Why The Current Crisis You’re Leading Through Isn’t a Marathon. It’s the Future.

As a leader you’re probably asking yourself, when will this end?

The crisis. The disruption. The weird instability and angst that have been 2020 and 2021 so far.

Few of us seriously thought that when the global crisis began in 2020 that it would last more than a few months.

Then 2021 was supposed to provide relief, which it hasn’t. No, instead, the world continues to morph, a bit like the virus itself.

As you know all too well, nothing feels familiar anymore.

And even as the post-pandemic world begins to take shape, almost every leader is left with the sinking reality that the world we’re stepping into has changed, perhaps more deeply than anyone wants to admit.

This brings us back to the original question. When will this end?

I have news for you. What if it won’t?

What if this is the future?

At first every leader thought we were running a sprint.

Then we thought it was a triathlon, followed by a marathon. Even now, the marathon feels like a trick…because there’s no finish line in sight.


What we got instead was a rapid acceleration into the future. Into a world in which none of us have led before.

As disheartening as that feels,  it’s time for a new strategy.

Hoping things will go back to normal is a terrible strategy if normal died. And there’s mounting evidence that normal as we knew it died.

Rather than debate whether the world has changed (an inordinate amount of leaders, especially church leaders, deny that it has), in this post, I want to touch on an approach that will better prepare you and me for whatever future we’re facing.

First, though, let’s look at what’s at stake for every leader.

The Fastest Way To Burnout

The fastest way to burn out is to keep telling yourself that the end is near and everything will go back to normal.

It creates a false hope that in and of itself is exhausting because it’s never realized.

And burnout—already an epidemic before the crisis—is accelerating faster than ever.

A far healthier approach to the unpredictability, divisiveness and confusion of the moment is to establish a sustainable rhythm.

So far in this crisis, too many leaders have counted on time off to heal them. Summer vacation, a week in the mountains, time at the beach, or, now, the promise of post-pandemic travel has made us think a rest will somehow cure all ills.

It won’t.

Time off won’t heal you when the problem is how you spend time on. When every day grinds you into the dust with long hours, you won’t make it to vacation or the post-pandemic era. And if instability is what’s ahead for years to come, you need a better strategy.

The remedy for an unsustainable pace is a sustainable pace.

So the real question becomes: what do you need to do to make every day more manageable?

For me, that means mastering the art of saying no, clearing my calendar, deciding to quit doing the things that aren’t working, and building in margin every day.

Deepening your personal reserves now will prepare you for anything and everything ahead. (If you’re not sure how to do that, this will help).

If you have deep reserves, tackling everything else in this post becomes not just easier, but doable.

As you create a more sustainable pace, there are 5 additional shifts you can embrace in leadership that will help.

1. From Denial To Acceptance

I talk with leaders pretty much every day about the crisis, and I’m astonished at the level of denial that seems to pervade the mindset of many leaders.

Strangely, business leaders seem much more open to the fact that the world has changed than church leaders do. That doesn’t bode well for the church.

As tempting as it is to deny reality, denying reality doesn’t change reality.

Change happens in every generation, and it’s happening right now before our eyes.

Accepting that is the first step to reaching more people in the midst of it.

2. From Obstacle to Opportunity

So sure, it’s hard. Everything you spent years building has been threatened.

But instead of focusing on the obstacles, shift to focusing on the opportunities.

To do that, ask yourself: what does this make possible?

The answer, thankfully, is a lot. 

3. From Method to Mission

The first thing to die in a crisis is your method.

Gyms had to surrender in-person workouts.

Restaurants had to forgo in-person dining.

Churches had to close to gatherings in their facilities.

What wise leaders realize is that all of those were methods. None of it was mission.

Gym owners can miss that the mission is fitness, the method was working out in a gym.

Some restauranteurs missed that the mission is food, the method was a restaurant.

And some preachers can’t see that the mission is sharing the Gospel, the method was in-person gatherings in a building owned by the church.

