Leading in difficult times…

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Rough Road

Revelation 3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:

“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent.”

According to one of my commentaries (a commentary is a book that helps explain the bible by giving background and context) Sardis had once been a thriving commercial center, but by the time of the early church Sardis had declined significantly. In a similar way the church in Sardis, once known among Christian churches for its spiritual strength, had begun to decline. It was a shadow of its former self.

It is believed the problem with the church in Sardis was its inclination to forget the teachings of Christ and revert to the pagan practices of its neighbors. By doing so, it lost its vitality.

“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.”

As I read this passage I cannot help but think of the Chrisitan church in the United States. Once a mighty institution, the church as a whole continues to decline. It’s not so much that the church changed, but the rest of the world changed, and continues to do so much faster than the church is adapting. The church is not dead, but it’s not doing well.

Last week I was visiting with a dear friend and seminary classmate who was recently elected president of one of our ELCA Lutheran seminaries. Seminaries are graduate schools where future clergy receive a theological education (usually a Master of Divinity degree) while being trained to serve as leaders of local churches. As we chatted about the broader church, the role of seminaries, and the challenge of training leaders for an uncertain future, two requirements emerged that are common to all leaders in difficult circumstances:

  1. As leaders we cannot be afraid to name reality. – When things aren’t going well, it’s common for people to be in denial. Unless we acknowledge our problems, we’ll never address them. This is what I see in v.1 or our passage: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” No mincing words here. The church in Sardis was not merely in a slump, or facing short-term challenges, but was D-E-A-D “dead”. Boom.
  2. As leaders we cannot lose hope for a better future. When we honestly name a difficult reality, those around us can become discouraged – even leave. While some people may indeed need to leave, we don’t want EVERYONE to leave. Renewal is not a one person job. Leaders must articulate a future that’s worth fighting for – and a path to get there: Wake up, and strengthen what remains…Remember then (the gospel) you received and heard; obey it, and repent.” The author here is clear that the people of Sardis can be “strengthened”, as well as how they will do so – obey the gospel and repent.

I’m guessing there are many of you who are leading in difficult circumstances, or at least trying to do so. Some questions come to mind:

  • Have you clearly and honestly named your current reality? Hard truth is often what motivates us to act.
  • Have you articulated a path forward that inspires hope?
  • Are you clear that your hope lies with the Lord and not yourself?

Heavenly Father, these are trying times for many of us. And as leaders (at home, work, school, church), we have a very difficult task. We have to lead others where we have often never been ourselves. We quickly realize we are in over our heads! Give us grace to lead in difficult times. Help us to honestly name reality while never losing hope that you can lead us to better days ahead. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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