By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
Emotions typically run high when decisions made by the church affect you and your family. People really do care about those issues that touch their relationships, schedules, pocketbooks, or reputations. The church finds itself continually dealing with highly personal issues. This is how it should be. The church’s foundation is Jesus Christ, but its building is people. People he died for. People God loves and calls his bride. When leaders make a decision that affects people, people desire to be a part of that process. They want their voices heard and their desires met.
Recently, I (Tim) experienced the passion our church has for growing godly relationships. Over the course of the past few years, we have been rediscovering the power of relationships—a journey that is transforming our lives.
In an information meeting, some new ideas were proposed for structuring our relationships. The idea of changing how we were organized to do ministry met with resistance. A healthy and passionate discussion broke out. A decision had to be made on the spot. What the leaders had planned for that evening was not unfolding, but there was energy flowing, and to stop the interaction would have quenched the Spirit. So, though not planned nor voted on, I made a decision to let the discussion flow. It was a tough call for me, because at that moment I felt the tension of “what had been announced” vs. “what was happening right now.” For leaders in the church, making tough decisions is a daily experience.
Making tough decisions reminds us of our own personal struggles in becoming conformed to the image of Christ. God often deals with us in ways that we do not necessarily like. God’s love never ceases, but he also never compromises his character. I am often reminded that the church is the bride of Christ. The work of God focuses on purifying his bride. The Word of God clearly and boldly states that God is preparing a holy bride for his Holy Son (Eph. 5:26).
Consequently, God’s work involves all that would make the bride a more perfect and pure bride. Thus, change becomes the word of the day. Putting off our old sinful self and putting on the new self in Christ calls us each day to a life of obedience and change. This process often comes with reluctant surrender to our Lord. We often treasure those habits of the soul that make us feel comfortable in our earthly journey. Habits of self-indulgence, laziness, pride, addictions, and self-pity raise their voices in protest every time the Spirit of Christ calls for a life of surrender and self-sacrifice.
Our journey is not solitary. We travel with other pilgrims whom God calls us to love and serve. We are challenged by the audacity of the idea that we actually have to “get along” and live a life in unity with Christ and one another. Our sinful nature wishes everything could be about “me” and “mine,” but there are others who call themselves followers of Jesus. We need to sing and worship the Lord together, yet we struggle with how, when, and where. Yes, it would be somewhat easier if we could decide on the “right” style of music, at the “right” time for worship, in the “right” kind of worship center, with the “right” worship leader. However, most of life in the church is not about what we would prefer. So how do we navigate the issue of making those decisions that would please our Lord and motivate his people to love and serve him?
Make no mistake about this leadership issue. Leadership is about making biblically sound, Spirit-filled, wise decisions in a timely fashion.
There was a commercial during the Super Bowl several years ago that demonstrates the challenge leaders face. It opened with a Western scene, cowboys astride their trusty steeds, dust filling the air, as the cowboys shouted and whistled to command the attention of those … those cats? Yes, cats, not cows, were the objects of “them there catboys.” Trying to get those independently minded, skittish cats to move in one direction at the same time was pretty much impossible. Yet, that is the challenge for church leaders today.
Today, as in any generation, God calls leaders to make wise biblical decisions that motivate the followers of Jesus to live well for our King. We want to challenge leaders to consider not only their style of leadership, but also the necessity of making decisions when the stakes are high and the pressure is great. We are confident most of those in leadership are seeking the Lord to discover his will for each situation. How is it, then, that we often find such differing answers to what decision the Lord is asking us to make?
What would a biblically sound process for making tough decisions look like? Let us look at a few biblical examples. The early church faced tough decisions from its very inception. Acts 1 begins not only with the reminder of Christ’s commission to the church, but also answers the question “What do we do next?” Christ ascended and left the church behind. So the church gathered in prayer. That is an expected biblical answer, right? Of course. They were following a pattern that Jesus had taught them: pray in private (Matt. 6:6), pray clearly and simply (Matt. 6:7–13), prayer before the selection of disciples (Luke 6:12ff.), prayer when you want others to understand you better (Luke 9:18), prayer in the midst of death (John 11), and pray continually (Luke 11:9–10). So the church gathered, possibly out of fear of the Jews, but more significantly, I believe, out of obedience and faith to wait for what the Lord had promised.
