Dave Odom: The next three most faithful steps

Feet of a man at top of stairs; 3 steps have arrows pointing forward

iStock / Astrid860

After an unprecedented year, looking ahead can feel overwhelming. The right questions and partners can help prioritize what comes next, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

After a year of scrambling to stay afloat, what is next? How can we move from responding to the crises of the moment to defining our work over the next few years? Leaders need to find the space to get some rest and to discern what’s next, then what’s next after that.

If we have finally reached a moment to pause and plan, how do we determine our next three most faithful steps?

We have witnessed remarkable agility in responding to the past year’s immediate challenges.

We’ve seen churches and religious institutions adapt quickly and creatively to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting safety measures.

We’ve seen more white-culture organizations engage seriously with the scourge of systemic racism, examining how they have benefited from racism and taking steps toward becoming antiracist.

And we’ve seen Asian American, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American and immigrant communities -- which have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 heaped on top of systemic racism -- continue to advocate for justice.

The immediate challenges have been so urgent and so consuming that exhaustion seems universal.

In such a moment, it is important to look for an opportunity to take a breath and remember what we know about the long view. For Christians, that vision is presented in Scripture.

Your tradition might emphasize Revelation’s Holy City (Revelation 21) or John’s beloved community (John 13:34-35) or the great commandments to love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). These passages paint pictures of God’s intention for us.

As we are nourished again by God’s promise of the future, we return to the current challenges and look for the next most faithful step to participate in God’s promise. Where and with whom can we join in God’s ongoing effort?

The challenge of leading others in this moment is to chart the next three steps -- the one we can see to take and then the next two after that.

One of my lessons from the last year is that I cannot do everything. My colleagues and even our faithful partners cannot do everything. A central function of leadership in this season is deciding how to focus our time.

What will I do? What will I ask my colleagues to do? What can our partners do? Who is doing something that we can support and celebrate (but not hold responsibility for)? What will we not do for now?

Focusing on the next three steps means that some excellent ideas may have to wait. We do what we can and support others in doing what we cannot.

Some questions that could prompt imagination for the step in front of us and the two that will follow might include:

  • What is your group doing in response to the pandemic that is having a powerful impact? Should you consider continuing it indefinitely? Why? What results do you see from this action? What is required to maintain the activity? Who needs to support it? What kinds of resources need to be put behind it?
  • Has your organization benefited from injustice that others suffer? Who has suffered and who continues to experience the harm? What can you do to learn from those who have suffered? How can you incorporate what you are learning into next steps?
  • What was your department or congregation doing in 2019 that has not been missed? What actions or programs are you relieved not to be doing? What is required to let those things remain fallow for the next season?
  • What are your strengths in this season? What gives joy to you and your colleagues? How can the next steps sustain the opportunities for joy among all those who are a part of the work?
  • What opportunity or challenge have you recognized that needs to be addressed? What can you encourage now that would till the ground for new activities?

Anyone connected to an organization that has the time and energy to ask questions like these is a leader in this moment. As a Baptist, I am comfortable with informal networks and leadership arising from all sorts of places in a system.

During the pandemic, the people with the most formal power don’t necessarily have the time and bandwidth to do more than show up. Those in formal positions of authority would do well to pay attention to the people with energy right now -- those who might provide needed leadership -- and help them get the resources to move forward.

Finding the space to do the reflection I am advocating might seem impossible. If you cannot find the time, who can? Reaching out to conversation partners with more time to reflect or read can open your imagination. And if you don’t have time even for that, that problem needs to go on the list of immediate, urgent challenges to consider.

Reflection can come in many different forms. When I have been overwhelmed by the crush of work, I look for time in the week to call a friend. We chat, reflect, share prayer requests.

I am in a peer group that meets monthly and provides space for reflection and sharing. These are moments in which we can lay down the burdens, examine them and listen for the movement of God’s spirit toward the future.

A few weeks ago, following such a session, a friend shared the recent McKinsey & Company report on 13 trends in 2021. She identified the one trend that she believed had particular relevance. Her reflection helped me absorb an article that could easily have overwhelmed me.

We need to help each other with discerning what is next. The short-term future includes more unknown and unknowable elements than we’ve faced in recent decades. Yet the work of leadership means looking ahead and helping those who are following begin to make sense of the current moment and the near term beyond.

Every parent has experienced this kind of leadership. Caring for an infant can be all-consuming. I love holding babies, because cradling life focuses all my attention. Yet parents and guardians have to do more. They have to make decisions, big and small, that will have longer-term implications. Few parents do such work alone. They listen to other parents, teachers and wise guides.

May we encourage one another in discerning the next three steps, just as we have encouraged one another in responding to the urgent challenges of the past year.