This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Leadership: Leading in anxious times

It’s a sleepless night. I can’t remember another one. Short nights, yes. But one entirely without sleep? No. At least not since those notorious all-nighters during college to cram for a test.

Am I anxious? Probably. Our family fabric is threatening to fray. Our denomination is feeling fragile and in danger of fracturing. Political paralysis and polarization pervade the nation. And it’s dreadfully cold in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

My job as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), a binational school, brings me to these windswept northern plains. Earlier this week, it was Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the Mennonite Economic Development Association annual meeting, where the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship moves courageously to meet the challenge of anxious times by “creating business solutions to poverty.”

A week earlier, AMBS, in partnership with Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Canada Witness, convened business, mission and faculty leaders to imagine how to provide learning opportunities for multivocational leaders with entrepreneurial skills that are grounded in a holistic, Anabaptist missiology. The generative conversation seemed especially vigorous precisely because we live in anxious times.

The times are a’changing, and so fast that we’re in danger of losing our balance, losing our bearings, losing sleep. Whole industries, including theological schools across North America, need to reinvent ourselves simply to survive. The market is shifting unbelievably.

As an educator by training, I know how important it is to the vitality of our faith communities that we attend to both continuity and change—continuity with the wisdom of our faith tradition and the possibility for innovative, adaptive change. Rootedness in the rich soil of God’s vision in the Scriptures and readiness to risk new growth.

Unless we leaders are lovingly alive with Jesus’ mission to preach good news, release captives, open eyes, and free the oppressed, our work will lose its transformative vitality. We will lose our way, disoriented by rapidly shifting sands.

Jesus, the early Christians and the Anabaptists lived in times of great anxiety and conflict. They model for us how staying rooted in the rich tradition of the Scriptures empowered them to become innovative leaders of revitalization. They broke with the consensus of their time because they glimpsed God’s surging, joy-filled Jubilee vision for healing and hope.

My work on Anabaptist Ways of Knowing highlighted philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi’s “Society of Explorers.” Polanyi contended that a great tradition provides the grounds both for its being maintained and for adaptive innovation. Exploration, he said, requires both authoritative, traditional frameworks that provide accountability and an openness to original, innovative insights from individual explorers.

The Anabaptists rediscovered the wellspring of their Christian tradition. They rediscovered the stories of Jesus and the early church. The ancient Scriptural tradition, with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, provided them with the link to their community’s origins. Their devotion to Jesus liberated them to preach good news to the poor and release to captives. Their renewal movement dramatically showed that a great tradition provides the grounds both for continuity and revitalization.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs in business, mission and education. My parents wanted to capture the imagination of their children with their love for the Bible. Mother and Dad engaged in small business ventures to help support education that awakens people to the world creating biblical vision of God’s good will for new contexts and generations.

I am grateful for the rootedness in the rich soil of the Bible they and many good teachers since have provided me and countless others.

To be a leader with integrity and wisdom in anxious times requires deep knowledge of God’s mercy-filled vision for this messed-up marvel that is our world, found in the Scriptures.

To be a leader who is resilient, courageous and just in anxious times requires an understanding of the transformative power of God’s vision that no one will “hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

To be a leader with bold imagination who is prepared to chart new paths in anxious times requires a nonanxious ability to speak the truth in love, graciously and transparently.
Perhaps now I can sleep, remembering that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

This ran in the December issue of The Mennonite.

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