Out of those times of prayer, Peter points out from Psalm 109:8 that “may another take his place of leadership.” This guidance from the Holy Spirit brought the church to ask God for an answer to a very difficult question—who would replace the betrayer? Who would fill the shoes of one selected by the Lord, yet who betrayed him? The church proposed two men. One was selected by the means of casting lots. The church said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen” (Acts 1:24).
Casting lots is no longer a common practice. However, the central question is “Are we trusting God?” Who are we trusting in as we make decisions? Whose will are we concerned about doing? Ours? God’s? Fundamental to all wise decision making is the question “Whose will do we want to see accomplished?”
Praying and waiting on the Lord are easy to think about yet not necessarily easy to practice. We want action now. We need to get this done today. The world is spinning toward hell, and we need to do something about it now. Yet, the pattern of Scripture tells us to take time, possibly lots of time, to wait together on the Lord, and pray. What should we pray? What should the church be asking for as it prays about tough decisions?
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “But we have the mind of Christ.” The point here is that through the Holy Spirit the very thoughts of God are communicated to the church in words that we can understand. Therefore, the Scriptures inform our knowledge of the will of God. So the Word of God, the Bible, must inform our prayers. It is God’s self-revelation of his purposes and will. It will direct us toward how we should pray. How can we do this on a leadership level in the church?
A common contemporary experience that allows for an encounter with the living God, both individually and corporately, is seminars and conferences for the purposes of education. Many in the church have also been practicing retreats for the purposes of prayer and hearing the voice of the Lord. These experiences assume that God has spoken in his Word, but also that God speaks through his Word by his Spirit to the church today.
Although it seems like yesterday, it was more than twenty years ago that I (Tim) attended a leadership retreat with the leaders of the church I was then pastoring. We had been in a season of prayer, seeking the Lord together. The journey had been filled with bumps, turns, and unexpected halts along the way, but in those several days at the retreat we began to hear and see God’s will unfold for us. Out of prayer, out of reading and meditating on God’s Word, and out of countless conversations came a clear and energizing summary of God’s plan for us. Bingo! We heard! We believed! We did!
Church leaders are called to make tough decisions for the church every day. How? First and foremost, we must devote ourselves to prayer, immersion in the Word of God, and listening to God.
The apostles, having received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, found a new boldness in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. They passionately announced that Christ had risen, and in his name there was forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. This boldness brought persecution. The jealous Jewish leaders were threatened by the response of the people to the message they thought they had squashed by crucifying Jesus. Now there was a new outbreak of the preaching of Jesus as the Messiah. Preaching with boldness and miracles brought attention to the apostles. Bad attention! Arrests, trials, imprisonments, and beatings characterized the first few weeks after the birth of the church. The question of the day was “Will we obey God or men?” (Acts 4:18–20; 5:29).
We should make tough decisions out of obedience to God, not men. Who are we trying to please? God or men? What pressures do we feel? Who are we trying to impress? Tough decisions demand a clear understanding of what it is to obey God. The church’s call to obedience puts us on the cutting edge of culture. The church is a catalyst that causes waves of reaction, upsetting many who want comfort and the status quo. Tough decisions may not always feel good, but the Holy Spirit brings faith, peace, and boldness to make them.
Tough decisions cost something. For the apostles, it cost imprisonment, harassment, and flogging. What was their response? “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
What does this mean for those making tough leadership decisions today? First of all, it does not mean we live with a martyr complex. We do not need to go around thinking “Woe is me, I am being harassed because of Jesus! No one likes me. I am just a lowly servant of Jesus.”
Second, we need to think sincerely about representing a true expression of Christianity. Are we culturally relevant or culturally compromised? Are we seeing true followers of Jesus Christ produced from our church or comfortable Christians? Are our lives being transformed by Christ or conformed to the world? Are we driven by success, significance, or sacrifice? Are we seeking to please others? Are we trying to satisfy our insatiable desire for personal satisfaction? Many tough questions arise as we think about obedience to Christ.
Thirdly, what are we preaching and teaching as the good news of Jesus the Christ? What is our message? What actions are we calling people to make? Do we “demand” anything from those who are followers of Jesus? Who is this Jesus that died for us, a wimp or the sovereign Lord? To please our Lord was the driving force in the lives of apostles. Paul said, “We make it our goal to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). And this greatest of goals is a costly one.