Sure, in-person is coming back at some level. But wise leaders aren’t wagering everything on old methods.

Instead, they’re focusing on the mission. And as long as there are people, your mission can grow.

4. From Control to Openness

Control was an illusion long before the crisis hit. Still, many of us felt like we had some measure of control.

I suspect the longing to go back to normal is a longing for control…the idea that you had a system you knew what, while imperfect, at least achieved some results.

But if the old world died and people’s behavior patterns will be even somewhat different in the future, a much better approach is to move from control to openness.

Leaders who are open to change end up doing much better than leaders who are closed to it.

The gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change is called irrelevance.

5. From Atrophy to Renewal

The stakes have rarely been higher for leaders than they are now.

I’m guessing we’ll see atrophy in organizations that don’t change and renewal in organizations that do.

Quick pivots, regular experimentation, and the ability to respond to a rapidly changing culture moving forward will be critical.

While your mission will never change, your methods will have to.

Agility is a key quality for future leaders because if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.

What’s Helping You?

I’m trying to embrace the change I see too, changing strategy, keeping an open heart and mind, and believing that there’s tremendous opportunity ahead.

These are some attitude shifts that are helping me.

What’s helping you? Leave a comment!

As a leader, you're asking when will this crisis end? What if it won't? Here's why the current crisis isn't a marathon, it's the future, and what to do about it.


  1. Fred Barton on March 19, 2021 at 11:16 am

    Following Jesus closely!✝️

  2. Stan Cushing on March 19, 2021 at 10:05 am

    We just decided to close and sell our second site. We have done with “engagement” this last year. This has included growth in our small groups and adding new small groups. We have also seen growth in giving from those who only participate in our ministry on-line (on-line worship and Zoom small groups). However, our participation from those who were part of our second site has drastically fallen off. We transitioned our Site Pastor to being our “On-line Site” Pastor. We also are completely re-doing our website and social media for a re-launch on May 1st.

    Thank you for the great article!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 19, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      Wow! Lots of change. Glad to help as I can!

  3. Klaus Jonietz on March 19, 2021 at 9:37 am

    good article and a lot to think about how I do things (even though I am retired). Yes the future is NOW!

  4. Rick Bethl on March 19, 2021 at 8:56 am

    Really Great Post!!! Being a Pastor who just started, I was operating on the former systems from my predecessor, which were not all bad, but it provided a already proven systwm that did provide a bit more “control”. However, I do believe that we have to be very agile with our methods but continue to evolve rapidly with our mission.

    I recently came to the reality that the Mission can be preached on any day…not just on Sunday. But can be preached on any day and whatever platform you have…in person…online…1-on-1.. and that created an explosion of ideas.

    Thanks Again Carey

  5. Stephen B. Lytle on March 19, 2021 at 8:41 am

    I am enjoying your articles and hopefully benefiting from them. I am retired missionary serving part-time in my church ministering to senior adults and a group of Hispanics. Because of Facebook and Zoom, I’ve been busier during this Covid year than before. Because of health issues I am somewhat physically limited, but grateful I can serve. Your insights are much appreciated.

    • Gary Snowden on March 19, 2021 at 9:11 am

      Was curious Stephen where you are serving. My family and I served for 16 years in Latin America and I’ve been serving as an associate pastor in Missouri for the past 17+ years. Senior adult ministry and missions are my main hats along with our small groups for adults ministry.

      • Stephen B Lytle on March 19, 2021 at 9:17 am

        Hi Gary,

        We live in Nashville, TN where our mission headquarters are located, and where two of our sons are. We served about 30 years in Panamá. My wife is originally from Southeast MO. Blessings.

  6. Brian Nelson on March 19, 2021 at 8:25 am

    Absolutely true that pace is important. So many good things there. But I’m struggling with your word “denial.” Disagreeing with your personal take isn’t denial. It’s just disagreeing. If other leaders think that life is going to return to what it previously was, that’s their opinion. They’re not necessarily denying anything. Some might be. But others are just looking at the realities around them, in their church, and coming to a different conclusion. I’m one of them. And I’m struggling being told I’m not discerning. Or that I’m denying. I’m just seeing it differently. And I’m actually worried about those who don’t! So we have that in common :).

