5 Principles for Leading in Uncharted Waters

We’ve all been in uncharted waters for the past six months.

Uncharted waters include:

  • Unfamiliar territory
  • Little to no experience navigating those waters
  • Can’t foresee what will happen

No leader is immune.

Young leaders are wide-eyed, and veteran leaders are weary-eyed, but we are all in the same COVID boat together.

We’re navigating:

  • An uncertain economy
  • A COVID environment
  • The upcoming elections

When the waters are choppy, what do you hold on to?

My Father-in-Law, Pete, was a Master Chief in the Navy and served our country well. And if you know much about the Navy, the Master Chiefs were the leaders who made things happen on a day to day basis. “Pop,” as we call him, spent a lot of time at sea and gained great wisdom about navigating rough waters. He says it’s all about people and sticking together to get the job done.

That’s good advice.

What are you holding on to in these uncharted and rough waters?

Before we cover the 5 principles, here are 4 practical thoughts that serve as anchors to hold on to:

Family and close friends
When times are tough, it is family and close friends you can count on.

Quiet time to think and pray
Your soul will never be at peace if you never slow down.

Deeply held values and convictions
What’s important to you? Make sure you know the shortlist and lead by those values and convictions. Don’t be distracted by things that don’t matter.

Simple things that bring joy
What brings a smile and makes your heart light?

Holding on to trustworthy anchors in uncharted and often choppy waters is essential to steady your soul, but moving forward is needed to fulfill your purpose.

In these days, when strategy can change rapidly, principles help direct you as you lead.

5 principles for leading uncharted waters:

1) Your peace can’t be dependent on what you can control.

Under stress, we attempt to control more than usual to compensate for the lack of ability to actually control anything of substance.

The more you attempt to control what you cannot control, the more peace will elude you.

In fact, we unknowingly attempt to control little things, which robs our peace even more, because, at some level, we know that doesn’t really change anything for good.

Soul level peace that produces a non-anxious presence comes from knowing that God is in control and our job as leaders is to focus on what we can change, not fret about what we can’t change.

The peace we all long for, even in stressful times, is a result of letting go, not grasping tightly. That doesn’t mean you don’t care; it merely acknowledges that peace is a state of being, not about possession or achievement.

Your relationship with God and focus on the fruit of the Spirit (peace) is core to the peace you desire as a leader.

2) Your confidence can’t be based on knowing the answers.

We know that leaders are not expected to have all the answers, but that doesn’t change how we feel about it in the moment. It can place doubt in our confidence, at least for a short time.

Our desire as leaders is to solve problems, make progress, and help people grow in their faith. That requires ideas and solutions (answers), which we largely express in the form of decisions.

Sometimes even under the best intentions, great thought, wise counsel, and prayer, we make a decision that doesn’t work. Or we make a mistake.

Don’t let your confidence be shaken by one-off situations that don’t go well.

You can’t possibly know all the answers, and that is especially true in uncharted waters.

Let me encourage you; no one knows “the” answers right now. In fact, be somewhat wary of anyone who tells you they do.

Build your confidence, starting with the fact that God is with you, and you are called and gifted. From there, you can believe in yourself and grow in experience and skill.

3) Your success can’t be based only on traditional scoreboards.

Traditional scoreboard stats like attendance, offerings, and first-time visitors will always be important, but they don’t tell the whole picture. And things have changed.

In fact, traditional “scoreboards” leave out some important factors, plus culture has shifted, which causes us to think about how we pursue and define success.

Let’s start with what we know; life change is the most important measure of success for the church. Then, you might prioritize how you think about that. For example, salvation and baptism are likely at the top of your list.

There are many more examples of life change, such as freedom from addiction or a redeemed marriage, and kids and teens making good decisions.

Current culture has shifted first to attending church less in general, which has been happening at a noticeable level for at least a couple of years or more.

Now, in these uncharted waters, we are all navigating the pros and cons of digital church. Each church will choose its own approach, but one thing we all know is that it’s here to stay.

Digital church is not an option if you want to reach people where they are. From there, depending on how you choose to prioritize it, you can encourage people to attend in person when they are ready.

