How Can Church Leaders Make Difficult Decisions?

Church leaders are faced with the necessity to act, and to make decisions which are difficult. Sometimes you have to tell the truth about a mistake you made. Sometimes you have to take an unpopular stand. Sometimes you have to fire someone. How do you face these challenging tasks? You lead with courage and with thoughtfulness. You don’t want to jump the gun and anxiously respond. You want to think carefully about what you are doing and why you are doing it (often with the help of a neutral adviser).

But then the time comes when you have to act. You may wake up at night in a cold sweat, you run over imaginary conversations in your head: When I make a public statement, how will they react? What will they say at the door after the sermon? When I take steps to ask this popular staff member to leave, what will the consequences be?

How can you find the courage to take the necessary difficult actions? I am inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, an excruciatingly shy young woman who developed into a key leader, both as First Lady and later as ambassador to the United Nations. She knew about fear from the inside out and said this: “The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before. If you can live through that you can live through anything.” She added, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.” (You Learn By Living, 1960, pp 29-30) She recognized that you can do more than you ever thought possible when you are willing to face your fears.

Here are some tips for acting with courage as a leader. I refer to these frequently – I know from my own experience that I myself need to be reminded of them often.

1. Keep breathing. When you breathe consciously and deeply, you get much-needed oxygen to your brain, which helps you to act more thoughtfully and less reactively. When you are afraid, your automatic body processes take over and tiy move into the fight-or-flight response, which is rarely useful in a leadership setting. Breathing helps keep you thinking.

2. Keep the bigger picture in view. Courageous action is not just for yourself, but for the sake of the whole church, its people and its future. You can find it easier to deal with the natural reactivity you’ll see in others (and to keep yourself calm) if you remember the ultimate goal: the health and vitality and impact of God’s work in this place.

3. Let go of the outcome. You cannot control how others respond to your actions. No matter how important you think the matter at hand is, ultimately you control yourself only.

Then, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

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