2019 is Dead: Why Every Leader Should Stop Trying to Go Back To the Way It Was.

You hear it every day, and maybe you think it or say it.

We’re at 50% of where we were in 2019.

We haven’t seen the same level of ________ as we did before the pandemic. 

Or, most depressingly…

If we could only get back to where we were in 2019. 

No judgment here. I think those thoughts every day too.

The leadership question, though, is whether that line of thinking is helpful.

Increasingly, it’s not.

Here’s why: leaders who always want to go back will never move their organizations forward.

First, let’s look at why that’s no longer a helpful way to frame your leadership challenge.

Second, I’ll share 5 things to focus on as you move forward that I hope will help you make progress, whatever you’re leading.

The future may be brighter than you think.

Crisis is an accelerator.  It can accelerate your decline, but it can also accelerate your progress.

To do that though, you have to stop obsessing over the past.

Why Leaders Should Stop Comparing Everything to 2019

Had the pandemic that disrupted everything in 2020 been short-lived, it would have made sense to assume you could quickly snap back to where you were in late 2019 or early 2020.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

While some might debate whether we’re still in the pandemic, we’re not only still in the pandemic, but the disruption it caused will be around for a while longer. Wishing the pandemic was over or believing it’s over doesn’t make it over.

But at a much deeper level, the crisis accelerated trends and created some new ones.

Church online went from novelty to universal. Online shopping permanently changed people’s buying habits. So many things shifted at home (work, school, shopping, church, fitness, and entertainment) that even as things open up, nothing will quite go back to exactly as it was before. People found a new way of life, and while not wanting to stay there, they’re keeping the parts they like.

The post-pandemic world is something like air travel after 9/11. People will fly again. It will just never be the same.

In the same way taking your shoes off, carrying only small amounts of liquids, gels, and aerosols, and moving through security is just normal now, new patterns of normal are emerging and still being shaped that will define post-pandemic life.

And as much as you might think I don’t want to stand in long security lines and take my shoes and jacket off or buy tiny shampoos, that thinking is irrelevant. If you want to fly, that’s what you have to do.

The world has changed, and leaders who try to go back to the way it was will increasingly find themselves trying to reach a world that no longer exists.

Moving forward, then, the question becomes what to focus on.

Here are five things that can help every leader start to make progress in the emerging world.

1. Find a new, sustainable pace

You’ve been running hard for almost two years.

As everything inside you knows, that’s not sustainable.

There’s a reason sprinters don’t run marathons. Leaders can’t run at full speed forever.

Over time, there’s an inverse relationship between overworking and performance: the more hours you work, the less effective you become.

And ultimately, if you don’t declare a finish line, your body will. It’s called burnout.

Ask yourself (and the people who love you): Can I run at this pace for another year?

I’m guessing the answer is no. Some of you aren’t sure you can run at that pace for another month…or week.

If you’re looking to set a sustainable pace for your own life and for your team, this will help.

2. Focus on people you’ve reached, not the people you lost.

I spend a lot of time in the church world, but the same is true in many industries and businesses: some of the people you lost aren’t coming back, ever.

Fitness enthusiasts who never missed a day in the gym bought Pelotons and turned their garage into a killer home gym. They won’t be back.

The regular customer who never missed a Friday date night at your restaurant redid her kitchen and now only shows up once a month.

And some people who used to attend church regularly but were spiritually on the bubble, well…left. They won’t be back.

Others found digital church to be a good option half the time. They’re going to show up less often.

You can rail against that all day long. You’re not helping anybody when you do.

Getting angry at people who changed is one of the best ways to ensure you never change…you’ll stay angry at the past while everyone else walks into the future.

If you can move your focus away from your anger/sadness/grief/shock for just a few moments, you’ll notice you probably do have momentum.

There’s a group of new people coming in. Maybe it’s small. But it’s there. Maybe it’s big, but you haven’t noticed.

Here’s what you’re not seeing:

The new people don’t know who left.

They don’t know what used to be.

They like what is.

If in your sadness, you continue to show disappointment at who’s not in the room, you’ll miss the people who are in the room. Not to mention the fine people who stayed with you through the entire crisis.

What you focus on expands. So change your focus.

3. Choose new metrics

This will be hard, but you need to die to the attendance/sales/growth numbers from 2019.

Don’t erase them (historic data matters), just stop looking at them and thinking about them every day.

Hold a service and bury those numbers in the backyard. That’s what was, not what is.

And then choose some new metrics.