People will want to come back, but it will take time.

4) Your progress can’t be achieved without change.

Whether you consider your church (pre-COVID) to be cutting edge or traditional, you won’t move forward without more change.

I know, that’s exhausting. I really do get it.

It seems like the only thing constant any more is change, but if we resist it, we’ll get left behind in terms of the fullest potential of our churches.

The first step in this process is to be clear on your vision. You have to know where you want to go and what you want to accomplish.

Your strategy (your plan) will change rapidly, so stay flexible and willing to adapt.

I wrote about how you measure success comes into play in point # 3.

All of this requires change at elevated levels because you are in uncharted waters.

It’s not uncommon that at least part of the change required for progress is about you as a leader, stretching, growing, and thinking differently. It’s also about how we do what we do.

  • What needs to change in your church to reach people for Jesus right now and in the near future?
  • How do you, as a leader, need to grow and change to lead the necessary change?

5) Your growth can’t be realized without mistakes.

Sometimes I want to tell us as leaders, just take a deep breath. We’re going to get through this.

It’s good to soak in that truth. No crisis lasts forever.

Multiplied thousands upon thousands of people are attending church now, and many more will come when they sense it’s safe for them.

Just like we all want to attend weddings, concerts, and football games, the desire to worship together in larger environments will grow.

I’m not suggesting, however, that it will be easy. And you will make mistakes. I will too.

It’s going to take time, and we will all make mistakes along the way.

Candidly, I don’t think the majority of our mistakes will be in the realm of strategy and programming.

Our mistakes will largely come in interpreting the thinking and life patterns of current culture. It lacks any stability to fully understand where things are headed.

Give yourself permission to make some mistakes, and keep pointing people to Jesus and the truth in His word.

And like Pop says, let’s help each other; after all, we’re all in this together. 

20 thoughts on “5 Principles for Leading in Uncharted Waters”

  1. Wow. Awesome Truth. I will be digging in here for a while, chewing on these truths, and sharing this w my Team. Thank you.

    1. Hey Randy!

      Good to hear, keep digging in, and glad you can share with your team.

      Let’s stick together in this challenging time!

  2. “Give yourself permission to make some mistakes, and keep pointing people to Jesus and the truth in His word.”

    So good, Dan!

    As always, thank you for the wisdom and encouragement!


  3. Really good article. Don’t have time this morning to provide detailed comments but this is really good and I especially liked the 4 anchor thoughts at the beginning. Going to share with others.

    1. Thanks Eddie,

      Look forward to more of your thoughts on this if you have time, and so glad you will share this with others.

  4. I wrote “just take a deep breath” in my planner after reading this. I will be re-reading this often. I needed to see the anchors which “steady your soul” so I could prepare my heart for leading in these uncharted waters. Thank you!

    1. Hi Ashley,

      So glad you wrote that in your planner! And the next step is to do it so regularly its just part of your life. I’m still working on that!

      Keep moving forward!

  5. Dan, I was just completing my first year as an XP when COVID hit. I have truly valued your guidance–and the humility with which you offer it–over the past 1.5 years, but especially over the past 6 months! You have given this young leader a lot of hope, truth, and practical insights. Thank you!

      1. Hi Dan,

        I’m at Gospel Fellowship in Boynton Beach, FL. You and I met briefly last year during the XP Leader Group in Chicago. I was there “auditing” those few days of coaching at Kadi Cole’s invitation. Such an impactful time, which I still draw on often!

  6. Thanks Dan,
    Just got your new book, ‘Confident Leader’ Love your truthfulness about your first sermon and Jenny’s encouragement, “Dan, your next sermon is sure to be better.”
    Several points jumped out at me from this blog post. The importance of interdependence, doing the same thing, and expecting different results, don’t fear change, as nothing remains the same, and success, comes from Try, Try, Try…umps. Thanks for all the learnings you share and help us grow into for our future.

    1. Hi Joe,

      It was good to see you again on the zoom call. I always appreciate your heart and you have expressed it well here again about this post.

      And yes, Jenny and my first sermon… I sure remember her more than my sermon.
      Probably a good thing!

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