That which I found hardest about learning to be a parent was finding my way through contradictory advice. Some seasoned parents I respected told me, “You have to pick your battles.” Others said consistency is the name of the game. I found a place in the middle of those truisms over time, which was that we needed to be consistent around principles, and flexible — picking our battles — around our practices.
For instance, our daughter has always been particular about clothing. She now has excellent, and sadly expensive, taste. When she was tiny, in order to avoid blow-ups when it came time to get dressed, I had to focus on principles. Her clothes had to be (1) appropriate to the weather, (2) appropriate to the occasion (i.e. no pajamas at school, except on Pajama Day), and (3) clean. Everything else, I had to let go.
Never has there been a time when it has been more important than now for our nation to have leaders we can take at their word. We need our leaders to be truthful and consistent, but in the midst of that which is unprecedented, consistency is a lot to ask (I do think it safe to insist on truthfulness, but that’s a topic for another day).
In the midst of a global pandemic, circumstances change quickly. It is impossible to avoid flip-flopping when new data become available. No leader worthy of the role likes to answer valid and important questions with, “I don’t know.” But more than ever, that response is the truth. We don’t know where this virus came from, how it works, what it will take to get rid of it, and how long we’ll have to live with it. But there is something we do know: we have our principles.
Now is a good time to name them. When the pandemic began to affect the school I serve, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, I articulated three priorities on which we would focus: keeping our students safe in body and mind; shoring up our institution, whose mission to educate faith community leaders is important and must endure; and shining light on the teachable moments that would enrich the world of ministry.
I didn’t name these priorities because I was confident I knew how to handle a situation I had never been through before. I did it because I have been through enough previous unforeseen situations to know that principles would be necessary for us all to stay sane. I needed to come up with a system so that we’d have a framework for the tests that were bound to come next.
Now those principles are shifting somewhat because we are no longer reacting to the crisis but planning for its next phase. The new mantra is, “We never want a constituent to have to choose between staying safe and participating in our community’s life.” That principle guides us, but I still have to answer questions with, “I don’t know,” more now than ever before.
Many who study the art and science of leadership point to the ways in which leaders do not just manage activities but actually shape reality. When leaders relay mixed messages, they distort reality in ways that cause harm to the inner lives of constituents. Demagogues do this intentionally, for mixed messages keep their charges on-edge and vulnerable, therefore less likely to resist.
By setting and sticking to principles that provide clarity, leaders can reclaim their ability to provide consistency to those who desperately need it. When the time comes to make decisions, we can’t promise that our practices will make perfect sense. There’s nothing fair about Covid-19. But if we reiterate the priorities that are guiding us, and those priorities are wise, we can help shape a reality that will bring out the best in others, recruiting partners in those principles and promoting community cohesion.
Clarence Jordan, biblical theologian and social justice pioneer, translated the New Testament into what he called “Cotton Patch” English, the dialect of his rural Georgia farm culture. He translated the word for Satan as “the Confuser.” These days are confusing. Our leaders need not be.