By Eddie Pipkin

I love reading and writing about ideas, especially about processes (how things function and how we make decisions).  Ministry work is exactly the same as other types of work, while simultaneously being utterly different.  Sometimes business psychology transfers seamlessly, and sometimes it is upended by the special circumstances of the ministry environment, which has (or should have) inherently different priorities.  It’s a fascinating mash-up.  That’s why I was completely sucked in by a recent thread onto which I stumbled, entitled “How Not To Be Stupid.”

Of course, those of us who have been involved in ministry leadership for more than five minutes are not unfamiliar with the concept of stupid decisions.  We’ve made them (or at least, generally, in retrospect, we have recognized them after-the-fact for the unfathomably stupid decisions they were).  We have certainly observed them.  We’ve viewed them up close on the part of our ministry partners.  We’ve seen leadership make them within our own organizations.  We’ve watched them unfold at sister ministries and read about them in the media.

The retrospective analysis is always, “How could that have happened?  What were they/we thinking?”  Everybody agrees that such calamitous decision-making should be avoided.  That’s good discipleship, the avoidance of stupid decision making.

But the interview I stumbled across (available here) starts by redefining the way we think about stupidity: It’s not ignorance.  It’s something altogether different.  Adam Robinson (author, educator, entrepreneur, and hedge fund advisor) defines it as not “the opposite of intelligence” but instead “the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.  It’s almost inevitable,” he adds.  The premise is not that we don’t have enough information, but that the critical detail is glaringly obvious, yet we ignore it.  Robinson explains, “It’s crucial information, like you better pay attention to it. It’s conspicuous, like it’s right in front of your nose and yet you either overlook it or you dismiss it.”

He researched all sort of examples of stupidity from all kinds of institutions – from the military to science to journalism and governance, and he reached some conclusions.  In famous stories of stupid decisions, the following seven factors were inevitably present:

  • You’re outside your circle of competence (in other words, trying something new or out of your normal routine or in an unfamiliar environment).
  • Stress.
  • Rushing or urgency.
  • Fixation on an outcome.
  • Information overload.
  • Being in a group where social cohesion comes into play.
  • Being in the presence of an “authority” or expert (including being one yourself).

Robinson says, “Acting alone any of these are powerful enough, but together they dramatically increase the odds you are unaware that you’ve been cognitively compromised.”  He goes on to cite specific examples of aviation disasters (like the Challenger explosion) and mistakes made in hospitals (which account for thousands of lost lives every year).

In a ministry environment – specifically in a local church setting – it is easy to identify multiple examples of these factors involved in any decision-making process.  We tend to be egregiously guilty of most, if not all, of these:

  • Fixation on an outcome. This one of the great bugaboos of ministry decisions, that we short-circuit the debate process (internal or external) because we are locked in on an end-result.  This effect is intensified by people who are feeling passionately “led” in a certain direction.
  • Being in a group where cohesion is important. We don’t want to rock the ministry boat, or we are part of an environment in which questions and dissent are viewed as disloyalty.
  • Presence of an authority or expert. We defer to strong personalities and especially to clergy.  Even when clergy are stepping way out of their “circle of competence,” we defer to their authority.
  • Stress.  Check!
  • Urgency.  Often this one is an unforced error on the behalf of ministry leadership.  We tend to procrastinate on ministry decisions until they can’t be avoided.

To avoid stupidity the goal is to consciously mitigate these factors.  It’s a comfort to note the ways in which our time-honored spiritual disciplines do exactly that:

  • Prayer.  Prayer slows us down and focuses us on what is important.  It is a natural defense against being in too big of a hurry.  It also tamps down drama, eases stress, and allows us to focus on what our true priorities should be in a tough decision-making environment.
  • Celebrating the theology of “one body but many parts.” Keeping our focus of the unique giftedness of all who deliberate over decisions stresses our cohesion (unity) but defers to the many kinds of expertise contained in any gathering of people.
  • Advance Planning. Although there will be times when emergencies and crises happen, many unfortunate ministry decisions could be avoided by more discipline in the planning process.  Leadership should allow plenty of time for working through the complex decisions that are required of any church or associated ministry in a given year.  Having solid processes for decision making results in better outcomes.  (While there is much ridicule to heap on redundant committee structures and bloated management techniques, what we should strive for are streamlined and effective processes, not the elimination of collaborative decision-making).

For more resources on better decision making, I recommend this equally mind-expanding article from The New York Times on “How to Make a Big Decision.”  It explores what the latest science has to say about the path to positive outcomes, and one of the clear conclusions is that we do better when we diversify the people doing the deciding.  This is a value already embraced by religious communities, which have worked diligently to increase the input from disparate cultures, racial backgrounds, genders, stages of life, etc.  But the science encourages expanding that approach even further by including people with different philosophical approaches, politics, temperaments, and socio-economic backgrounds.  Such an approach consistently produces stronger outcomes (while also being less dogmatic in the conclusions they reach):

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

Decision-making science encourages the visualization of a broader range of possibilities for our options, as we move beyond the tried-and-true listing of “pros and cons.”  Even when we visualize an outcome – like, “let’s try a community art festival!” – we tend towards a happy ending.  Here’s a totally different approach – forgive the long quote, but it’s really good stuff:

Storytelling is something we instinctively do anytime we are contemplating a big decision. If you’re thinking of leaving the city and moving to the suburbs, you tell a story of family hikes through the trails behind your house, and better public schools, and a garden that you can tend in your backyard. The difference with formal scenario planning is twofold: First, we rarely take the time to do a deep analysis of all the forces that shape that story; and second, we rarely bother to construct multiple stories. How does the story unfold if your children don’t like their new classmates, or if one part of the family loves the new lifestyle but the other is homesick for the old friends and vitality of city life?

The psychologist Gary Klein has developed a variation on this technique. He calls it a “premortem.” As the name suggests, the approach is a twist on the medical procedure of post-mortem analysis. In a post-mortem, the subject is dead, and the coroner’s job is to figure out the cause of death. In a premortem, the sequence is reversed: “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out. And it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”

In Dr. Klein’s experience, the premortem has proved to be a much more effective way to tease out the potential flaws in a decision. A whole range of bad cognitive habits — from groupthink to confirmation bias — tends to blind us to the potential pitfalls of a decision once we have committed to it. It isn’t enough to simply ask yourself, “Are there any flaws here in this plan that I’m missing?” By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.

This is a formal approach to gleaning more information for decision time, and it’s worth the investment for big, institution-defining moments.  Once we’ve imagined the possibilities and pitfalls, we can stack the options up against our list of values (which is something we should be clear about before we begin any decision-making process and something we should take time to do before we begin).  Then, we are not only much better equipped to decide, but much better positioned to understand the nuances of what may not work out as perfectly as we have planned.

Sometimes, religious folks and their leaders are suspicious of formal processes as a crimp on “the leading of the Spirit,” but we shouldn’t be.  The Spirit can not only lead through a responsible and thoughtful process, but such structures can give us a much deeper appreciation for exactly how God is working through us individually and as a group.

Or course, science also has some new things to say about leading from your gut.  You can read all about that here.

Good luck on those Big Decisions of 2019.  Let us know what is and isn’t working for you.  Let’s all try not to be stupid together!