Tough decisions mean life or death. Acts 5:1–11 illustrates the activity of the Holy Spirit in demonstrating his judgment on those who lie. The leaders of the church must affirm tough decisions by God on the people of God for their disobedience. Asking clear and crucial questions becomes the role of those leaders who model the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Tough decisions call for tough questions. Highly personal questions are the order of the day for the leaders of the church. The text of Scripture does not say how Peter knew that Ananias had lied. In Acts 5:3, Peter asks, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?”
That probably was not the easiest question to ask. Having just experienced many powerful expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit in and through his life, Peter may not have wanted to face again the work of the evil one. He did not, however, ignore the issue. Peter asked the hard question, a highly personal question, and a question that confronted a life-and-death issue. Making tough decisions means asking the tough questions, which are honest with God, others, and ourselves.
The growth of the early church brought with it many problems. With these problems came the necessity to make strategic leadership decisions. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit most certainly was the divine guidance that we see in the activities of the apostles. Therefore, God’s wisdom can be discerned through their behaviors. Acts 6 introduces the problem of racial discrimination. (We have not come far in the twenty centuries since, have we?) The apostles’ response to this challenge instructs us in how to make quick and tough decisions.
First, they did not deny that there was a problem. Second, they listened well. They took time to hear the complaint. They did not make excuses. Moreover, they responded with a positive plan. They, as Moses of old, delegated the responsibility to competent people. “Brothers, choose seven men” (Acts 6:3). They believed in the work of God in and through others. The apostles understood their leadership role as prayer and ministry of the Word. They prevented distractions from their job and a distortion of their power. They multiplied the work force through delegating the problem to competent people. Within a short time, the problem was addressed and solved. In addition, the work of the Lord continued unabated and without distractions or distortions.
Making tough decisions includes empowering others to be part of the answer. When we think too highly of ourselves, we distort the use of power. Leaders often make the mistake of assuming too much responsibility. God thinks in terms of team. The apostles addressed this highly emotional issue with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And they allowed those with the problem to become part of the solution and in the process empowered competent leaders to serve the church.
We need to make tough decisions in light of who can be part of the solution, not the problem. When leadership releases power through proper identification and affirmation of others, tough decisions become opportunities for growth and development in the body of Christ. It is important not only how we solve problems, but also through whom we solve the problems.
Delegation can go two ways—up or down the “hierarchy.” In Acts 8, Philip, the evangelist, had experienced phenomenal response from the people in Samaria. His preaching and the miracles God performed brought great joy to the city (Acts 8:8). Yet, the people had not received the Holy Spirit. So Peter and John came and laid hands on the new believers so that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus. This teamwork approach to the experience of salvation did not cause Philip to become jealous of Peter and John—he realized they were a team. Philip delegated to those above him, the apostles, to authenticate and complete the work of seeing the church born in Samaria.
Simon, the former sorcerer, wanted the power of the apostles for self-glory. Simon offered to buy this ability. Peter rebuked him directly. “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God” (Acts 8:20). Philip understood, as Simon did not, that God has given gifts and roles to certain people that others do not have. The calling and gifts of God on each person’s life need to inform our tough decisions. One cannot buy what only God can give.
In Acts 6, the apostles delegate a specific task to the seven deacons. They also delegate to the church the responsibility and criteria for choosing the seven men who will deal with the specific problem of resource distribution. So delegation can involve considering the specific criteria for personnel selection, the specific task, and the number of people to accomplish the task. Delegation then, whether up or down, should inform our decision-making process.
Acts 15 introduces how the church dealt with the tough issues of doctrine. Here the church confronts not just one person, as in Acts 8, but a group of individuals with a deep commitment to a value they held highly. The issue of salvation by faith in Christ alone was at stake in this debate and crucial decision. The context indicates that ethnicity also played a role in the disagreement. What would the apostles say? How would they handle this issue?
There were a number of witnesses to the truth of salvation by faith in Christ alone. Peter spoke up about the conversion of the Gentiles and that they had received the Holy Spirit. He emphasized that it was “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Paul and Barnabas described how God had visited the Gentiles with miraculous signs and wonders. Then James concluded by quoting the prophet Amos, “and all the Gentiles who bear my name” (Acts 15:6–17).
Tough decisions, informed by the Word of God and multiple witnesses, bring clarity and unity to the church. All the apostles were saying the same thing. A united voice spoke for the church: the Word of God, the experience of seeing God bring the Gentiles to salvation as he had done with the Jews, and the evidence of signs and wonders. When there is consensus in the leadership of the church in concert with the Word of God, tough decisions can be made with confidence.
