Before tackling risky business, it helps to know what you're prepared to handle.
January 1, 1987
Former world-champion surfer Phil Edwards once commented, "There is a need in all of us for controlled danger, for an activity that puts us on the edge of life."
Most pastors find that edge-of-life risk, whether they want to or not, in the difficult decisions they're forced to make. Instituting a new program, confronting a wayward member, hiring a staff person, removing an ineffective worker-these are high-stakes initiatives that may cost a minister not only sleep but a job.
LEADERSHIP set out to discover what happens when pastors make risky decisions, and after an extensive survey and scores of interviews with both the survivors and casualties, Terry Muck combined their hard-won insights into a book, When to Take a Risk: A Guide to Pastoral Decision Making (LEADERSHIPWORD, 1987). The following is an excerpt.
I. D. Thomas, in A Word from the Wise, tells the story of a Georgia farmer living in a dilapidated shack. He hadn't planted anything, so nothing needed to be cultivated. The farmer just sat, ragged and barefoot, surrounded by the evidence of his laziness.
A stranger stopped for a drink of water and asked, "How's your cotton doing?"
"Ain't got none," replied the farmer.
"Didn't you plant any?"
"Nope. 'Fraid of boll weevils."
"Well," continued the visitor, "how's your corn?"
"Didn't plant none. 'Fraid there wasn't gonna be no rain."
"How are your potatoes?"
"Ain't got none. Scared of potato bugs."
"Really? What did you plant?"
"Nothin'," was the reply. "I just played safe."
The church leader who never takes risks quickly finds: No risks, no returns.
The Bible supplies many instances of this Law of Risklessness. Proverbs predicts the nonrewards the sluggard can expect. Jesus' parable of the talents rests on the futility of trying to avoid all risk.
Similarly, our survey showed that the risks of not taking risks are the riskiest of all. Leaders who made few or no major decisions per year, regardless of the type-theological verdicts, institutional judgments, interpersonal choices-were the most likely to have been dismissed from a church at some time in their rninistry.
Conversely, leaders who were willing to take a stand-even when that seemed perilous-usually found secure footing. One pastor recounts a budget skirmish:
"The board had talked over the budget, and we had made the changes we thought necessary. When the budget was presented to the church for ratification, one board member, who had been through the whole budgeting process and voted for our budget, stood and said, 'I don't see why we have so much money going to outreach. We've never had money for local outreach before. I think we should pay the pianist instead.'
"I thought to myself, You're a former pastor! You have to know better.
"I had to make a quick decision whether to say anything. I don't like getting into an argument in front of the church, but I couldn't stay silent, so I gave a few reasons for the outreach program. Then I said that paying the pianist was going inward instead of outward. This was the first time in our church's history that we'd had some extra money to put into outreach, and I thought it important to do it.
"I didn't know how the church would react. They had been through some hard times, and most had the idea it's best not to rock the boat. In this case, I had one key element going for me. The pianist this board member wanted to pay was his wife. Even people who didn't want to rock the boat could see the self-interest. His idea was voted down.
"Afterwards many people came to me and said, 'I don't think his idea was good. Thanks for taking a stand.' Only one person objected."
Taking a risk, paradoxically, may be less hazardous than doing nothing at all.
The Reluctant Risk Taker
This doesn't mean risk taking is something one merely decides to do and does. Even those outgoing souls who thrive on the thrill of risk sometimes have to force themselves to act-and will readily admit to the continual need to sharpen their skills.
For some, though, risk taking seems next to impossible. They would sooner tame a lion than confront a parishioner. For them, it is not a question of wanting to take a risk; it is a question of going against the natural inclinations of their personalities to resist conflict at all costs.
Such resistance is not to be taken lightly-nor demeaned. The third-century Turks told a fable about a soft wax candle that was lamenting the fact
that the slightest touch injured it. The candle felt cheated by this apparent personality flaw. How the candle admired the rock-hard bricks, impervious to dents and nicks. Seeing that bricks started out as soft clay and only grew hard from heat, the candle had an idea. To acquire the brick's hardness and durability, the candle leaped into the fire. It quickly melted and was consumed. The moral? It is useless to malign the "disadvantages" inherent in our personalities.
