“This has been the hardest leadership year of my life.” I’ve heard that statement over and over again from leaders across the country. Pastors, parachurch leaders, government officials, school administrators and all kinds of leaders have faced new challenges this year.
On one level, difficult decisions are expected when we assume these kinds of roles. Leadership is always hard. We know what we are signing up for. But 2020 delivered a toxic brew of grim and demanding circumstances: COVID-19 and the accompanying operational and budget decisions, racial tension, a divisive election season, and severe natural disasters causing significant damage. Consider Tennessee, where I live. On top of those global events, in this calendar year we’ve had two destructive tornados, one in Chattanooga and one in Nashville. Then we had another storm, a derecho, rip through our town. On Christmas, we had a domestic terrorist set off a bomb downtown which thankfully didn’t kill anyone but knocked out critical data infrastructure for several days and caused significant damage to small businesses on a main Nashville thoroughfare.
Through all of this, there have been amazing and noble acts of goodwill. People have rallied, companies have been generous, and churches across the world are meeting human needs in unprecedented ways. Honestly, I’m stunned by the innovation and generosity I see. It makes me feel good about our country at a time when a lot of people don’t feel good about our country. At the same time, people are restless, shut up as we are, in many places, without the normal formative rituals of human contact, the everyday meetings and gatherings and office banter and prayer meetings and worship services and parent teacher meetings. Our conversations are mediated now mostly through screens. Instead of conversing over coffee, we fight on Facebook.
We are entering 2021 with some guarded optimism that life is going to be getting back to some form of normal by, perhaps(?), the middle of the year. But the divisions in the country that were exposed by this not good, very bad year are still lingering. Most of us are aware of the ways Americans bitterly disagree on a variety of issues, but there is one growing gap that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should and affects Christian leaders.
More than ever, 2020 revealed the stark division between what some label the “laptop class” and the working class. Most members of the laptop class were largely unaffected by COVID-19 restrictions this year, transitioning from office life to working from home. On the other hand, many members of the working class were hit hard as their restaurants, stores, and small businesses were shut down, often leaving them dependent on an overrun unemployment system. The laptop class lives on Twitter, while the working class mainly uses Facebook. These examples aren’t perfect, but they hopefully illustrate this concerning divide.
I write this as a charter member of the first cohort. I’ve made my living in a world of pastors, parachurch organizations, and thought leaders. We inhabit a pretty insular world where we read each other's blog posts, we use Twitter to converse, and we generally get our news from the same sources. Twitter is often like a green room, where celebrities gather, away from the noise of the crowd. It’s mainly where influencers and leaders talk to each other.
The other cohort is the masses. Working people who don’t have wide influence, who aren’t tweeting all day, and who don’t inhabit the cloistered spaces we inhabit. It’s the Facebook world of ordinary people.
What’s interesting about both environments—the laptop class and the working class—is that both seem sealed off from each other. Both get news from the sources that confirm what they already believe. Both resist narratives that cut against their preferred framing. Both nod their heads in agreement with each other.
COVID-19 laid bare this divide in a stark way. The shutdowns and the resulting economic distress disproportionately hit folks in the working class. COVID-19 is a serious disease and we must mitigate it, but every canceled concert, every empty stadium, every closed restaurant represents millions of people who make a living, not on keyboards, but by working with their hands. And while the economic recovery this year has been remarkable, there are still massive gaps among working class people. I honestly don’t know what the best policy is to handle a global pandemic like COVID-19. Our family has been affected by it. We not only contracted it in the summer and recovered, but we have had close friends and family members die from COVID-19. It’s serious and can be deadly. As of this writing, over 350,000 of our fellow Americans have died. I don’t envy, in the slightest bit, the public officials who have to make gut-wrenching decisions.
Yet, there was and still is a bit of preachy flippancy among many in the laptop class about the shutdowns and their effect on people’s lives. If you live and work in the laptop class, the adjustments have been hard, but perhaps not as severe.
For many, like me, working from home has brought some silver linings. I’ve hunkered down at home. My speaking engagements largely pivoted to digital. My meetings are on Zoom. Frankly, I like spending more time with my family, working in sweatpants and strolling to the refrigerator for lunch. I may never wear a collared shirt ever again. But for many who don’t make their living stringing words together or attending endless Zoom calls, this pandemic has been shattering. These are the people that our conversations in the green room often don’t include. Peggy Noonan put it best in a recent column:
It is that the estrangement between average working people and the elites of government and media, here defined as people who regularly or will eventually appear on cable news, has become deeper. I believe we’ve been witnessing an utter lack of empathy for—actually an inability or unwillingness to hear—the owners of small businesses that have had to close up or limit services or recede in general during the pandemic. I believe small-business men and women looked up during this holiday season, on which they depend so much to make a living, and saw uncaring officials and unpredictable, seemingly political fiats and decisions. And I am certain they thought: Our elites don’t care about us at all. They don’t even think they have to imitate caring.
The professional class of politicians, media people, scientists and credentialed chatterers care about business in the abstract—“small-business bankruptcies” concern them; they have a sense some people will lose livelihoods. But they have no particular heart for them. They never betray any appreciation of the romance of opening a place and being your own boss and offering a good product and being part of the town and being a success. They don’t understand the sacrifice it takes. Or that the shuttering of a store is, literally, the death of a dream.
