Making Difficult Decisions
What is the senior church leader’s role in difficult decision making?
My first article in this series on decision-making focused on the difference between the revealed will of God and the secret will of God. The second unpacked some of the different types of decisions we’ll have to make.
This final article will explore some of the practical aspects involved in making those decisions.
You will have to make difficult decisions
A fascinating and salutary insight into difficult decisions can be found in 1 Chronicles 21:10-22:1. In pride, David has seriously sinned against the Lord. In a period of salvation history when there were revelations from God, he was faced by the prophet/seer Gad with three choices: three years of famine; three months of military defeat; or three days of plague.
All these options were righteous judgements and David had to assess what would cause least distress to others. In other words – what was the least-worst option. In a really helpful article, Jonathan Tame opened up this issue of how to think through what the most loving thing would be to do in the face of a deserved judgement. 1
We do not like ‘least-worst’ decisions. But we have to make them. Professor John Murray in his remarkable book on divorce considers the question: ‘What advice do we give to the guilty party of an adulterous affair?’ It is worth reading to see his reasoning: what would uphold the honour of God, given this affair, the subsequent divorce, and the new couple living together and committed to each other? He argues that they should marry, but it will always be an adulterous marriage. It would bar someone from office-bearing, but not from membership, if they were repentant Christians. 2
You may disagree with his conclusions, but it is the reality of life that you will have to make difficult decisions. Don't duck them by doing nothing. I know how easy it is to do this – just by looking at my in-tray. In the past I got into the habit of leaving things in there for a long time, and then, ‘hey presto’ they got out of date, and I could bin them. But that is not a good way to make decisions, let me assure you.
Sometimes decisions are difficult because we have to make them in very tight time horizons, or when we have a lack of information. Or both!
Again, I found very Murray helpful, this time in his book, Principles of Conduct. 3 He is very strong on truth telling but he acknowledges that a decision which was made in good faith, with the knowledge available at the time, may be amended when new information comes to light. There's not been a lack of truthfulness, it's just that things have changed.
Re-assessments, new information, and changing circumstances do not mean that an original decision was unwise or wrong. It is just that we may need to make a midcourse correction. Some leaders struggle with this as they worry it might make them look less than bold, clear, and determined. We need to recognise that if wisdom calls for a change of direction, then it is courageous leaders who feel secure enough to make that call. Then there are decisions that are difficult because things seem contradictory to others, even if they are not. It is what has been called ‘the problem of optics’.
A good example would be Paul’s very different approaches to circumcision. He would not circumcise Titus but would circumcise Timothy (Galatians 2:1-5 and Acts 16:1-3). On principle, Titus would not be circumcised because that would make it look as if circumcision was necessary for salvation. But once the principle was clearly established, he pragmatically circumcised Timothy. Paul was quite willing to flex in these situations in order to help others (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
What are your equivalents? Are you clear about the interplay of principle and pragmatism?
Sometimes you will have to spell out to others, as Paul did, what your reasoning is. Some may still accuse you of compromising a principle or being driven by sheer pragmatism, while others will say you are being legalistic if you stick to your principles.
You and your leadership team need to be as prepared as is possible to help those who struggle with change, nuance, and decision-making in difficult times.
Get help where you struggle
If you know what is right, but fear consequences, then ask God for courage. “Don't be afraid” is the most common command in the Bible. I am struck by just how many times Joshua is told to be bold and courageous, and that is just in chapter 1 (vs 6, 7 – ‘very strong’, 9, and 19).
Acts 4:31 shows the apostles, faced with intimidating threats and warned of dire consequences, seeking God. He fills them with boldness as a response.
Sleepless nights, tight chest, rumbling stomach, migraine headaches, and even a shingles rash is how the body sometimes tells us that we are stressed. That can be intensified when we have to make difficult decisions. We might need rest, extra help, or even medical advice.
But sometimes we need to pray for the courage to do the right thing.
At other times we need divine help in the form of giving us wisdom as we assess all the options and formulate ways forward. The great news is that what was once a privilege for God’s king (1 Kings 3:5ff) is now the privilege of all his children. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God…” What a relief that we can call for our Heavenly Father's aid.
So, do we ask God for this kind of wisdom as much as we could?
With like/dislike, and just plain old ‘not sure’
Finally, it is good to recognise that we may need help when we are genuinely in two minds, notwithstanding the warning of James 1:8. For ‘two minds’ are not always automatically a problem.
