Agile Leadership: 4 Ways to Think Differently in Crisis and Change

In the past year, crisis and rapid change have required leaders to think differently—and lead into uncharted territory with agility and flexibility. Stephanie O’Brien S’12, a Minneapolis pastor and adjunct professor at Bethel Seminary, taught a unique January seminary course that brought the expertise of seven creative and agile leaders to the virtual classroom. In one month, a diverse group of participants learned transformative leadership skills that translated directly to their lives and ministries.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

February 24, 2021 | 10:30 a.m.

Stephanie O'Brien

Stephanie O’Brien S’12 is lead pastor of Mill City Church in Minneapolis and teaches preaching and biblical communication at Bethel Seminary.

The past year has brought profound change to almost every area of life. Businesses, healthcare, education, and churches had to respond to a global pandemic and widespread social unrest quickly and without a clear roadmap to guide them. In the process, they were called to exercise agile leadership—whether they used that term or not.

Stephanie O’Brien S’12 uses the term a lot. As lead pastor at Mill City Church in Minneapolis, she led her church in responding to the rapid change, and as an adjunct professor at Bethel Seminary, she’s teaching others to do the same. As part of the online January course “Agile Leadership in Times of Crisis and Change,” O’Brien presented agile leadership principles and strategies to participants ranging from seminary students taking the course for credit to alumni and community members interested in the topic for personal or professional development. 

Besides the unique group of students, the course featured a unique format: O’Brien interviewed seven leaders in interactive webinars available for synchronous and asynchronous participation. In other words, students could join the discussions in real time or could watch recorded versions later. The leaders brought diversity in their roles, experiences, and geography, each providing a thoughtful perspective on agile leadership in the particular circumstances they’ve faced. They included:

  • Donna Harris, president of Minnehaha Academy, Minneapolis
  • Tod Bolsinger, senior fellow, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California
  • Dwight Zscheile, vice president of innovation, Luther Seminary, St. Paul
  • Angela Yee, chief ministry officer, Evangelical Covenant Church, Chicago
  • Jo Saxton, leadership coach, St. Paul
  • Scott Ridout, president of Converge, Orlando
  • Edrin Williams, senior pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church, Minneapolis

O’Brien defines agile leadership as the ability to take wise and effective action amid complex, rapidly changing conditions. “We have to be in the ready position,” she says. “We need to follow the Holy Spirit and cooperate in what God is already doing.” To make an agility shift, O’Brien maintains, leaders need to shift their mindset in four ways:

  1. From from stability to agility. “We like to have certainty, but we can’t have that,” says O’Brien. “The church is not called to stability but agility.” 
  1. From anxiety to anticipation. “We need to be honest about our anxiety,” says O’Brien. “If we can acknowledge it, we can move toward anticipation.” 
  1. From limited to leveraging. “We can grieve our limits, but then move through our grief—and move from focusing on limitations to leveraging what we already have,” O’Brien explains. “We’re at our most creative when we have limited resources.” 
  1. From expertise to experimenting. “No one is an expert in leading during a pandemic,” O’Brien says. “We have anxiety around change but we can explore new ideas with flexibility and grace.” 

Participants were emphatic about the value and practicality of the agile leadership training the course provided. “One of the most important things I learned in this course is that times of crisis and change are inevitable, and the best way to handle those future challenges wisely is to start preparing now before they arrive,” says Tessa Pinkstaff ’23, who’s pursuing an M.A. in Ministry degree. “And we got a treasure trove of preparation. We listened to real, relatable leaders at the top of their ministries and professions share openly about the crises they’ve faced and what they learned from those experiences. I walked away with practical knowledge I applied the very next day at work, and I also discovered that I can grow in my own agility as a leader. I can’t say enough about how valuable this course has been to my ministry journey.”  

Transformation starts here. 

At Bethel Seminary, we believe God calls us to the collaborative work of transformation, beginning with our own hearts and minds, and expanding outward in a ripple effect as we influence others through leadership and service. Here, leaders are first transformed, then equipped to transform others—for eternal impact.

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