Last week I wrote on Seven Deadly Words for Leaders, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and how it can cripple the leadership effectiveness of any ministry. Thinking more about how important avoiding pitfalls in leadership can be, I couldn't help but look at seven more deadly words for leaders:
"We've never done it that way before"
Since I became a Christian in 1999, I've seen the idea of change met with incredible resistance. Why? I have no idea. Of all the work I've done on ministry leadership, experience in ministry, and gleaning for leaders in the field, the pushback against change with the "we've never done it that way before" response is as puzzling now as ever. One of the most interesting parallels between church life and the real world was in an article I read about Henry Ford and his resistance to moving on from the Model T. The irony of the article was the car that made the Ford family wealthy and powerful also became the albatross that prevented them from innovating to new technology and catching up to other emerging auto makers. For Ford, moving on towards unchartered territory was something he was unwilling to do. The connection to ministry is obvious. Where so many churches are at the plateau of their growth or declining, the sense of urgency to change and innovate is often lacking until it's too late.
Why are these words deadly for a leader? Here are 4 reasons.
1. It keeps thinking "in the box" - In this mindset, the only ideas that can be floated are ideas that have been done before. Anything that doesn't fit the paradigm that already exists is considered out of line and is discarded. It's like in the Jurassic Park novel when they scan the number of dinosaurs. The computer knew to only look for the number they thought should be there, not the actual count. Their inability to think outside the box led to a lot of people being eaten. Churches may not have a loose T-Rex, but thinking inside the box overlooks obvious solutions because of an inability to entertain new ideas.
2. Conformity > Creativity - Leaders who adapt this mindset create a culture for their followers where they are expected to stay in line and lock-step rather than use their gifting and ability to be creative. In ministry this can look like a worship leader who refuses to allow for new music because it can't be played on pipe organ. Also it means that brainstorming is suppressed in the name of following a strict pattern, which leads to a cycle of inaction.
3. It leads to a crippling fear of the unknown - Last year I got to spend some time in DC for a conference, and during the down time went to the Smithsonian. One of the craziest things I saw was the Mercury spacecraft. I couldn't believe we sent someone into space in something that was the NASA equivalent of a tin can. How could we do that and not know what would happen to them? We were driven as a nation by an unshakeable desire to the world superpower, and to explore the reaches of space. What was unknown by NASA wasn't seen as something to be scared of, but an adventure to chase after. In ministry, we may not know all the details about a new initiative, but we cannot let the fear of the unknown cripple us into inactivity.
4. Decisive decisions cannot be made - One of the crippling aspects of this view is that it can turn into paralysis by analysis. Every detail must be scrutinized, evaluated, debated, discussed, deferred to a committee, or consume valuable meeting time. Ultimately, many of the important decisions that require decisive action are left on the table because of an over-focus on the mundane details. Rather than a leader making a decision that is a catalyst for action, it becomes an administrator who makes sure all the boxes are checked off.
The great news is that many leaders don't live by these words, they're captivated by retaining the message of the Gospel that stands eternal and timeless with methodology and strategy that is in the context of a particular time, place, and people. For those leaders, new ways of doing things and thinking outside the box are cheered as part of God's creative gift from Genesis 1-2. These leaders don't need to have everything lined up, but are free to move in the direction that God has led them, and are in churches that recognize the importance of engaging people in a post-Christian cultural context. For them, the only sacred cow is the Chick-Fil-A cow, not the methods and activity of the past.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.