Psychologist Frank Farley, in a recent article in Psychology Today, identifies a cluster of characteristics that make up the "Type T personality," high-profile people who are risk takers and daring adventurers. The roster of Type T's includes such people as DNA researcher Sir Francis Crick and aviator Amelia Earhart. Type T's prefer uncertainty to certainty, complexity to simplicity, and novelty to familiarity. They prefer to work in flexible structures and tend to be stifled by the nine-to-five mentality.
At the opposite end of the personality spectrum are Type t (little t) personalities, people who avoid risks. People at this end of the personality spectrum are rarely public figures. Farley thinks big T's and little t's are determined largely through genetics, though very early experiences may play a role.
Little t's don't relish decisions, even when the groundwork has been laid and the time appears right. Witness a little t pastor in action:
"Recently our board considered putting ceiling fans in the sanctuary. We talked about the advantages and the disadvantages. I was for the fans because they're economical. They blow the warm air back down in the winter; in the summer they create a breeze, so we don't have to run our air conditioner as often.
"Some on the board, however, didn't want to risk destroying the appearance of the sanctuary. We have a beautiful cathedral ceiling, and who knows for sure what hanging fans would do to the look.
"After all the discussion, we took a vote. The tally was five votes for the fans, three opposed. A split vote is unusual for our board, but the people who voted against the fans accepted it calmly, saying in effect, 'We voted against it, but that's the decision of the board, and we'll support the decision. Let's get it done.'
"But I haven't purchased the fans. My head tells me they will save money-the facts support that. My head also tells me the fans will be accepted by the congregation. But my gut tells me not to do it, that it's not that necessary. I've thought about why I'm dragging my feet. If it had been an eight-to-nothing vote, I think I'd still feel uneasy. And I can't quite say why. Something is just telling rne not to do it. It's a very real feeling, though not quantifiable.
"Actually, I'm causing more trouble for myself.
Since the committee voted for the fans, I'm supposed to buy them. If I don't, I have to explain why I haven't and then get them to agree not to do it. But I just don't feel right about it."
This pastor simply does not have the temperament of a Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War spy who, when about to be hanged, said he only regretted he had but one life to give for his country. Some church leaders (Hale himself probably would have been a minister had not the American Revolution broken out) have the bravado and gusto of a Hale. Others don't, and struggle with what to do.
Although big T's take to risk taking more easily, Farley notes that little t's can develop the necessary skills. But they need to use the skills in ways congruent with their personalities. They are more likely to learn confrontational techniques through analytical descriptions-by the book, perhaps-than through actual experiences (which they may be too timid ever to initiate). People with little t temperaments can be taught to take risks; it simply is more difficult for them.
Terry Muck is editor of LEADERSHIP.
Even people with insecure personalities are risk takers of a sort, although they normally choose risks of a different category. Psychologist John Atkinson showed that two motivations drive people to take risks. One is the motivation to achieve; the other is the motivation to avoid failure. Those motivated to achieve generally take regular, consistent, intermediate risks. Those motivated to avoid failure go to one extreme or another. They either play it unusually safe, trying to avoid risk altogether, or they make extremely risky moves. The person who sinks his life savings in a speculative stock venture after a lifetime of passbook savings is typical of the avoidfailure personality.
Another reason some of us are reluctant risk takers is outlined by Nathan Kogan and Michael Wallach in their book, Risk Taking. They found that people with intuitive personalities tend to see the big picture better. They scan long-range implications of success or failure more quickly than others, and thus tend to take risks and force confrontations earlier. Those who have a more rationalistic orientation, on the other hand, tend to focus on the immediate and overlook the need for risk taking or confrontation until too late. Intuitively, Kogan and Wallach see the optimal personality to be a balance between the two.