Sometimes tough decisions are emotionally difficult to make. Paul and Barnabas ran into conflict about the value of John Mark as a fellow worker. Paul viewed John Mark as a quitter. Barnabas had sensed some growth and development in John Mark. So this dispute over a personnel issue led Paul and Barnabas to go in different directions (Acts 15:39). Tough decisions may not feel good, but can be good. Finding objectivity in emotionally charged issues requires that we submit our feelings to our thinking. There is a reason that labor negotiations have periods of “cooling off.” In the same way, church leaders need to take the necessary time and space to gain a healthy view of the issues.
I often wonder why so many church boards, committees, task forces, etc., meet in the evening, even late into the evening, when people are tired and their energy levels are low. It seems we are asking for trouble. The Bible does say, “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Wisdom then calls us to plan and schedule meetings for ministry when the body and spirit can be in top form.
God also gives the members of his body different perspectives. Though Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement,” the ministry went on. The Lord still used Barnabas and Paul. The expansion of the good news into Europe came as a result. John Mark matured under the mentoring of Barnabas, and years later Paul requested his ministry at a very crucial time (2 Tim. 4:11).
We need to be warned that emotions can distort and dominate decisions in an unhealthy way. Therefore, be sure to prepare well. Bad decisions are more destructive than no decisions. Working through tough decisions in the right way does not necessarily feel good. But bad decisions have complex outcomes. Therefore, allow the Spirit to control and fill every decision with his Word and his presence.
Making biblically sound, Spirit-filled, wise decisions in a timely fashion is what leadership is mostly about. We can influence our churches for good when we apply these eight principles for making tough decisions. Saturation in the Word of God and intentional prayer heightens our ability to connect with God. This dynamic interaction with the Holy Spirit fills our minds and passions with his desires. In cooperation with other believers, this makes a vibrant community. Communities of the faithful dream of following God no matter what the cost. When testing comes that would draw them from this holy encounter, the church will have the courage to say as Peter, “We must obey God, not men.”
Churches with this vibrant nature understand there is a cost to being a true follower of Jesus Christ. Decisions that call for sacrifice give them a cause for which to live and die. Those with lesser passions find only a lukewarm experience with the living Christ. How sad to hear that some who call themselves by the name of our Savior have greedy intentions.
Some who fellowship with the church are nothing more than spies and leeches, preying on the love and good nature of highly devoted believers. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a field where good and bad seed find root and grow together. Yet, at the end of the age, when the harvest comes, there will be a sifting. Followers of Jesus should not be distracted by those who follow the broad path.
When we choose to include others in the decision-making process, our trust inspires excellence. Trust generates energy for service and sacrifice. Therefore, we welcome the opportunity to see others as decision makers, not merely servants obeying our commands. There are times when we must draw the line in the sand. “No compromise here” should come from our lips when weaker minds or corrupted motives challenge the issues of orthodoxy. Think well and stand tall for the things that should never change.
Emotions turn black-and-white photos into living color. Without emotions, life would need no song. Yet our emotions can sometimes flood the boat and sink us. The Bible says that we are to take every thought captive to the obedience found in Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Paul exhorts us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). So our emotions and thinking need to find balance in submitting every feeling and thought to Christ and his church.
Tough decisions often require time and reflection. However, the process yields sound wisdom and fruitfulness for the church in fulfilling her mission for Christ.
I (Tim) have two special friends from seminary days, Bob and Roger. We have now journeyed twenty-nine years since graduation day. We have served in numerous congregations in five states. We have discussed, pondered, and prayed over many relational issues. On a number of occasions we have struggled through knowing how to respond to folks who strongly disagree with us. From personal attacks on our characters, calls, and/or giftedness to the various options of ministry methods and programs, we have debated and dialogued about what we should do.
A common conversation keeps running through my mind over and over again. I think about the outcomes, ”some will stay, some will go.” Should we stay? Should we go? We cringe at the thought that our decisions or the decision of the board or congregation will influence some members to leave and seek another church. Or that in a parachurch organization, a decision to adopt a new style of ministry will cause some donors to stop giving, loyal staff members to leave, or board members to resign. Making tough decisions means “some will stay, and some will go.” We must live by faith, even with tough decisions.