Take the Right Next Step
When planning the next big innovation for your church or ministry, do you approach it like a NASA engineer preparing for a moon shot? Or are you more like one of the explorers of the sixteenth or seventeenth century?
NASA mission planners spend untold hours and countless dollars to anticipate everything that could go wrong and to eliminate all uncertainty and risk. Even though their failures have been dramatic and tragic, they have been incredibly successful at putting people on the moon, landing spacecraft on Mars, and exploring the universe. NASA will not take the first step until every step has been planned in detail.
They couldn’t consult the maps because they were the ones making them.
Contrast that with the explorers who couldn’t possibly plan every step in detail. They couldn’t consult the maps because they were the ones making them. They didn’t know exactly what supplies to bring because they didn’t know what they’d encounter. But they did have a compelling goal – reaching one of the poles, sailing around the globe, finding a better route – and they sought to achieve it. Sometimes they succeeded and other times they failed, but every time they learned.
As different as these groups are, they have two things in common. First, in each case, they were motivated by a challenging, compelling vision. None of them would describe their work as meaningless or boring. Second, they acted. Even NASA, with their long, deliberate planning process, eventually pushes the button to launch the rocket.
These are the people we know about, but there is a third invisible category. They aren’t like an engineering team planning a space mission, and they aren’t courageous explorers. They’re the ones who don’t do anything. Whether due to fear or lack of opportunity, many unnamed people choose safety even as others venture out.
Despite all the advances in technology and access to information, today’s context for ministry leadership more closely resembles that of the early explorers. We don’t have NASA-like resources to declare “Failure is not an option,” nor are we dealing with problems that can be solved conclusively with bright people and powerful computers. Instead, the challenge is to lead others into a future filled with uncertainty or, as Robert Quinn says, “to build the bridge as we walk on it,” Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Guided by "Clear Enough" Vision
Being uncertain about how to build the bridge doesn’t mean being indecisive about where the bridge is going. Every church or ministry needs a vision, a description of their best understanding of God’s preferred future. You may have had disappointing experiences in the past with a vision that produced little fruit. But the alternative – no vision at all – will certainly not lead toward a brighter and more vibrant future.
Experts often emphasize the need for a vision to be clear. But instead of using the single word clear, it’s better to say a vision needs to be clear enough. The addition of the word enough is an important qualifier. A vision that is too vague results in puzzled looks: “What does that mean?” Or it may result in no looks at all, just blank stares of indifference. You may have a vision to change the world, but so does every other church and ministry and nonprofit. If your vision doesn’t say something about your unique place in changing the world, it is likely to fall flat.
At the same time, clear enough gives a leader permission to not know all the details, especially in the early stages of innovation. Leaders don’t need to be able to answer every question about how the vision will be achieved. They may not even be completely accurate as they paint a picture of what reaching the vision will look like.
Think of this as leading with a compass, not a map.
Think of this as leading with a compass, not a map. A map implies knowing the exact destination and every step to be taken along the route. Today we just need to turn on the location services and input an address, and our phone navigates wherever we want to go. But what if you were a seventeenth century explorer who didn’t have a detailed map and only knew that your destination was 500 miles to the west?
This is the analogy for ministry in 2022: a desired destination, a compass to point the way, and a commitment to take the first step.
Taking the First Step
There’s a reason we have so many sayings like “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” or “God can’t steer a parked car.” These statements highlight the value of creating movement. They recognize the inertia that can keep a person or organization frozen in place. In science, Newton’s first law states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted on by another force. Leaders need to be aware of the power of organizational inertia. A church or ministry will remain at rest unless acted on by a force of leadership.
A church or ministry will remain at rest unless acted on by a force of leadership.
A vision that is clear enough, when combined with the Spirit’s prompting, can be a powerful force. Just look at Scripture. Abraham wasn’t given a destination. He was simply told to leave his country and go to a land that God would show him. Joshua crossed the Jordan with knowledge of the land but without a battle plan for how to conquer it. Paul’s well-known vision of a man in Macedonia was compelling enough to change his immediate plans, but it didn’t include a list of cities to visit or a guide for enduring opposition and persecution. Despite the many questions that today’s leaders might ask in similar situations, these visions were clear enough for God’s chosen leaders to take a first step, trusting that God would show them the next steps at the proper time.
Holding Plans Loosely
When taking a first step, leaders need to be aware that success is not guaranteed, especially when trying something innovative and unproven. The art of leading change requires a leader to diligently pursue a vision while at the same time holding specific plans loosely. It requires honestly evaluating results and making adjustments along the way. And it requires overcoming obstacles.
Obstacles are inevitable as an organization takes the first step. Many obstacles are external, but some are internal to a team. A NASA mindset seeks to engineer failure-proof plans. It’s good to think about what could go wrong and identify the possible unanticipated consequences of a new initiative. Just be aware that the good intention to plan thoughtfully can become a paralyzing tendency to analyze endlessly.
If a ministry is prone to over-engineered solutions, the leader’s job is to name this and propose a different mindset. A team may need to rekindle a sense of urgency by focusing on the important issue they are addressing. They may need to accept a “90% solution,” a good design that doesn’t try to anticipate every possible contingency. They may need to be reminded that no plan is guaranteed to succeed and that going from a 90% to a 99% solution requires significant effort to produce modest gains.
The Holy Spirit's Guidance
Ultimately, overcoming these obstacles to taking a first step is also a spiritual issue. The guidance of the Holy Spirit informs the decisions about which steps to take and gives leaders the conviction to press ahead as they encounter hurdles. Without this conviction, leaders are prone to hesitation and doubt. Even with the Spirit’s guidance, leaders may feel overwhelmed. The overarching dream may be daunting, and the way to start may be uncertain. And yet, that’s the moment when a leader needs to step up and step out, nudging the people to take a first step in faith.
What’s the right next step for your leadership?
(This article is adapted from Mike Bonem’s new book, The Art of Leading Change: Ten Practices for the Messiness of Ministry, Fortress Press, July 26, 2022).
Mike Bonem is a Christ-follower, consultant, coach, husband and father. He loves to help churches and ministries reach their God-given potential through strategic planning, organizational design, and coaching. Mike has written five books on ministry leadership, including The Art of Leading Change (Fortress Press, 2022) and Leading from the Second Chair (Fortress Press, 2020). He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a breadth of experience in ministry and business. Learn more at www.MikeBonem.com.