A third polarity has been drawn between the perfectionistic personality and the nonperfectionistic personality. Perfectionists are generally motivated by the fear of making mistakes. They are unusually cautious and averse to risk taking. Those with the nonperfectionistic personality, on the other hand, are more willing to put things up for grabs. David D. Burns, in his book Feeling Good, says, "Show me a man who can't stand to be wrong, and I'll show you a man who's afraid to take risks and who has given up the capacity for growth. I probably make three mistakes in every therapy session."
None of the personality experts who study risk taking discounts the possibility of people predisposed to not taking chances learning to do so. All would agree that training and experience have a great deal to do with a person's risk-taking skill. Those who trade futures on the Chicago Board of Trade, for example, learn to take risks; their living depends on it. Training for such a position involves gaining a good grasp of the statistical probabilities of various situations-and learning to analyze one's intuitions.
Few church leaders are trained in risk taking, although decision-making courses are becoming more common in seminaries. Still, they are far down the priority pole in divinity training. Most pastors then, regardless of personality, develop risk-taking skills on the job. Here are some tactics to further pastoral skills and help determine what risks can and cannot be handled.
Take a reading of the emotional climate of the risktaking situation. Focus particularly on your emotional situation by asking these questions:
Am I ever a little irrational? Is this one of those times? How do I know? What can I do about it?
Am I afraid? If yes, of what? If not, why not?
Am I ready to act? Will I ever be ready to act? What is holding me back?
It's equally productive to determine the emotional involvement you have in this particular project. Helpful questions to consider:
What feeling am I trying to express by taking this risk?
Will people think better or worse of me if I succeed?
Do I care what opinion people have of me? What opinion of me would I like people to assume?
Convince yourself of the need to act. Sometimes action needs to be immediate. Make sure you consciously decide to act promptly or else have good, valid reasons for delay. Remember stories like the following:
"One of the elders, a pillar of the church who had been around seemingly forever, became angry over a church financial decision. The board decided to allocate some money to a project Bradley didn't like. It was obvious to everyone as he left the board meeting that he was very upset. I knew I needed to talk to him immediately, but I believed it was usually good policy to let things cool a little. In this case it wasn't. The next morning I had Bradley's resignation as an elder on my desk.
"I prayed over that letter, then the next afternoon I went to his house. We spent the afternoon together, and by the end of the afternoon, although we still disagreed on the financial matter, he had withdrawn the resignation. We saw that in Christ we can have differences and still fellowship.
"I will be forever grateful to God for leading me to work it out quickly with Bradley. Over the next sixteen months, we became dear friends. We shared intimate times; he became a confidant for me.
"Bradley was a farmer. He had a small frontloading tractor, and one day he was carrying a load of stones in the front hopper. He went up a small grade-probably not more than two feet high- but it was enough to cause the load to shift, and it rolled that tractor over on top of him. He was killed instantly.
"I went out to the house. The medics had laid him under a blanket, still in the yard. His wife was in the kitchen. There was nothing I could do except put my arms around her and cry with her.
"Later I thought, What if I hadn't talked with him when he wanted to resign? I would have regretted it forever. As it is, I can rejoice in the friendship God gave us."
Define your style. Ellen Siegelman, in her book, Personal Risk, has developed an informal self-test that measures risk-taking style. She defines three categories: anxious risk takers, balanced risk takers, and careless risk takers. According to her, knowing your style can help you prepare for a risk. For example, an anxious risk taker needs to push himself to make the decision. A careless risk taker, on the other hand, needs to slow down and do more research before taking action. (See Siegelman's selfassessment exercise in box.)
Develop an assertion message. Michael Baer, a former pastor in Texas, suggests a technique he learned from Robert Bolton's People Skills. Professional managers use a simple, brief formula to teach employees basic confrontational technique. It provides a frame work for saying what needs to be said without sending the wrong messages. Essentially it is made up of three parts:
"When you (insert the other person's behavior), I feel (explain how it makes you feel) because (give a specific negative effect of their behavior)."
