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Not an Exact Science

Sometimes it’s not clear what the right leadership decision should be. Ray Evans offers some thoughts on a couple of chapters in Acts that he says every church leadership team should reflect on.

Not an Exact Science primary image

The end of Acts 15 and the beginning of Acts 16 have some vital leadership lessons.

Of course Acts 15 is mainly a record of the Council of Jerusalem with its wise decisions keeping the churches united on the gospel. But then comes this fascinating section at the end which comes as such a surprise. A surprise because Paul and Barnabas had been such an effective team, and were obviously as close as brothers in the Lord. Their plan to go and visit some of the churches they had planted sounds like a good plan.

So, it’s a shock to see them have such a sharp disagreement and go their own ways. I don’t think anyone saw that coming!

What this teaches us is that real leadership has to cope with the most unexpected turn of events. Too much of what is written about leadership suggests there is complete control of events and people but that is rarely the case. Here, the great apostle Paul has to deal with such a painful issue that he hadn’t planned and scheduled.

Don’t be surprised if things don’t turn out as you hoped, even when they’ve been well-planned. Puzzling disappointments, especially coming from people we like and trust, are difficult to handle.

In this case it’s important to note that the disagreement was not framed as a moral absolute, a right/wrong issue. The text doesn’t charge Barnabas with sin for planning to take John Mark with them. It says Paul did not think it wise. He felt he had good reasons for that, but Barnabas felt differently.

But the main lesson here is to recognise that leadership is not an exact science. People and projects don’t always work out as we hope. Here are some thoughts to help fuel discussions with your leadership team.

1. Don’t be surprised by differing opinions

This passage in Acts is a frame of reference where the decision-making is on a ‘wise/unwise’ spectrum, and where ‘good, better, best’ come into play.

It shows that even great leaders will see things differently sometimes, even when both are seeking to apply godly wisdom. This kind of disagreement can easily confuse a younger leader. We can naïvely assume that mature leaders will all have the same viewpoint when it comes to a decision. But life and circumstances are more complex than that. A whole host of different considerations may bear upon a decision and a plan to go forward.

Leaders need to learn to cope with this. Our backstop position is that when even mature Christians disagree, the Lord overrules for a higher good. We may not see that for many years!

So, in the text we see Barnabas disappearing with John Mark, but we know from the rest of Scripture that it all turns out well in the end (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11). The point here is at that time Paul really didn’t think it wise to put John Mark, and themselves, in a pressured situation. The following developments would bear that out, for within a chapter, Paul and Silas would be in great pain in an inner dungeon.

But Barnabas thought it wise to invest further in John Mark. He took a risk that it would be worth it. It could have gone wrong (remember Demas, Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:10), but the Lord was kind to us all and John Mark made a significant contribution!

As you live life ‘forward’, you can’t know assured outcomes. Leadership which only goes forward if life is problem-free is not leadership in the real world. Here the leadership plan unravels even before they get going. Have you ever felt like that?

2. Don’t trust hindsight

Now there will always be people, who at the first sight of difficulties (especially difficulties involving personalities clashing over decisions) look back and say you should’ve prayed more, or you should’ve consulted more, or you should’ve planned more thoroughly.

Such people live life looking backwards. Hindsight looks much more spiritual than it really is. Gospel progress is always dependent on going forward even when our intentions and good plans seem not to work. Faith is spelt R-I-S-K in the real world. This passage demonstrates that.

3. Don’t give in to bitterness

Paul doesn’t. He presses on even though he has lost a valued colleague.

Given what the text says about a young man causing such a painful parting of the ways, you would’ve thought Paul would play it safe and only work with other mature believers. You may have imagined that he wouldn’t go near another young man for ages, given the difficulties he has experienced. But we find him not giving in to ministry cynicism, but carrying on with the great mission of the gospel.

This includes him continuing to build a team of workers including a younger man, Timothy, who showed some potential for Christian leadership. The text shows that Paul is not taking a foolish risk, for Timothy is well spoken of by other believers in different churches (Acts 16:2). Given all that we know from Timothy’s later life, at this point he was probably in his late teens or at most in his early 20s.

I find it refreshing, and a challenge, that Paul is willing to invest in such a young potential leader even after the difficult episode with John Mark. It is tempting, as an older leader, to underplay the importance of helping such younger leaders. We want to know that our time and effort will pay off, but in real life we can’t be sure. We have to live going forward into uncertainty! In our busy lives we must take the time to follow Paul’s example.

4. Don’t rely on yourself

It is worth noting here that the plan in the text did not include (at that time) the evangelisation of Europeans. Paul wasn’t thinking of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth at that moment in some big sweep of territory he was going to ‘take for the Lord’.

So, the final leadership lesson in this section comes with the remarkable way God overrules and brings the gospel to Europe.

Twice the Holy Spirit, unusually, says ‘No’ to a plan that the Christians had formulated (Acts 16:6, 7), so that when his positive, ‘Come here’ (vs9, 10) is experienced, they all know that God is going ahead of them.

It is so important, in all our discussions about planning, strategy, and vision that we really take seriously the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. Genuine dependence upon the Holy Spirit in prayer and faith takes away some of the unnecessary pressure on Christian leaders to always get it right, or have all the answers.

We may be leaders, but we are not in control. What a relief to know that God is our king and leader and we are seeking to follow him as we bring the gospel to needy people. We have to learn to trust his overruling providence. Sometimes our plans look like they are frustrated, but he has a better plan.

We are not ‘the movers and shakers’ that great leaders are often described as! This passage takes the focus off of us and our big plans, and points us to the Lord.

It is a relief that we can be ‘ordinary leaders’ living in the real world with its unknown future. Yes we need to be challenged to take some steps forward, but we can also commit everything to him. We need a deep sense of dependency on God if leadership is to be authentically Christian. We don’t have to be supremos, nor should we be authoritarian as if it all depends on us and our capabilities. Rather trust in God should make us both humble and confident in all that he can do.

It is worth discussing with your leadership team some of the issues that get raised by this neglected part of God’s word. Reflect too on your own, and your team’s, experiences of disappointment, disagreement, unfulfilled hopes and hesitancy over what to do next. Then think about God’s overruling for the good of his gospel and his church.