Leading Without Blinders

Churches grow and diminish; educational institutions thrive and then fade; missions burn fervently and then stagnate; denominations ebb and flow. People express considerable curiosity about the factors that cause human institutions to flourish for a time, but then, it seems inevitably, begin to falter or at least lose their initial momentum.

E.Gibbons wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, seeking to isolate the key element that led to the disintegration and collapse of that Empire whose power for centuries seemed immutable. In our time we have observed the disintegration of the Soviet domination and people speculate whether the leadership of the United States similarly has peaked. Will the 21st Century be China’s Century?

These issues also apply to religious institutions. Will the Willowcreek Movement, when Bill Hybels retires, retain its vigour? What happens to the influence of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association when Dr. Graham passes away? What happens to a thriving church plant when the initial church planter moves on? Or what about the church that has surged in growth to 500 or a 1000 through the leadership of a really competent, godly pastoral leader — and that leader, for whatever reason, no longer is present? WIll it sustain its vision and momentum?

Within the ACTS Consortium of which Northwest Baptist Seminary is a member we have been pursuing a course of renewed vision. Several leadership changes have happened.Membership in the consortium is changing. Educating ministry leaders is experiencing serious, deep change. Economic challenges limit our choices for renewal. The energizing times a decade ago, when every year saw growth, have been replaced with a pattern of enrolment decline and budget retrenchment. Twenty years into our collaborative vision, we are working hard to discern the way forward to renewed vision and vigour.

If prayer, effort, energy, and creative thinking have anything to do with it, then ACTS and its member seminaries will experience a resurgence. We have examined carefully what has caused our loss of momentum. Collectively we have gathered our best wisdom internally and externally to discern what our future pathway must be. Plans are being implemented to initiate these new ideas. We are ready to risk, ready to move forward, ready to try again, because we care about the mission God has given to us and we desire to serve God and his church.

To get to this position has required us to adopt an attitude of institutional humility. Admitting that we may not have got some things right or acknowledging that what once worked well, no longer is effective — these are hard things. Being willing to listen to other voices than our own and take seriously the wisdom they offer requires gracious submission to God’s Spirit. We have to trust new leadership and after careful deliberation take new risks. We have to fashion new clay vessels within which to carry the valued goods of ministry leadership training.

I think for me the most significant lesson I have learned as a leader throught these past several years is that we started the process for ACTS’ renewal too late. We failed to re-invigorate our collaborative work soon enough. We failed to see some of the warning signs and respond with sufficient vigour and energy to deal with them.

Hindsight is always wiser. However, if we do not learn from our experience, then we probably will repeat the same mistakes. I think this is the burden of leadership — to keep learning from our experience and innovating for the future, while energetically maintaining effective mission and ministry in the present. Incompetence in any one of these three will result in significant damage to the ministry you lead. Paying attention to one more than the others can also jeopardize achieving outcomes.