1. The formula gives a nonemotional description of the behavior you want to see changed. For example, you might say, "When you come late to board meetings . . ." Keep it specific and do not exaggerate by saying things like "When you are always late for board meetings . . ." Few people are always late.
2. State your feelings about the behavior. For example, you might say, "When you come late to the board meetings, I feel angry." This lets the other person know you care.
3. Finally, point out the results of the undesirable behavior. You might say, "When you come late to the board meetings, I feel angry because it causes all of us to get home late."
The formula is not a panacea but a beginning toward confronting others in situations with potential risk. By mastering the technique, some of your reluctance to confront may be dispelled.
The Personal Costs and Benefits
In our survey, pastors who said they made no tough decisions during a year were more likely to be fired than pastors who could identify such decisions. Pastors willing to face decisions last longer.
Yet longevity is not the only indicator of fallout from making or not making difficult decisions. There are other, less obvious factors. To identify those, the survey asked a series of questions about the toll risky decisions take on the leaders' personal well-being, their ministry effectiveness, and their families.
The good news from the survey results is that when a tough decision is over, most of the pastors who stay (85 percent) and even most of those who leave (81 percent) see benefits from the process they have been through.
Surprisingly, tough decisions cost pastors who stayed more personal pain than those who were forced to leave. Seventy-five percent of the pastors who stayed after a tough decision said the process took a toll on their physical/mental/emotional health compared to only 63 percent of the pastors who were fired. The fired pastors did perceive the cost to their children to be more expensive. But even here the reported difference was small. Ministry decision making takes a toll on everyone in the pastor's family, no matter what the outcome of the decision.
Ministerial effectiveness, as perceived by the pastor involved, always suffers. Both fired and nonfired pastors recognized that a church in pain cannot serve as well as a church in good health.
What Can I Personally Handle?
Several truths emerge: No one loves risky decisions. For some the fear of consequences is worse than others. Risks must be taken; confrontations must be made. There will be personal and ministry costs, as well as benefits.
Once these truths are accepted and weighed, it is perhaps helpful to go through one final checklist of questions to help determine Just what can I handle personally?
Will taking this risk make me satisfied if I am successful? How do I know? What else would satisfy me? Do I need to risk for that?
Do I allow myself to feel hurt, sad, angry, anxious, or joyous?
Am I aware of my moods and how they influence my actions? Do I recognize my feelings? Can I take a rejection in this case? If I am rejected, how will I act?
What are the limits to the amount of emotion I can show without adversely affecting the body of Christ?
The ultimate reason many of us are scared to make a necessary but risky decision is fear of the consequences. What will happen if we make the wrong decision? It's helpful to consider the stories of fellow pastors who saw a Ask go bad-yet found healing and productive ministry on the other side. Many of those responding to the survey spoke poignantly about the hurt, pain, and later healing of a risk gone wrong, but none more so than a pastor's wife whose husband had lost a battle with an elder, which forced them to leave their church:
"I felt a sense of betrayal, a sense that grew on me. After we announced our resignation, we continued
to serve from the end of August through December. I read negative feelings into a lot of what people did. If they didn't say anything, I thought they were thinking bad thoughts about us. I became suspicious and withdrawn. It could have gotten pretty bad, but the Lord provided insight for me in a dream.
"One night I fell asleep crying out to God, and I dreamed of dried cornstalks in my garden. Ordinarily in the fall I cut those stalks into pieces. In my dream, the Lord gave me a choice: I could cut up the stalks and leave them on the ground, or I could till them into the soil, nourishing it for next year.
"I saw clearly that those cornstalks were like my anger. I could leave the pieces lying on the ground to pick up and throw at anyone who came near me. Or I could plow them under and use this experience to help me grow in the future. I learned that painful experiences could be something nourishing to me and others through me-if I let them. Or I could keep those pieces of pain and anger in my life and allow the resentment to remain. I remember making a deliberate choice that night: 'Lord, I want this painful time to nourish my life, but you're going to have to help me because I'm too angry to do it myself.'
