leadership clarity and variables

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

The steps on this staircase are clearly laid out for us to see. We perceive their structure, color, number, and even their composition. We know much. We know little. For while we can discern many of the details, much still remains uncertain, not least the fulfillment of the goal which awaits at the top. Clarity is met with a stunning lack thereof.  It is bright, but the brightness obscures the view.

We expect there to be a landing at the top which provides solid ground from which to continue on. But how can we be sure? What guarantees have we? Logic and experience suggests that the stone stairs would not have been created for a simple fool’s errand leading to a meaningless payoff. It is a valid argument. But stranger things have happened in architecture, such as a staircase being built in a mansion so that it ends at the ceiling with no entry point above.

Ministry leadership has its parallels. We make long-range plans, including short-term steps which are infused with project-management protocols. We execute every step of the plans, making minute adjustments as necessary, ever mindful of the ultimate goals. We strive to be attentive to the present situation as well as the long-term objectives.

Sometimes it works out as we planned; but not always. Often the resultant alternative is far better than we could ever have conceived. Occasionally, we may simply wonder what went wrong and why?

I think we lose sight of the power of variables. We have power to control certain things. We trust in God who has ultimate authority and power. Yet things still can go awry. Again, why? Variables. The choices of people. Circumstances outside (yes, I know it can also be due to things within our control) our control, but within the providence of God who allows situations to occur even when it seems contrary to his purposes and nature.

Some people respond by blaming God. Others blame themselves. Both miss the point. Life and leadership are hard. They are complex. Reducing these to principles which are meant to act as guarantors of a preferred future may reap specific predictable short-term outcomes. Yet, it also may reap regrets if we lose sight of the role of variables in complexity.

Consider the apparent repentance of Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church) concerning the seeker church model. This model was promoted as the paragon of how church should be done for over twenty years. Business and biblical principles were aligned in such a way that produced it, causing Willow to be one of the most influential churches in the world. But he repented (circa 2007), recognizing the shallow impact it had on disciple-making.

So, when I see models of church life continue to be introduced in the marketplace, I am thankful on one hand, but cautious on the other. We have sticky churches, purpose-driven churches, deep churches, emerging churches, viral churches, missional churches, house churches, organic churches, transformational churches and simple churches, to name a few! And that doesn’t even include mainline churches, traditional churches (whatever that means!), or typical evangelical churches (as varied as our fingerprints, accept for the songsets which are oddly uniform, bereft of much originality or antiquity). I suggested to my pastor recently that we should rename our church, The First Sticky Purpose-Driven Deep Church! He laughed. So did I.

And then I began to think about children’s ministry and the fast-growing family ministry movement. There is a corresponding growth in products which address family ministry and parenting in particular. Many are quite good. Those which present themselves in a posture of humility, I like best. Those which claim to have found the solution which solves the challenge of family ministry are appreciated for what contributions they offer, but suspect in my view due to their proud posture.  Consider the lessons we are learning from the seeker-sensitive movement as you process my previous sentence. It is not that I do not appreciate the sharing of knowledge and experience. But I think we should be cautious in setting up any one model, principle, technique, strategy, personality, church, ministry organization, website, blog, or publisher as the answer to all of our needs hereafter. It is a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment.

I think we need the insights of all of these people set in irenic conversation with each other. The seeker-sensitive movement did much that was good and helpful for its time, based on the skillset of Willow Creek’s leaders and the needs of its local culture. But the long-term migration of that model into American post-mall oriented sub-cultures resulted in pervasive ineffectual attempts to emulate their predecessor. It was and is a systemic issue. So also in children’s ministry, I propose that we should continue to learn from each other, while also taking into account systemic variables which cause our cultures to differ. Likewise, we should carefully and prayerfully design contextualized approaches in our unique ministry settings. Throw away the cookie cutters (I borrowed this expression from Henry Zonio, but he is not to blame for the ideas in this blog post!) developed for effective ministry by leaders in a particular ministry setting, and consider instead the attitudes, postures,  and biblical principles which inform their ministry effectiveness.

In so doing, the actions steps you choose to take (as in the metaphor of the stairs, illustrated in the photo above) will gain renewed clarity, while building faith in God for the ultimate outcome which remains within the domain of his providence.


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