Serious disruption is not a new challenge for board members and senior administrators of theological schools. Shrinking enrollment, massive changes in the cultural landscape, emerging technologies, and painfully tight budgets have been part of the rhythm of theological higher education for many years. But the global pandemic has brought disruption to a new level — one so unsettling that theological school leaders must dig deep and pray to find the strength and wisdom to lead through it.
If the pandemic is like past disasters and world calamities, at some point most of us will find ourselves returning to something that resembles normal, even if it is a new kind of normal. Eventually, the isolation and social distancing will give way to face-to-face classes and the busy campuses we are used to. While we wait for that day to arrive, there is a monumental question every leader will need to answer: Will you be ready to embrace the reality of life beyond COVID-19?
For those who work in higher education, every day of the past several months has been consumed with decisions about remote learning platforms, completing the spring semester, alternative graduation plans, and processing the impact of the new financial and economic landscape. But now, especially as the fall semester is just around the corner, it is also the time to embrace an intensive period of planning — long-range strategic planning, financial planning, and even spiritual planning — for what the new normal will look like, not only in the next six months, but in the next two years and beyond.
One thing is clear: How you lead people out of this crisis will be as important, or even more important, than how you lead them during the crisis.
While that statement may seem ridiculous given current realities, the fact remains: the challenges you will face in the aftermath of the pandemic will far exceed those that currently consume your days and keep you up at night. Like with a weather-related disaster, the greatest test of leadership occurs on the other side of the storm, when the calamity has subsided, when attention shifts to assessing the damage and determining the best road to recovery.
The five specific action steps below may help you formulate strategic thinking and wise decision-making plans as you navigate your school through the uncertainties of what lies ahead.
GRAPHIC: JOHN SPURLING
• As lockdown restrictions are lifted, mapping out a long-term plan of operation for the school is an essential step. While we all want to get back to the business of education, there may be a tendency to want to relaunch everything simultaneously, but wisdom and caution must prevail; it will not be possible to return to the pre-virus world, and the steps taken must be incremental. Shift your thinking into a different gear, and make a coordinated effort to scrutinize every aspect of everything you do. Identify the most challenging issues you are facing at your school, and basing your assessment on hard data, allocate resources to the right places sensibly, strategically, and promptly.
• Connect with other academic leaders to discuss pressing concerns. While no one has a solution to the myriad problems theological school leaders (and leaders of all colleges and universities) are currently facing, innovative ideas are being implemented with great creativity in schools, not only in North America. but all over the world.
• Adopt a “stagile” mindset — this made-up word captures the essential challenge of balancing the need for both stability and agility during this time of intense disruption. Right now, theological schools are being forced to operate in ways that have never even been considered before. And, after the immediate crisis of the pandemic subsides, it will be essential for leaders to leverage the same creative agility that has been on display during the pandemic. Returning to a business-as-usual mindset will not be productive within the realm of our new normal. Exponentially increase your commitment to innovative thinking and adaptive planning — one that cultivates a cultural mindset of “stagility.”
• Consider a multiphased approach for reopening your school, similar to the reopening plans currently being carried out on a national and international level. Keep in mind that plans need to be flexible so they can be adapted to changing conditions. Of course, as you reopen one area, it will naturally affect another and for this reason, it is essential to be strategic and forward-thinking. Critical throughout the relaunch process will be the need for clear communication to all involved, careful assessment, and considerable patience.
In the early days and weeks after the onset of COVID-19, most leaders were understandably consumed with “working the problem” — addressing the most pressing matters first. Yet now that the intensity of the challenges appears to be subsiding, it is time to inventory the damage that has occurred, or maybe is still occurring, in the lives of the people you work with.
For seminary leaders, approaching your colleagues with emotional intelligence and large doses of empathy is critical right now, just as it was for those coming to the aid of survivors after 9/11. Invest the time to connect with your team. Be intentional about carving out times to gather and regroup, even as you face the mountain of other challenges still looming on the horizon.
