7 Things That Vanished in 2020 That Make Leadership That Much Harder

Your head likely hasn’t stopped spinning in 2020.


Maybe on one or more occasions you’ve done what I’ve been tempted to do as well: bury your head in the sand because it’s just so discouraging to see what’s actually happening.

As much as it’s healthy to unplug for a day (or a week) to catch your breath, refresh your soul and tap into hope, ignoring reality isn’t a great long term strategy.

Leaders who ignore the culture have a hard time influencing it because they no longer understand it.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll try to put 2020 into perspective and focus on priorities for 2021, all with a goal to cutting through the clutter to help you enter 2021 strong.

To help you with that, I’ve got a brand new free resource called The 2021 Church Leader Toolkit, a 5-part collection of brand new videos and fresh PDFs you can use personally or for team study. It’s free, and it’s designed to help us all get a head start on 2021. You can get immediate access here.

In the meantime, here are 7 things that disappeared in 2020 (temporarily or perhaps for a while anyway) that are making leadership in 2021 even more tricky.

And because the news has been largely depressing, I added three things that 2020 didn’t kill. We all need to stay encouraged.

So what disappeared in 2020, making leadership that much harder? Here are 7 things.

1. Consensus

2020 ended any dreams of achieving consensus in leadership.

No one can seem to agree on anything anymore. The hate we seem to have for each other has reached crisis levels.

While I miss civility, leading by consensus was a tough goal at the best of times.

The problem with consensus is that consensus kills courage.

Very few good, innovative ideas gain consensus before a leader acts. Instead, consensus emerges after you act, provided the decision was a good one.

Regardless, if you’re hoping to find consensus on your ideas before you lead,  at this point you’ll wait forever.

2. The Returns You Get From Incremental Change

Many churches and organizations relied on incremental change to get them from year to year.

In a good year, a few changes here and there might result in 2%-5% growth, or at least stave off decline or minimize it.

When the crisis disrupted everything, any returns on incremental progress went out the window because you had to change pretty much everything.

Heading into 2021, it will be tempting to try to find ‘normal’ and lock back in for incremental gains.

That might work, but there’s a far greater chance it won’t.

Crisis is an accelerator and many of the trends that were already making incremental growth difficult have accelerated even faster.

Which shouldn’t be such a great loss anyway.

The problem with incremental change is that it delivers incremental results. And that’s not what you were hoping for anyway.

3. Control

Most of us in leadership struggle with control to one extent or another. I do.

And even though control is both an illusion and a bad leadership strategy, there has hardly been a season where control has been more elusive.

Moving forward, instead of trying to gain control, focus on looking for new opportunities and align your mission around them.

Control won’t bring you into the future nearly as beautifully as vision and momentum will.

4. Easy Answers

If easy answers were falling on hard times prior to COVID (and they were), 2020 demolished the utility of easy answers.

Leadership has always been complicated, but 2020 raised it to a whole new level.

As a result, many of the approaches that might of worked for you earlier suddenly stopped.

The point?

Leadership right now really is complex. If it feels hard, it’s only because it is hard.

Knowing that can make you dig deeper, consult more broadly and experiment more widely.

All of those are good approaches in normal times. In a crisis, they’re essential.

5. Public Events Everyone Is  Comfortable Attending

It’s shocking to see how quickly social behaviors can change.

Watching shows and movies filmed before the pandemic with people crowded into elevators, shouting at each other or leaning on each other in exhaustion just seems so…foreign now.

Public events will definitely come back in the future, but how long it will take not just to distribute a vaccine, but to get us all comfortable rubbing shoulder with strangers and breathing the same air…well, that’s a whole other story?

The point? If your future hinges on holding large (or densely populated) public gatherings, make plans now for a gradual reentry to that space. And better yet…make supplementary and alternative plans.

If everyone rushes back and things are back to normal in minutes, you’ve lost nothing and have some prep for any future pandemic or public health emergency.

If the culture embraces a gradual ease back into crowded public gatherings (which might be the more likely scenario), then you’re ready.

6. Community

Community may not have vanished entirely, but it really took a hit in 2020.

People are lonely, and no, Zoom, FaceTime, texting, streaming and social media do not replace face to face human contact.

The challenge here for churches is that, with many people cut off from church for months or not comfortable yet returning to in-person services, people are likely forming their own notions of future community.

The need for human connection is great, but that the connection would automatically be through the church the way it used to take shape might be a stretch.

The key?

Work at cultivating community as much as you work on cultivating content in 2021. Even if digital community is your only or main option (I know, it’s not the same), it’s still something the church is helping to shape.