Some possible metrics to focus on:

  • Number of first-time guests or customers
  • For church leaders, number of new volunteers
  • Number of first time donors (for church leaders)
  • Number of people who take a step, enroll in a program etc.
  • Month over month growth (c. 2021)
  • Soon: year over year growth (2021 v. 2022)

I realize it’s hard to let what was go, but it’s critical.

Focusing on new metrics for a new season will help you spot new momentum when it happens.

4. Focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t. 

Back to focus, because it’s huge.

Another thing that will help you make progress in this new era is to focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t.

You can’t control a virus, government regulations, or human behavior and habits. Rather than railing against them constantly on social media (please stop leaders, please stop), just focus on serving and helping people.

I was reminded of this a few years ago.

I’ve launch my leadership podcast in 2014 and have been fortunate to see over 18 million downloads. I’m deeply grateful.

But it could have been 25 million, or 30 million.

Why? Well, in late 2017, the podcast industry changed the metrics.

Between 2014 and 2017 my podcast provider measured the number of downloads whether they were listened to or not. Then in late 2017, the industry standard for podcast measurement changed. Moving forward, only listened-to episodes would be counted.  You could download 100 episodes, but if you only listened to one, it counted as one.

That meant that almost overnight, my numbers (along with many other podcasters’ numbers) dropped in half. We went from a quarter-million downloads a month to 110,000 a month. It felt devastating.

But rather than focusing on what I couldn’t control (how podcast numbers are reported), I focused on what I could control: producing the best show I could.

It took a year, but we eventually outpaced our old numbers, and now we get 300,000-450,000 actual listens a month (sure, everyone calls them downloads, but the number is more true and pure).

When you start focusing on what you can control, not on what you can’t, you make progress.

5. Staff to a new skillset

It’s pretty clear that for churches and for most businesses, the future is hybrid: a seamless oscillation between digital and physical. (Here’s why the debate between online and in-person is a false one.)

When the pandemic hit, staff with online skillsets jumped in and helped however they could. That was noble and needed.

But moving forward, you’ll need to think about not just how to maintain what you currently have digitally, but how to enhance it. That likely means hiring some new skill sets on your team.

The Great Resignation of 2021 (some insights on that here from the Harvard Business Review) actually provides you with a great opportunity.

As staff move on, don’t replace, reimagine.

A great way to ask the question is “If we were starting over again today, what skill sets would we be hiring?” As you reimagine your future, you can reimagine your team.

If online remains an afterthought in your future, you won’t have much of a future.

What’s Helping You Move Forward? 

What’s been effective in helping you focus on the future? Scroll down and leave a comment!

2019 is Dead: Why Every Leader Should Stop Trying to Go Back To the Way It Was.

20 Comments

  1. Rachel Shuttlesworth on September 29, 2021 at 7:14 am

    This article was a great reminder for me today. So refreshing. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 1, 2021 at 7:38 am

      So glad to hear that Rachel. Hang in there!

  2. RevPam Strobel on September 28, 2021 at 9:37 am

    Remember, God is up in all of the changes & chances of this life. Including your life and the life of your church/workplace/family. Blessings, P

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2021 at 4:39 pm

      Great reminder Pam!

  3. Kristin on September 27, 2021 at 7:35 pm

    You need to bed cancelled. Another negative post. Stop telling everyone what to do all the time. You know nothing and all your posts are negative and toxic. I hate googling anything and your name comes up. You’re more of a lawyer than a pastor considering you have nothing nice to say to anybody ever. I hope God shuts you up for good and keeps you off the internet. You’re toxic and the reason why i hate church. People like you are why people hate christians. I can’t even tolerate you

    • Jon Doe on September 27, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      *googles*
      *finds results that include person they hate*
      *intentionally reads article to become enraged*
      *rinses, repeats*

    • David on September 28, 2021 at 10:03 am

      Wow…we can all see the love oozing out of you Kristin. Self-check.

  4. Richard Heyduck on September 27, 2021 at 3:27 pm

    Part of the challenge is that a core group of our lay leaders are convinced that everyone (i.e., the other churches in town) is doing better than we are – as if it were still 2019 for them, but not for us. We’re not working hard enough, we’re not chasing those who left diligently enough, etc. By old metrics we’re still well behind pre-Covid, but we’re seeing progress in some areas: More 1st time visitors lately & 13 kids in confirmation class are at the top of my list.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2021 at 4:43 pm

      Richard…thanks for sharing. That’s a delicate dynamic. I can understand how they’re thinking that…but I think rather than falling into the perpetual comparison trap, it’s best to focus on the momentum and community you have as you’re doing.

      One idea: sometimes it’s helpful to have people grieve the loss. Talk about it…what they miss, what they’re sad about.