    I’m just saying let’s leave space for the two views. You can still encourage us to make the changes needed to not burn out. That’s great. But we can make those changes regardless of the future. Let’s not make our personal predictions “acceptance,” and someone’s opposing view “denial.”

    • Doug Napier on March 19, 2021 at 8:36 am

      This is a balanced response to this article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 19, 2021 at 8:49 am

      Hey Brian

      I’ve appreciated the dialogue with you.

      I hear you. And yet if someone think’s things aren’t changing but they are, I’m not sure that’s an opinion.

      My first five years in ministry were spent helping people who thought nothing had changed realize that everything had changed. The congregations were on life support, but confused as to why things that barely worked in the 1960s were definitely not working in the 1990s. I see a similar pattern today. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate. Sometimes our ‘opinions’ can take us to the grave.

      It’s often just the church space that keeps going back to ‘not much is changing. I just think we have a great opportunity we’re missing. Sometimes I wonder if church leaders are too tired to embrace what might be happening. Business leaders seem to have already moved on.

      Give it a year or two and we’ll see, but I think this has been more disruptive than many of us thought a year ago. Hence the repeated theme.

      Maybe I’m missing something….but I’m not sure what.


  7. Maria Nickell on March 19, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Discovering your website was the greatest thing that has happened for my leadership. I started as the Director for Care and Discipleship (my first job in ministry) in January of 2020…yikes! What has been a blessing is that I don’t have years of ingrained patterns to contend with as we make these huge shifts, however, I also don’t have previous experience to fall back on when I’m unsure of which way to go. You’re posts and podcast have been thought provoking and given me permission to let some things go. I even started sending them to my senior pastor who has been leading our church for 22 years. This has been especially difficult for him.

  8. Jo Anne Taylor on March 19, 2021 at 8:10 am

    Eleven months ago, I decided to eliminate the word “normal” from my vocabulary. Working in intentional interim ministry means I’m pushing change all the time, but it’s hard for some to let go of methods that weren’t effective before, and certainly don’t work now. I’m actually grateful for the pandemic forcing this issue!

  9. jeff lukens on March 19, 2021 at 7:53 am

    oof. This was a hard read. Necessary, but hard. I am burning out as a small church leader who does almost everything, and just had to do more in the last year because we couldn’t gather people together to do things. I do see light at the end of the tunnel as the church has agreed to hire a digital minister to help with the online ministry. Lots to chew on here. Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 19, 2021 at 8:50 am

      With you Jeff. Hang in there. 🙂 We’re in this together. The truth hurts, but it’s also our friend.

    • Brian M on March 19, 2021 at 9:28 am

      Very much in the same boat, Jeff. I hope things work out for you all hiring a digital minister (I like that title!). Hopefully that will take a big load off you!

  10. Deryck Frye on March 19, 2021 at 7:23 am

    I agree we can’t go back – it’s rebuild not restart. But I have been behaving like it’s a sprint.The marathon perspective settles me and puts me in a different gear. My Kia has different settings; normal, snow, eco, custom, SPORT, and smart (my new favorite). 2020 was “sport mode” but it used a lot of gas and nearly burned the engine out. Normal would have killed my ministry and maybe more. I’m finding “smart mode” the way to go. It adjusts to needs but always defaults to eco (save fuel/reduce engine viscosity). Your article brought this to light this morning. Thanks for helping me lead in “smart mode”!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 19, 2021 at 7:31 am

      Deryck…love that metaphor. Thanks for sharing it.

      The fact that there’s no finish line is crazy when you think about it. But if that’s the case, we’ll adjust.

    • Jaime Hamel on March 19, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Great metaphor/analogy!

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