Culture is already highly individualistic and has been drifting to anti-institutional for decades. If you ignore community, not only do you ignore some of the core of the mission, but people will form community without your help.

Of course, people are completely free to do that, but shaped community is part of the essence of church and any tribe.

7. Unity

Of all the things we lost this year, this might be the most important and most painful.

Rarely have we seemed so divided. Although unity has been eroding for years due to politics, ideology, tribalism and a profound and concerning self-righteousness (I’m talking about the church here…not just culture), 2020 saw it sink to a new low.

Unity is both a theological prerequisite (Jesus talked about it a lot, and early church worked hard to achieve it) and a practical necessity. Division destroys. Unity builds. An organization divided against itself crumbles.

Moving forward, look past masks/no masks and partisan politics and opinions for common ground. You’ll find far more common ground than you imagine.

Focusing on what unites you, not on what divides you, is not just a great way to build unity. It’s a great way to make real progress.

I wrote more about this here.

And….3 Things 2020 Didn’t Kill

Hopefully knowing what shifted this year can help you gain a footing for what you can tackle in 2021.

Naturally, though, 2020 didn’t bring all bad news. Global crises can’t kill everything.

Here are three things that are very much alive and can help propel you into 2021.

1. The Mission

When the crisis hit, a lot of methods broke, but the mission didn’t. It’s stronger than ever.

And arguably, more necessary than ever as well as people look for hope.

So how do you move your mission forward? Rethink your methods to ensure they still support your mission.

As you move into planning for 2021, hold the mission tightly and the methods loosely. In that, you’ll find the greatest opportunity.

The same crisis that broke your methods can give new life to your mission.

2. Hope

Sure, hope isn’t a strategy. But it is essential to the human spirit.

Somehow the idea that things can get better and will get better is the central to leadership. While the crisis threatened hope deeply, it didn’t extinguish it.

And, of course, the Gospel itself gives hope that nothing can extinguish.

The more secular culture becomes, the more it loses its mooring around hope, which opens up an even greater opportunity for the church.

Focusing on hope while you take your next steps is a great way to help move people together into the future.

3. Innovation

Many leaders are desperately trying to find (or manufacture) a sense of normal.

That’s understandable, but a better focus is to keep innovating. Aftrer all, it’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

The ‘innovation’ that happened in the crisis so far, for the most part, wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.

The real innovation for most churches and organizations is ahead. So as you move into 2021, ask yourself “What does this make possible?”

That’s a great way to begin a dialogue around innovation.

The future belongs to the innovators. It always does.

Want to get ahead in 2021? 5 skills you’ll need.

What if 2021 could be a year of unprecedented growth for you and your church?

I know, that sounds crazy, but like most things, it’s crazy until it’s not.

2021 can be a great year for you and your team, and I’d love to help you make it happen.

That’s why I created the 2021 Church Leader Toolkit.

Inside, I cover:

  • How To Produce Content That Actually Gets Read & Watched
  • 5 Keys To Better Digital Preaching
  • How To Keep You And Your Team Out Of Burnout
  • 7 Strategies To Deepen Digital Engagement
  • 3 Key Pivots For Every Organization In 2021

I’ll be releasing 5 parts of the toolkit throughout December. And it’s free.

You can get access and share these skills with your team here!

What Do You See?

What made leadership harder for you in 2021?

And what are you grateful hasn’t disappeared? Scroll down and leave a comment!

If it feels like leadership is harder, it's only because it is. Here are 7 things that got harder in 2020, and what to do about them.


  1. Marian on December 23, 2020 at 4:27 am

    Absolutely correct. Thank you for that thoughtful and caring response. You are clearly an exemplary professional.

  2. Kevin Bussey on December 1, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    Great stuff as usual. Thanks for your gift to the Church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 2, 2020 at 8:50 am

      Thanks Kevin. 🙂

  3. OGYOUTUBE Apk on November 30, 2020 at 10:23 pm

    Great blog you have got here.. It’s difficult to find excellent writing like yours nowadays.

  4. Ken Woods on November 30, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    This was a great post Carey… your first point is certainly one to ponder. No easy answers anymore… and in fact, maybe we have not had any for a long time, but 2020 ensured we got the message! 2021 will be living in the new reality of dealing with our decisions from 2020, continuing to adapt and innovate, and getting serious about implementing the changes we made in 2020! Thanks for all you do, love your messages!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 30, 2020 at 3:00 pm

      Ken…thanks for the feedback. So great to hear from you…you’re right, we’re all going to be living in the decisions we’ve made.

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