by Eddie Pipkin

I am itchy, and it’s my own dang fault.  I am currently suffering from a wicked case of poison ivy.  I was doing a good deed last Saturday, helping some older folks with yard work, when I realized there was poison ivy among the vines I was pulling from the fence.  I know very well what poison ivy looks like.  I have had intense reactions to it since I was a kid – the running family joke was that I only had to look at it from a hundred yards away, and I would instantly break out in those nasty little pus-filled blisters.  It’s been a few years since I had a reminder of how inconvenient and uncomfortable an outbreak can be, but I have no good excuse for why, immediately when I saw the telltale three leaves of doom, I did not stop, run away, and scrub myself raw under a scalding hot shower.  It was a sublime moment of cognitive dissonance that I obstinately carried on with the project at hand despite the inevitable outcome.  And as I sit here now and will myself not to scratch, I am reminded that ministry leadership is filled with such moments of pigheaded stubbornness.

As human beings, once we sink our teeth into an objective, it can be awfully hard to let go.  Sometimes, however, it makes much more sense to back away and fight another day – or at least take a timeout until we can think the problem through, get help, or come up with an alternative strategy.

In my case, I was helping my mom with a yardwork challenge I had put off for a few weeks, a problem which was just ‘growing’ by the day, but on Saturday I found myself with only a couple of hours left to resolve it.  I was out of time, meaning that my decision-making at the point I identified the poison ivy was fallacious and primed for excuse-making:

  • I had to finish! I had publicly stated an objective!  My reputation was at stake!
  • Maybe I was wrong about the reason I needed to abandon the plan. Sure, the evidence was obvious, but it was possible I was misreading it.  There are other three-leaved vines, you know.
  • I was doing a good deed! Surely, the universe would not punish me for doing a good deed.  Surely, I would be spared by supernatural interference.
  • Okay, the danger signs were there; if I continued, I was going to suffer the obvious and inevitable consequences, but maybe they wouldn’t be that bad, just a little discomfort – well worth the suffering. (For the record, the consequences were pretty bad – the suffering was a multi-day, multi-night torment – I had forgotten how hard it is to sleep when you are one gigantic itchfest.)

What should have happened was this: I should have stopped and backed away the second I noticed the problem.  I should have stepped back, way back (literally) and assessed the situation.  I might have redirected my efforts to other things that could have been safely accomplished, while delegating the dangerous work to others who were better prepared to handle it.  I might have delayed the work until I could get better protective gear for myself or the right tools for the job (like a flamethrower).  Sure, it was possible that someone was going to be disappointed that I did not get the work done exactly when I said it would be done, but it was unlikely they were going to be mad about it once I explained the situation.  The pressure to finish at all costs was self-generated.

I will survive to pull weeds another day.  And I have had a healthy self-deprecating laugh at my own stupid willfulness in the process, but I’ve seen more than one ministry scenario in which the same sort of willfulness has resulted in disaster, damaging institutions, and hurting people in the process.

It might be a complex ministry mission involved (as opposed to an afternoon of yard work), but at the moment we see a clear red flag, our excuse-making can be remarkably similar:

  • We must stay the course at all costs! (This is the point at which we love to share dangerous aphorisms like, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs!”)  We have stated our objective with great public fanfare.  To revise the timeline or change the parameters of the objective mid-course would be a failure and an embarrassment.  So, we surge forward.
  • Maybe we’re overthinking this and misreading the (obvious) evidence of trouble ahead. Maybe everything will be all right, correct itself, or subside in the wake of our positive attitude.
  • We prayed about this objective and worked to build consensus. We can’t possibly have gotten it wrong.  Surely, God will supernaturally intervene to keep disaster at bay.  (I want to be careful here not to minimize the impact of prayer and the divine, sometimes miraculous, interjection of God in our projects, but what I am writing about here is our unhelpful stubbornness even when God has given us clear signs that danger lies directly ahead.  That’s ego, and that’s not good.)
  • Okay, the evidence is that we are about to have a major problem, but maybe it will only be a minor problem. Maybe we can keep the damage to a minimum even as we keep the project moving forward.  It can’t be that bad, can it?  No one will even notice!

It’s hard to make decisions in the moment.  It’s hard to pull the plug (even temporarily) on something in which so many people are invested, but it’s the safe and wise thing to do.  That’s why NASA completely revamped their “safety culture” after the 1986 Challenger disaster.  Momentum and the pressure of schedules had made it hard for engineers to call out safety concerns, so NASA revised their procedures so that even low-level workers could pause a countdown if they saw something they felt posed a dangerous risk.

As leaders, we need to pay attention to the danger signs, and we need to empower other people to helps us pay attention.  We need to give them permission to let us know when they see something that they think is going to be problematic, and we need to have processes in place for assessing the risk once a risk has been brought forward.  If nothing else, once we have assessed the risk and decided to move forward with a plan to deal with that risk, the potential problem has high visibility, and we are better equipped to deal with it if it arises.  Everybody on the team knows what is potentially coming.

You will be familiar from experience with many of the real-world scenarios in which these kinds of issues crop up:

  • Clear data arises that a project is about to go way over budget.
  • You get signals that someone related the project is disgruntled about how things are evolving – and it’s one of those people who can stir up some serious trouble if they feel like it.
  • It becomes clear that you’re not going to be able to pull off a major element of the plan.
  • A person integral to the plan has clearly bitten off more than they can chew.
  • It becomes apparent that the completion of this plan, as we have envisioned it, is going to impact people in ways we did not anticipate.
  • Somebody identifies a safety issue that had not been noted earlier in the planning stage.

There are plenty of other variations of complications, and you’ve probably seen most of them in your ministry career.  The first and most important decision when one of these eventualities arise is to hit the ‘pause’ button to prayerfully assess the situation.  This can be a formal “time out” that is a group reassessment, or it can be a quiet, behind-the-scenes personally directed process to acknowledge and manage the issue.  The point is to take it seriously, not just brush it under the rug.

Sometimes, setting up a meeting with the key players around the potential issue can get the issue resolved in a couple of hours.  Sometimes, delegating the investigation of the issue to one person with clear expertise can lead to a solution.  Sometimes, a project needs to be formally paused to give people time to collaborate and assess whether a new direction is appropriate.  Sometimes, one problematic aspect of a project can be jettisoned and reserved for another day as the bulk of the project proceeds forward.

It helps to have some basic tools in the toolkit for when these issues arise:

  • We should have people we can trust and confide in, people with whom we can talk through issues in a non-judgmental space: a ‘brain trust’ and a ‘soul trust.’ This should include both people inside our organization and people outside of it (to give a broader perspective).
  • We should always be promoting an institutional culture in which it’s okay to identify issues and bring current problems (and potential future problems) forward.
  • We should always be promoting a leadership culture in which people feel like we will listen to them. People should never be afraid to speak up, either because they feel that we will be angry at them for speaking up or because they feel that we will ignore whatever they say.
  • We should practice excellent communication, especially written communication, so that when issues arise, there will be a straightforward way to process them in as healthy a manner as possible.

Do you have some stories about how your own stubbornness led to ministry calamity, or stories of how someone else’s stubbornness in the face of obvious evidence of danger ahead led to a major shipwreck?  What lessons did you take from such experiences?  How do you and your team safeguard against moving foolishly ahead when a pause for careful reflection might better serve the mission?  Even better, do you have a good story of a time when that emergency pause or reassessment led to a great outcome – maybe even better than what you had originally planned for?  It happens!