a cyclical or seasonal event; we’ll bounce back in time” or “I’m sure things will turn around if we just stay the course.” History indicates otherwise, as the downfall of companies like Kodak, Enron, Polaroid, and Borders attest. In their case and many others’, staying the course led to a short trip off a tall cliff. The problem with a Pollyanna mindset is that it relies on false optimism and misplaced hope.
• MARATHONERS. Any long-distance runner will tell you that mental and physical conditioning is vital to success. They know when to conserve energy and when to expend it, they understand how to prepare for a race and—most important—they maintain a positive attitude and find joy in the journey even when the route gets hard and they want to give up. A marathoner seeks advice from experienced runners, and, although running is a solitary sport, they draw upon the energy of other runners and the crowd to keep going. Marathoners aren’t immune to pain; they simply manage it. They’re driven by a burning desire to run a good race, continuously propelling themselves forward, one step at a time.
Whether you’re the pastor of a church, the owner of a retail store, or the director of a publishing company, at one time or another, you’ve probably played one or more of these roles. What distinguishes the organizations that thrive in the midst of rapid change from those that die or survive is largely the sustained attitude of a marathoner and actions that match that attitude.
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Another way to think of it is to compare the attitude of a chaplain to that of a pastor. Chaplains are uniquely suited to the heartbreaking task of providing end-of-life soul care and helping those in their care face death with dignity. But make no mistake: Chaplains aren’t equipped to breathe new life into dying churches. To do that, pastors must take on the fighting spirit of a survivor, prayerfully seeking the wisdom, support, and encouragement of others. And they must possess a realistic understanding of their circumstances without losing their prevailing hope.
In 1 Corinthians 15:58, the apostle Paul says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (NIV).
And if that’s not enough to motivate you, maybe the words of a highly persuasive Air Force instructor will: “Giving up is not an option!”