"God has indeed helped that process. The pain was real, and I wouldn't want to go through it again. But God does help make everything work together for good."
WHAT KIND OF RISK TAKER ARE YOU?
***NOTE TO EDITOR***: Reprinted by permission from Personal Risk: Mastering Change in Love and Work by Ellen Siegelman (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).
***NOTE TO EDITOR***: A scoring tally from Pg. 51 needs to be included (3 columns)
Although people are rarely consistent in their decisionmaking styles, most of tlS can detect some regularity in the way we make important decisions. Think of the important life decisions you have made (e.g., marriage, major moves, career changes), and then answer the following questions. You may not answer some with complete confidence, but give the answers that come closest to what you believe. This is not a test; it is just a device to help you understand your own decision-making behavior. For each dimension, choose the one response out of three that best describes how you usually respond in making a big decision.
I. Attitude toward change
1. I prefer security to novelty.
2. I value security and novelty about equally.
3. I prefer novelty to security.
II. Search strategy
1. I make a quick overall survey of possibilities hoping that something will hit me.
2. I keep producing and then going over my possible choices.
3. I think of a number of alternatives but stop after a reasonable search.
III. Attention to feelings
1. I decide among alternatives not only by reasoning but by taking my feelings into account.
2. I make major decisions almost exclusively on the basis of my feelings.
3. I mistrust my feelings as a basis for a major decision; I try to use reason almost entirely.
IV. Decision rule
1. I believe there is one right decision, and it is my job to dig it out.
2. I believe there is no one right decision; I just need to find one that is good enough.
3. I believe in choosing the first decision that really grabs me.
V. Sense of consequence
1. I don't try to predict the consequences of my decision because I expect things will work out OK.
2. I do think about consequences, tending to focus on the bad things that might happen.
3. I try to think of both the good and bad consequences of my decision.
VI. Predecision emotions
1. In thinking about taking a risky step, I feel mostly anxiety.
2. In thinking about taking a risky step, I feel a mixture of anxiety and excitement.
3. In thinking about taking a risky step, I feel mostly excitement.
VII. Time expended in decision-making process
1. I usually make decisions-even big ones-quickly.
2. I usually take a fairly long time to make big decisions.
3. I usually take a very long time to make big decisions.
VIII. Attitude toward new information
1. I will consider new information even after I've arrived at a probable decision.
2. I'm not interested in getting new information after I've made a probable decision.
3. I feel compelled either to seek out new information or to shut it out after I've made a probable decision.
IX. Postdecision strategy
1. Once I've made a decision, I usually don't think about it before launching into action.
2. Once I've made a decision, I often experience serious doubts and may change my mind.
3. Once I've made a decision, I usually rally behind it after rechecking.
X. Evaluating the outcome of a risky decision
1. After I have acted on the decision, I tend to worry or regret that I didn't do something else.
2. After I have acted on the decision, I tend to put it out of my mind.
3. After I have acted on the decision, I tend to think about what I have learned from it.
Scoring: Tally the number of A responses, B responses, and C responses using the following guide to see which decision-making style appears most often.
***NOTE TO EDITOR***: Place scoring tally here.
Style A: The anxious risk taker makes big decisions with great effort, is afraid of making mistakes, takes lots of time, and tends to ruminate and worry about the outcome.
Style B: The balanced risk taker makes big decisions fairly slowly, is more concerned with reasonably good outcomes than with fear of failure or the need to make a good decision, and tends to plan and to review but without worrying too much.
Style C: The careless risk taker makes big decisions quickly with little experience of mixed feelings, may feel "inappropriately optimistic," and spends little time in introspection or evaluation.
Most people evidence a mixture of styles. The average number of A responses is 6.7. The average number of B responses is 2.3. And the average number of C responses is 1.0. The goal is to be balanced. -Ellen Siegelman
New York, New York
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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