This growing class divide doesn’t just affect pundits and politics and economic policy. This divide carries over to theological and ecclesiological discussions. I’m realizing this more and more every day as I read the conversations that take place among Christian voices on Twitter: journalists, pastors, writers, parachurch leaders, nonprofit leaders. I learn a lot from these conversations and engage in them regularly. But I find them so far removed from the reality I see and hear among ordinary Christians at church and in my community who don’t have public platforms and who often don’t engage on social media.
To return to the imperfect metaphor from before: I get nervous when I read many of the conversations that take place in the isolated green room of Christian twitter. Evangelicals need criticism and we need prophets, but much of what passes for courageous rebuke is awfully condescending, even mockery of ordinary people who make up the kingdom of God. It seems there is a perverse incentive now to see who can be most anti-evangelical. It appears that lot of Christian leaders seemingly just don’t like the people they are called to lead.
It’s not that evangelicals don’t need rebuke. We do. We need leaders brave enough to call out sin and call out repentance. When I sit in church, I need to be uncomfortable at times. I need my biases challenged and my blind spots exposed. Leader’s cannot afford to avoid the prophetic and only pander to the laity. This is dangerous, offering people’s “itching ears” what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). Bad shepherds cultivate conspiracy theories and nurture the misplaced grievances of their people to gain power.
And yet there is a stark difference between the Apostle Paul writing letters in the first century through tears and with humility and the snarky tweets and public eye-rolling that is so popular today. I’ve given in to this temptation in my own life. The higher one gets in terms of platform or position and the more letters a person has after their name because of advanced scholarship, the easier it is to get isolated from the experiences of ordinary Christians. Too often Christian leaders are isolated from interaction with people less credentialed than they are.
The best leaders I know and have observed seem to navigate both of these worlds well. They can move in the leadership class and yet have credibility with the laity. They spend time in the green room and with people who have dirt under their fingernails and who have never read The New Yorker. They are prophetic without being condescending. They relate to their people without pandering.
I don’t have a perfect prescription for what this kind of leadership looks like, but it would seem to begin with the words of 1 Peter 5:2, “Be shepherds of God’s flock, who are among you.” It’s that last part that leaders would do well to heed. Peter seems to be saying to Christian leaders: love the people God has given you, not the people you wish God gave you.
You can speak to a people prophetically if you’ve first led a people pastorally. People will hear words of rebuke if they sense you are one of them, that you are not too good for them, and that you are not embarrassed to be numbered among them.
This divide isn’t going away anytime soon. Navigating this gap may be the most significant leadership challenge you face this year. As we enter 2021, let’s pray God gives us wisdom to lead well in both worlds.
This Week on The Way Home Podcast
Tara-Leigh Cobble joins me on The Way Home podcast to talk about why it’s important to read the Bible, how she struggled (like all of us) to keep on track, what to do if you get off track on your Bible reading program, and some of the myths we have about our quiet time with the Lord. This was a fun conversation and I think you’ll enjoy it!
The New York Times has a sobering piece on the devastating impact of the pandemic and shutdowns on gun violence in our major cities. Something to pray for, especially leaders in these cities, ministries who are in the thick of it and the underserved communities who bear the brunt.
Caitlan Flanagan is an extraordinarily gifted writer. I know we are past Christmas, but I don’t care. You should still read her wonderful piece on Luke 2 and Charlie Brown.
David French writes beautifully about soccer, Ted Lasso, and forgiveness.
Doing a Bible reading plan this year? I want to encourage you to do this, to begin your mornings with God. Phillip Nation has some good tips on Bible reading here.
Bible reading is, of course, an invitation, not a burden. It begins with discipline but soon becomes delight. That’s why I loved Griffin Gulledge’s perspective here.
What I’m Reading
I’ve been a bit on a book reading binge the last month or so, so brace yourself:
The Tuscan Child, which is a wonderful novel about WWII, Italian food and British royalty.
Saving Freedom, this is Joe Scarborough’s biography of Truman, focusing specifically on his courage during the Cold War.
Being the Bad Guys, a wonderful little book by a gifted Australian pastor on how to live as faithful Christians in an increasingly hostile world.
Jesus, the Great Philosopher, by my friend, Jonathan Pennington. Dr. Pennington was my NT professor in seminary and is, in my view, one of the foremost experts on the gospels and particularly Matthew. Great book.
I’ve Seen the End of You, this book has been sitting on my nightstand for months. I wish I had picked it up sooner. It’s a fascinating and penetrating look at faith and suffering, written by a brain surgeon who sees the effects of death and suffering up close.
The Day The World Came To Town, this book was on my Kindle for a few months and I finally found time during Christmas to read it. It’s about a Canadian town and the stranded passengers who were made welcome there on 9/11.
Reading While Black is a fantastic book by Anglican scholar Esau McCauley. He illuminates, with rich exegesis and faithful Biblical scholarship, the way our black brothers and sisters read the Bible and what we might learn from this.
They Knew They Were Pilgrims. Were the Pilgrims saints or villains? Historian John Turner rebuffs bold narratives. I’m enjoying this history quite a bit. It’s a good companion to Thomas Kidd’s amazing book, God of Liberty
When Doctrine Divides the People of God Rhyne Putnam is a Baptist theologian and scholar. This book is a thorough treatment of how and when and where faithful, orthodox Christians should agree and disagree.
I’ve got a few projects that will be released this year. The Characters of Easter releases in March. Then Ministers of Reconciliation, a compilation book from Lexham and ERLC I served as editor of, releases from Lexham in May. And I have a children’s book, Biggest, Best Light I wrote with my friend Brianna Stensrud. This releases in May as well.
I’ve also got a few other projects up my sleeve. Stay tuned.
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