      Often…not always…but often, after listening empathetically, people are often ready to move on.

  5. Rev. Billy Kurtz on September 27, 2021 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you for stating what I’ve been trying to suggest to my leadership team. I moved to a new appointment in July to a community that has a vaccination rate even now below 40% in Tennessee, (USA). Convincing my Worship leadership (Mind you not the people who actually do the leadership of worship at the Chancel, but the people who run sound, AV, and streaming.) that the goal should be to make the online experience as engaging as possible has been more difficult than I imagined. They were actually starting the process of streaming in 2019 but only as a rarely used alternative. They are convinced that things will go back to “normal”. You have articulated very well what I want them to understand. This is very helpful. From the beginning I have used the phrase “New Normal” and maybe the “new normal” should be that nothing stays normal.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2021 at 4:45 pm

      Ah that’s a hard one Billy. I feel for you.

      I hint at it in the post, but maybe helping people see that nothing will quite be the same but it’s a great opportunity to reach more people might help. Also empathetic listening as I pointed out in response to Richard might help. Best wishes.

  6. Bobby on September 27, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    There was a time when if you wanted to have a mega church you were expected to have a bus ministry. Then one day, without any explanation, culture just simply changed and it came to a screeching halt. Then it was multi-sites and now it’s video venues. As you articulated in your book, Never Saw it Coming, culture simply changes without asking for permission. Once again, culture has changed and like the men of Issachar we should be aware of our times and, like missionaries, be aware of the language and slang they’re speaking for sharing the good news in a context they’ll see and hear. Great article and thanks for the reminders.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2021 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the encouraging words Bobby! So right on this!

  7. Rachel on September 27, 2021 at 9:47 am

    This is spot on and puts words to what my heart has been feeling for the past couple weeks. I’m learning to erase “get back” from my vocabulary; God is clearly calling us to keep moving forward and opporutnity awaits in that shift. Thank you for wisdom!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 27, 2021 at 9:55 am

      Glad it helped Rachel. The future is going to be brighter than we think.

  8. Barry Thompson on September 27, 2021 at 6:51 am

    Hey Carey.
    We have seen amazing growth since returning to in-person services. Lots of new people to faith attending and coming back then engaging in small groups and training. Our issue is that the growth has gone more quickly than our systems. As an example, our staffing levels are very low for the church we are quickly becoming. My wife and I are the ministers and we are employed 3 days a week each (2 weekdays and a Sunday). We are so thankful to God but don’t want the momentum to cease. Any suggestions for us?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 27, 2021 at 8:22 am

      That’s fantastic Barry. I think you’ve put your finger on it: systems are the key to sustaining growth. You can get away with it short term, but eventually your church will shrink back to the level at which you lead it, organize it and the systems you’ve created for it. Two fantastic books in this area are Les McKeown’s Predictable Success and Carl George & Warren Bird’s Breaking Church Growth Barriers. I have podcast interviews with both authors on those subjects. If you google my name and their names…you’ll find them.

  9. Tom D on September 26, 2021 at 10:36 pm

    Hi Carey,

    I am a church-goer , not leader but an IT professional and one very interested in retaining the young folks already in the church and not loosing them unnecessarily. I also live in South Australia , which apart from a couple of 5 or 7 day periods of lockdown since March last year has been almost completely open and covid-free until a few months ago we didn’t even need masks and even now that is more a precaution just in case someone from New South Wales or Victoria unwittingly brings in covid. However this is all soon ending as our internal borders are going to come down once we get to (I think) 80% double dosed. Intriguingly I look around and once this happens I see folks (including perhaps even mainly in the church) just assuming it will be “the same” but just with masks for a while, perhaps checking vaccination status for a while , but essentially back to normal-ISH. It will be interesting to see, but I am far more of your mindset that fundamental changes in behavior and even attitudes have taken place within the community and within church communities, whilst much of (church) leadership here has not yet been able to nor had to grapple with the extent of that. …I listened to Francis Collins talk to Ed Steltzer a but 2 weeks back … and there is a long way to go yet (probably years) before this is over or even under-control of some sort.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 27, 2021 at 4:54 am

      Hi Tom….thanks for your comments, and (sadly) as much as I love Australia, I agree with you. The prevailing thinking here was that we’d just resume where we left off and that hasn’t happened in almost any sector, especially church. A new day calls for new approaches…and I think the sooner we go there in our minds and hearts the brighter the future will be.

    • Mike Cline on September 27, 2021 at 12:46 pm

      Is that a new interview with Francis Collins or the one done in January 2021? Would love to listen to jt.

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