By Eddie Pipkin

We are a bunch of know-it-alls.  If we’ve been around a long time, we have it all figured out by virtue of years of hard-won experience.  If, on the other hand, we just arrived on the scene, we’re full of fresh, revolutionary passion and the need to throw out all the fuddy-duddies and their tired ideas.  Either way, we’re full of ourselves.  And to top it off, most of us work in ministry partnership with volunteers who step into our realms from their real-world jobs, brimming with confidence that – even though they just joined our committee or team last week – they know exactly how to fix everything that’s wrong with what we’re doing now.  We could all – each and every one of us – use a little more humility.

Humility is, after all, a quintessential biblical trait, one of the defining characteristics of our Lord, as Paul famously writes:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8, NRSV)

Yet in many ministry settings, collaboration and cooperation are hampered by an obstinate obsession with getting things done our way.  Perhaps this is an inevitable byproduct of our shared history of Spirit-led visionary heroes, single-minded in their pursuit of “God’s plan” – and, true, the defining vision at even the local level of ministry is often kick-started by one person’s passion, but long-term lasting work can’t be sustained that way.  We build community – healthy community – through working together: sharing ideas and sharing power.

The danger of arrogance is that we alienate one another and we miss opportunities to empower the powerless.  At a very basic level, it is impossible to listen to others if we are talking all the time.

There is, of course, as highlighted by the scripture passage quoted earlier, a general spiritual humility which involves putting other people’s needs before our own.  That humility invokes the Christ-like quality of not claiming status to which we are rightfully entitled: it is the act of the powerful ceding privilege on behalf of the powerless.  It is putting other people first, and this is a defining quality for Christ-like leadership.

Intellectual humility, however, is something different.  It is our willingness to admit we don’t know something.  Our default approach in any debate is to insist that our viewpoint is the right viewpoint.  We insist that our knowledge is the correct and unassailable knowledge.  Sometimes we even pontificate!  But we’re spouting “fake news” more often than we realize, and our insistence on our own wisdom easily slides into defensiveness when challenged.  Social scientists have been studying how these natural tendencies affect our exchanges with others.  Here are a couple of paragraphs that draw conclusions from a recent research survey:

In an initial study, nearly 200 students completed this questionnaire, as well as other personality measures, and then they were asked to imagine various scenarios at college that involved a classmate disagreeing with them, for example over the causes of World War I in history class, or a passage of text in English class. Finally, the students stated what they would think of the person who disagreed with them and how they would respond. A second study was similar, but this time nearly 200 more participants, recruited online, imagined a disagreement with another person over more hot-button issues, such as gun control and same-sex marriage.

Across both studies, even after accounting for the influence of many other factors such as a person’s self-esteem, narcissism, and overall agreeableness, openness and humility, the students who scored higher on intellectual humility tended to think about the person who disagreed with them in more constructive ways – for instance, believing the other person has their own unique perspective and experiences to draw on – rather than dismissing their views as due to low intelligence or lack of understanding. Moreover, those participants with greater intellectual humility were more likely to say that, given the chance, they would try to learn more about the other person’s views, rather than simply argue with them or try to change their mind.

It has been posited that the lack of general humility is perhaps the defining factor of the current fractiousness that plagues our politics and civil discourse.  Ideas armored in arrogance are not exchanged, but weaponized.  Discourse in the public space becomes uncivil: people shouting their ideas at one another, ever more loudly, while jamming their fingers in their own ears.  Most church settings aren’t as fractious as the current American political scene – (most) – but there is tension when people don’t feel like they are being listened to; when people don’t feel like their ideas are honored; when people feel patronized or sidelined.

There are practical ways to practice intellectual humility, and they make us stronger and more effective leaders:

  • Admit when you don’t know something. As ministry leaders, there’s a lot of pressure to feel like we have all the answers.  It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”  It does not make us look weak.  It promotes trust and builds credibility.  Let people know you’ll do a little checking and get back to them – then do it.  This can be difficult to do when you are in a room full of people who are insistent on their own answers and insights, but by staying committed to the less arrogant way, you can often bring the whole room to a place of greater humility.  It’s also a great strategy to say, “Well, what do you think?”  Such a question not only demonstrates your own willingness to learn; it immediately establishes your respect for the other’s viewpoint.
  • Change your vocabulary. Part of the pattern of arrogance is the language we consistently use: are we using words and phrases that are forceful and rigid or are we using language that is more gentle and open?  “I’m sure” and “everybody knows,” not to mention “you’re wrong” or “how can you think that is going to work?” do not lead to collaborative conversation.  “Here’s what I think,” “in my experience,” “I’m not sure about that last statement you made,” or “tell me more about how you see that idea playing out” lead to deeper discussion without disrespecting others.
  • Don’t automatically dismiss positions, opinions, or viewpoints that differ from your own. The “you’re wrong” statement listed above is a sure-fire way to shut down an exchange of ideas, but there are many ways that we show we are disdainful of others’ viewpoints.  From jumping in immediately to spout our own opinion to literally rolling our eyes or sighing deeply while the other person shares, we can be quick to shut down an opinion with which we disagree.  Give people respect and talk through differences.  Beyond the facts of the matter, this is solid relationship building (which is what ministry is ultimately about).
  • Stay curious. Develop habits of valuing different perspectives and ideas.  Read opinions different from your own as a regular practice.  This not only opens you up to new ideas – or tweaking your old ideas – but is good preparation for meeting rooms in which people challenge your fixed perspective.  Make a habit of regularly asking other people for their opinion.  Build a reputation as someone who is curious and open.  Solicit feedback about your own decision making.
  • Have an accountability system. Feedback systems are part of a good accountability strategy.  State your vision for a humble workspace and remind people regularly that this is one of your team’s core values.  Challenge them to remind you when you forget.  Select a trusted accountability partner whom you task with the job of reminding you – gently but firmly – when you inevitably forget to live out this value.
  • Promote forums in which views are equally exchanged. Make it a point to have regular events in which ideas can be exchanged in a free-for-all celebration of what people are passionate about.  Do this occasionally in staff meetings, in leadership gatherings, and for the general public.  Make it clear that your ministry values contributions from all people – the volunteers who make it happen and those who receive the blessings of the ministry – make it clear by actually valuing their input!
  • Admit when you get it wrong. This is another powerful aspect of humility.  Don’t be afraid to publicly acknowledge your goofs.  Also, be fearless in admitting when other people get it right.  Conducting yourself in this manner builds enormous reserves of trust.  When we trust one another, we all do our best work.

A commitment to both kinds of humility – spiritual humility and intellectual humility – will create an environment that feels honest and fresh.  Many organizations give lip service to the ways in which people and their ideas are valued.  Ministry professionals – empowered by our deep understanding of true humility – are uniquely positioned to honor our team members and ministry partners by truly valuing their contributions (and not being so enamored of our own genius and power).  Of course, that’s just my humble opinion.