As a leader, I have been greatly helped by the concept of holding our principles tightly while holding our applications loosely – e.g. major on the importance of evangelism, but allow for a healthy range of biblical evangelistic methods. Too many of us are majoring on the applications in a narrower way than the Scriptures do. The implications of this simple principle could defuse much conflict on the mission field (and in the church) and lead to some great work being done. Alongside this concept comes the related idea of holding our timelines for those applications loosely as well. In our zeal to implement biblical principles, we can all too easily move too quickly, and thereby risk losing our people and undermining our ultimate goal.
I remember hearing Pastor Brian Croft of Practical Shepherding share a story of church reform, where the slower timeline made all the difference. After teaching through the concept of biblical eldership, a pastor came to a members meeting where they were to vote on moving from a single-pastor model to a plurality of elders model of leadership. The pastor knew that they would be able to get just enough votes for it to pass, but he also sensed that in doing so he risked losing older members of the congregation. He decided to defer the vote to a future meeting. In the time that passed between the meetings, the pastor realized that the term elder itself was at the source of much of the opposition. When he switched to speaking about the proposed changes using the biblically appropriate synonym of a plurality of pastors, the opposition evaporated. Turns out there had been an underlying fear that elders were some kind of Presbyterian thing that was being smuggled into a historic Southern Baptist church. By choosing to wait, this misunderstanding came to light, a contextual linguistic shift was made, and those who might have been lost by the change were instead won over.
It has been said that the number one mistake of “young, restless, and reformed” church planters and church reformers is moving to a plurality of elders too quickly. We could probably restate this to say that our number one mistake is trying to implement applied structures of biblical principles too quickly. It’s so easy to do. You chew on a biblical understanding of the local church for years, grow a deep affection for seeing it lived out, then you find yourself in a leadership position over a church or a team – and so you try to change everything at once. The results of this approach (often implosion) can be easily understood from a distance. The time that it took for the leader to see the truth and to love the truth has not been in turn given to those he is leading. Clarity on biblical principles and methods takes time when you are working with real people. What seems so obvious to you today is in reality the result of the Spirit patiently leading you toward greater clarity and affection over an extended period of time.
There is also the issue of trust. Trust takes time to grow, often more than two years – which turns out to be the point at which most pastors leave their church. I don’t know the stats for how long the average team leader overseas stays in his role, but I know that in our region we have incredible turnover. To build real trust with those we are leading takes a long-term posture. When those we are leading are really convinced we are for them and committed to them, then they will feel less threatened by our proposed changes. Because of these things, we should default to moving slowly in the first two to three years, trusting that the necessary trust is being built that will make for lasting, healthy change.
I am as guilty as anyone at introducing changes too quickly. I tend to chew on something slowly for a long time, like a doner kabob gradually roasting and rotating on the spit. Then all of the sudden I cut. off some shwarma, meaning I make up my mind and introduce a change – only to find others are not at all ready for it! Having learned this about myself through lots of trial and error, I am growing in my appreciation for the slower track, where incremental growth in the right direction is celebrated, even if it takes us five years to get to a place where the applications of our principles are mature. If unity is growing around the biblical principles, if those we lead are growing in their excitement about where we are going, then we can be patient with different paces of progress toward that destination.
This holding loosely to our timelines can also help those we are leading, as we assure them that we are not in a rush. There is time to wrestle with emphases, teaching, and methods that feel or sound different. How many of those that we lead have lived through the coming and going of many leaders and fads? Their hesitancy to be all-in with our plans shouldn’t surprise us. But hopefully our grace, patience, and genuine friendship can surprise them.
Yes, there comes a time when we must act, and act decisively. Not all delay is godly. At some point it becomes sin. I do not recommend dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing gradually. And yet most of our people are not wolves, but sheep who need patient under-shepherds. There is also wisdom in recognizing the common error of our generation – that of going too fast, not going too slow. We are generally in a rush to implement our vision and see things change overnight – still showing the truth of the old African term for Westerners, mzungu, those who run around in circles.
Let us hold our timelines loosely when it comes to leading others toward biblical faithfulness. As much as possible, let us celebrate incremental growth in the right direction, while we keep holding out biblical principles. Put that desired change on the five-year or ten-year plan and commit it to constant prayer. If we do this, I think our future selves will thank us.