There are times when even in a good, blessed, successful, fruitful period, there is something you are not quite sure about; something nagging you. This isn't the uncertainty about the doing the right thing or the wrong thing (Romans 14:23), but in that other sense that there are other factors at work which I need to consider.
Our forefathers would have said that the Lord has given you a burden, or that he has laid something on your heart. That is fine and good. Some decisions in life, including church life, are like that. We may need to talk it over with trusted advisors or we may need to take more time before we act. We can still trust everything to a wonderful overruling providence.
High Quality Team Based Decision Making (HQTBDM)
It is easy to slip into the thought that decision-making for a leader is mainly a solitary thing. To see it as something a senior leader does before announcing ‘The Plan’ to everyone else. But in church life especially, it is a ‘we thing’ not a ‘me thing’.
How churches formally do their decision-making varies enormously. What I am concerned to do here is not argue for any particular polity, but just underscore the importance of others being involved in decisions and how, especially in small groups, we can learn to make good and better ones.
A wonderful example of HQTBDM in practice, in a very pressured situation, was the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) 4. It seems that various voices were empowered to speak (and at length) while the Bible was the touchstone for the decision. A summary was ably given, and achievable action points were endorsed by all before they were acted upon.
Another example of ‘gaining ownership’ in a complex decision-making environment is found in Acts 6. The leadership wisdom is witnessed to by the phrase “This proposal pleased the whole group” (Acts 6:5). Surely this is not the only time a leadership proposal has gained that response in the history of the church? But its relative rarity ought to give us a ‘heads-up’ to acquiring the leadership skills involved in HQTBDM (the acronym is Les McKeown’s and is used is in his helpful, and very concise booklet, Do/Scale 5).
The Leader’s Role
It is important at this point to understand the role of the senior or team leader.
The key activity of this person is to encourage participation: empowering voices to address the presenting problem. It's worth recognising that some ‘voices’ may be nervous about speaking up, especially if they are countering what is perceived to be the majority view. Others need to be helped to say what they are really thinking, and not just to say what they are guessing the senior leader would like to hear.
In his groundbreaking book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, highly respected author Patrick Lencioni argues that the baseline, number one, presenting problem is a lack of trust which develops when there is a lack of candour. An insecure leader can subtly signal to the group, “all I want is for you to agree with me.” The avoidance of conflict becomes normalised, a lack of accountability sets in, and the result is a poor achievement of goals. 6
The senior or team leader has to help the team speak up, to show that all views are appreciated, even if in the end they are disagreed with, and then harness the power of the group to come to a better decision than any individual would have come to on their own. The significant power of the senior leader is then seen in that he summarises, as fairly as he can, the viewpoints, and then points the way forward. It is notable that James had something of this role in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13, 19; 21:18; Galatians 1:19; 2:9).
Here is where the senior leader is seen to play a key role: the team has worked together on the decision, but the main leader communicates it to others. Without taking the lead at this point, it signals to others that this decision can't be that important because the leader of the team isn't taking the communication initiative.
So, leader: step up to the mark and do the best you can to communicate the team’s decision.
Isn’t Romans 8:28 a relief, and at so many levels? When we have prayed, thought, consulted, announced, and tried to action our decisions, we can rest in the ultimate overruling of God for the good of his people.
Thankfully, the Lord overrules not only in difficult decisions, but also in trivial ones (Proverbs 16:13). Yes, we may have to do something about our foolish decisions (Proverbs 6:1-5). But God’s overruling frees us to both admit to sinful errors and find forgiveness (1 Timothy 5:19-20), and also to acknowledge mistakes where we may have acted hastily or with a lack of sound judgement.
God’s sovereignty doesn't mean there won't be setbacks that are painful, heart-breaking, and hard to understand (Mark 6:7-30). Opposition abounds in a fallen world - remember that some of Paul's last words were, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him because he strongly opposed our message” (2 Timothy 4:14-15).
But in the end, we can all rest in God’s saving plan in Christ Jesus our Lord (Proverbs 16:3; 19:21; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28). And Paul’s last words were “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.” (2 Timothy 4:22).
Amen to that!
1. Jonathan Tame, Deadly Dilemmas, (Engage. The Quarterly comment from the Jubilee Centre, July 2020, pp1, 4).
2. John Murray, Divorce (Presby and Ref, 1976).
3. John Murray, Principles of Conduct (this ed. Eerdmans, 1991).
4. William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Banner of Truth, orig 1862, this ed. 1979, vol 1, pp 42-78).
5. Les McKeown, Do/ Scale (The Do Book Co, 2019)
6. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (John Wiley, 2002).