When meeting with colleagues, approach them with a tender ear and be ready to relate to each of them on a personal level. Remember, everyone is facing their own challenges and losses as they go through this ordeal. These are not things you can know about unless you give people a chance to share their experiences. Provide them with updates on your reopening plans and allow them to ask questions. It is important to make sure your team knows their emotional and physical wellness and safety are high priorities for you — that you are there for them.
As you continue to work toward reassembling the various facets of seminary life, remember that honest and clear communication is essential. Make yourself available by phone, email or videoconference — whatever seems to work best for them.
There is a great deal of conversation and speculation right now about what the post-COVID-19 world will look like. From government offices to the business sector to the professional sports world to schools, everyone is working fervently to regroup and look ahead, even if just for the short term. As a theological school leader, it is important to define new short-term realities and discuss important questions such as what will your new normal look like. Will you be prepared to adjust the operations of your institution to comply with restrictions in your city, state, or province, and flexible enough to accommodate likely changes in the rules? Seminary leaders should be assessing the changing landscape and how it will affect “doing life together” when school starts.
In anticipating a world beyond COVID-19, it is advisable to review every aspect of campus life. That means assessing the unique set of circumstances of every department and determining what needs to be implemented before opening the doors this fall. Below is a list of questions and concerns that will stimulate your thinking on reopening school:
Many leaders can identify the next mountain that needs to be climbed. But in times of crisis, it is easy to become so immersed in the task at hand that you overlook the need to pause, reflect and learn from the past, and apply those lessons both to the present and to the future. Reflective thinking is one of the most valuable qualities of effective leadership, and it is especially valuable now when so many big decisions are on the table — decisions like when and how to reopen a school.
Essentially, the challenge facing every theological school leader is to find the balance between what was working before the pandemic and what needs to change in the new normal.
Use this time not only to reflect on the past, but also to think about how this unique experience offers opportunities to do things differently.
For example, because millions of people have been working from home, all in different ways and from different starting points, learning to use technology effectively has become a steep challenge but an essential task. Teleconferencing and the emerging field of telepresence are commonly used in the business world, but some theological schools have been slow to leverage their power. Use the pandemic to open the creative floodgates and explore how you can expand your reach to more people and change more lives for the better.
Throughout history, times of intense crisis have provided unique opportunities for leaders to step up and inspire a generation — to withstand despair, to face fears, and to overcome the common enemy. This moment in time offers theological school leaders this same opportunity. People are looking for leaders with strength of character, who are fueled by personal conviction, who inspire confidence, and remind us all that this pandemic is not bigger than the God we serve. As you work to manage the pandemic, both in your own life and in your school, be sure to consult your personal dashboard to see what the gauges are telling you about your spiritual, emotional, physical, mental, and relational energy levels. The question is not, for example, whether you are tired — because undoubtedly you are tired. The question is how is your fatigue affecting your ability to provide quality leadership, make good decisions, and stay healthy.
To be personally engaged, you need to be emotionally connected. That requires awareness of your overall well-being. However, you should recognize that the best judge of your well-being, especially during a prolonged crisis, may not be you. A genuine desire to lead and serve those in need during this challenging time may cloud your self-awareness. Seeking wise counsel and relying on insight from those close to you will provide a counterbalance for the common tendency to do too much. Having people who will listen lovingly and hold you accountable will be immensely valuable as you lead the transition from reclusion to reconnection.
By demonstrating resilience as a leader, you show that you can rebound from setbacks and remain strong when the storms of life are wreaking havoc all around. Now, more than ever, you need to embrace shared leadership and ongoing collaboration — all with a calm demeanor and a willingness to invite others to participate in the process.
Leading any organization or academic institution through a crisis can be very difficult. Don’t allow the challenges to consume you. Remember that we are merely stewards of the theological schools we serve. Ultimately, we all need to check our pride at the door and allow God to lead and guide through unprecedented days. Bend with the changing winds that shape the road ahead as you resolve to stand your ground through this crisis and find God’s greater good. You are making a tremendous difference, and many lives are being profoundly impacted because you remain resilient!
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