“Get on the Balcony”: Your Next Step in Leading Beyond the Pandemic

The Rev. Aaron Buttery, The Diocese of C4SO’s NextGen Leader, sits down with The Rev. Dr. Bryan Sims of the Diocese of the Carolinas, Asbury Seminary, and Spiritual Leadership, Inc. (SLI) to talk about adaptive leadership in a time of uncertainty. Learn from Sims, a seasoned veteran in coaching churches, denominational groups, and movements, how adaptive change from a team-based approach can prepare you to lead into an uncertain future.

by Aaron Buttery and Bryan Sims

Aaron ButteryYou and I are in a shared moment with leaders around the world, staring in the face of a radically changed environment. How do leaders respond in this moment with tomorrow in mind?

Bryan Sims: I think as leaders, we have 3 different options. One of those is to revert back to the things that are easiest for us that may or may not be helpful for today. Another would be to stay static—keep things normal. I often imagine leaders putting their fingers in their ears and covering their eyes to pretend nothing has changed so they can keep doing what they’ve been doing. The third option is to re-imagine what is possible for the future. Returning to normal may be a version of going back to Egypt for many churches—returning to the things they were enslaved to before. Instead, will we move into the Promised Land and think about what we want to invite our people to return to? What might we want to imagine or re-imagine for the future?

AB: How can we lean into this re-imagination of church and our leadership?

BS: Ron Heifetz at Harvard Business uses the metaphor of doing adaptive leadership on the dance floor in the midst of the fray, but he also recommends we get above all of that. He calls it “getting on the balcony.” That would be my first invitation for leaders in the midst of a season like this: Get above the chaos, up on the balcony where you can see the whole landscape of what is happening.

Get above the chaos, up on the balcony where you can see the whole landscape of what is happening.

In the past couple of months, so many of us have been focused on helping innovation and adaptation happen on the dance floor. To start, it was focused on how we make it through the first week. Then it was, are we going to have to do Easter online? Then it was getting through Holy Week in a way that truly honored the Lord and invited people into something meaningful. Once we got through Easter, many leaders were looking around wondering, “How long is this going to last and what do we do now?”

“Getting on the balcony” means we begin to think about questions like: What kind of culture do we want to create after COVID-19? Not merely what kind of strategies do we want to use, but a deeper-level question around our values. What actually helps us embody our values? If we were to name what is most critical—our non-negotiable values—and think about how we embody those things post-crisis, I hope that we would feel a freedom not to go back to certain things that weren’t helping us make disciples, engage our community or embody the values we say we are about.

Reimagining also means asking, “What are our greatest missional opportunities?” This season is unusual because both believers and unbelievers, churched and unchurched alike, are experiencing the same things right now. In the past, we may not have felt like we could relate well with people outside the walls of the church, and vice versa. It’s a great time to ask, “How we can be in relationship with people outside the church, both now and as we reimagine the future post-crisis?”

AB: As we think about our future post-crisis, how does our theology and ecclesiology inform that?

BS: The first thing that comes to mind is incarnation—the missional opportunity to be more Christ-like in the way we engage missionally. How do we get into incarnational relationships as we emerge from this crisis? Perhaps they already exist, but in many cases, we have fresh opportunities to engage in incarnational ways. Rather than return to the normal post-Christendom world many of us are used to, we can ask, “What is the opportunity here to look more like the early church, the church of the book of Acts, and the church of the Creeds? What does it look like for us to embody that kind of missional-incarnational impulse in the midst of the liminality, shared experience, anxiety, disequilibrium we are experiencing together? How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus in the midst of this kind of season and especially emerging from it?”

How do we get into incarnational relationships as we emerge from this crisis?

AB: What do we learn from the early church about missional leadership that we could apply to our current culture? 

BS: First, leadership becomes shared. It looks more like a team than the solo-heroic pattern we often see both in the local church and in our larger culture.

In Acts 6, in the midst of the first major culture crisis in the early church, the people went to the Apostles and essentially asked for a solution. But the Apostles gave the work back to the people. They said, “Choose amongst yourselves those who are full of the Spirit and wisdom.” As a result, new leadership emerged—multi-cultural leadership that reflected the multi-cultural early church. They were able to share leadership and discern together in ways that actually served their community well. In Acts 15, we find them discerning together in the Council of Jerusalem “what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” They were facing challenges they didn’t have a playbook for, very similar to the kinds of things we are facing now.

So, how do we face today’s adaptive challenges together? From a sociological, leadership and theological perspective, it actually requires shared leadership. It requires us to have trust and presence with other leaders, as well as with those whom we are serving. It requires us, as best we can, to be in accountable relationships that help us to see our own blind spots and live according to what it means to be a true Christ follower and spiritual leader in our homes, workplaces, churches, and the world. Then, and only then, we can embody a non-anxious presence as we lead. Like Jesus, we are not caught up in the fray. I think of Jesus in John 8 as the woman is about to be stoned and the whole system is anxious. People are fired up, yet Jesus somehow, in the midst of all of that, maintains a non-anxious presence.

When we learn to discern together, we also have the courage to risk together. It moves us into true missional action—Kingdom-motivated action. It is not merely that I have an idea as a leader and try to recruit others to come with me. If we discern together, then we can risk together. In that, there is shared ownership and responsibility.

When we learn to discern together, we also have the courage to risk together.

Leaders in the local church can engage in this kind of relationship together, both discerning and risking as the Spirit leads. But it also applies to a community like the Telos Collective, beyond the local church level.

Shared leadership requires a different kind of humility, a willingness to let go of control, a willingness to engage with others, a willingness to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I know the God who will bring those.” It also takes the pressure off, which is a real gift. It allows us to have a collective intelligence and discernment as opposed to relying on the intelligence, experience, giftedness, or even intuition of only a few leaders.

AB: Tell me more about risking well as a community of leaders.

BS: When we risk together in a season like we’re in now, where there is already disequilibrium and liminality, you’ll typically find a whole lot more grace for experimentation than there would be in a season of equilibrium and status quo. People are often risk-averse and experimentation-averse; yet in a season like this we can fail often in order to learn our way forward. We can experiment well to find ways to embody the incarnation. Perhaps they will be even more effective than the ways we had before.

Adaptive leadership in a pandemic requires trusted conversation partners. View the recording of a live conversation with Aaron and Bryan about practices and concrete actions for “getting on the balcony” with other leaders and seeing missional opportunities in our new normal. 


 The Rev. Bryan Sims is the Associate Professor of Leadership and Lay Equipping
Director, Lay Mobilization & Asbury Institutes at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has worked since 2001 as a Leadership and Organizational Change Coach with Spiritual Leadership, Inc. (SLI) where he has trained and coached leaders, teams, churches, and organizations over extended periods of time to bring spiritual awakening and missional effectiveness. Bryan has also led groups of business leaders through WorkLife Incubators in which leaders are growing in Christ and learning new ways to integrate their faith and work. His most rewarding work has come through coaching three dying congregations in West Virginia to become a united, new community of faith (SLI ReStart). Bryan and his wife MyLinda have four children: Isaiah, Luke, Silas, and Lydia.

The Rev. Aaron Buttery leads and facilitates the NextGen Leadership team from Christ Church Plano. As a 20+ year NextGen ministry leader, a two-time church planter, and leadership coach with Spiritual Leadership, Inc., he cultivates questions, ideas, and excitement about young people and growing young leaders. Contact him at aaron@c4so.org.