In times of stress and uncertainty, the way forward is seldom about more information. Yet it is not surprising that church boards are currently in search of any shred of information to help them make decisions in this stressful and uncertain time.
In 2015, researchers from Cornell and Tulane universities administered a test to one hundred participants, who took it from home on their computers. Participants were asked to rate their understanding of the following terms on a scale of one to seven:
What the test takers didn’t know was that three of the terms (annualized credit, fixed-rate deduction, and pre-rated stocks) were entirely made up. Still, a significant number of the participants claimed that they were quite knowledgeable about these non-existent terms, and those who rated themselves highest on the scale of financial expertise were by far the most likely to make this claim.
Participants weren’t lying to impress the test administrators; they took the test in the privacy of their homes. They were deluding themselves to protect their self-perceptions of expertise. Additional experiments in the areas of biology, literature, philosophy, and geography produced comparable results.
It’s highly doubtful that any church board is indulging in a delusion of this magnitude. However, it is human impulse to seek safety amidst uncertainty—and often that safety is found in the promise of expertise. Church boards seek safety in expertise, right along with the rest of us. This happens in two ways: first, by seeking the expertise of individual board members, often in areas like finance, property, and administration. But it happens in other areas as well, like faith formation, theological vision, meeting needs in the church and world. Here again, boards tend to think, “Well, somebody must have figured this out…let’s go find them!”
What if, instead, your church board saw itself as a set of lead explorers who accompany a group of pilgrims in exploring the new landscape of God’s work in the world? One of the key attributes of good explorers is that they are relentlessly honest about what they don’t know. Discoveries abound. Wonder is experienced daily. Discernment about how to move forward is gathered through the collaborative wisdom of everyone on the journey. And when your group of explorers takes a wrong turn or misjudges the difficulty of a particular path, the emphasis is on keeping the pilgrims safely together and moving forward after whatever corrections need to be enacted. Notice: safety is important for both experts and explorers. But too often, the safety afforded by expertise is reactive and communicated vertically (top-down). Safety for the very best explorers is communal, informed by curiosity and humility, and reliant on a wisdom beyond themselves.
At the beginning of Hebrews 12, the writer has just completed a long account of those who, as they sought to follow God, forged ahead in humility and uncertainty. Then the writer says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Where our pioneer goes, our church boards should try to follow.
Thinking about effective leaders you have known and admired, would you say they led as experts or explorers? How about effective leaders in your congregation?
What does it mean to you that Jesus is called “the pioneer and perfecter of faith”?
If you were to recast your church board as a team of lead explorers, how would that change your board agenda next month? What would change in your congregation?