I stood on the high dive in the natatorium at the University of Louisville. We had a group of swimmers and divers from the University attending our church and I had agreed to jump off the high dive.
The Olympic-height high dive, where these kids from my church did eighteen flips and landed perfectly without a splash in the water.
They all had just done their dives and bet me that I wouldn’t even jump off. I had committed to try jumping (not diving or flipping), and was quietly praying I wouldn’t die.
As I stood there being mocked from below I knew I had two choices:
- Do the long walk of shame down the ladder, or
- Walk to the edge and jump.
After a long pause, I walked to edge, closed my eyes; then jumped, screamed, and survived.
Leadership as risk taking
While I wasn’t taking a huge risk on the diving board, I’ve discovered that leadership frequently calls for times where taking a real risk is needed.
In every season of my life where I have seen tremendous growth, I have also experienced high levels of risk. I have been pushed beyond my comfort zone and have walked to the edge of my faith. From there, I’ve needed to take one more step and ask the Lord to guide me. It seems to me that discipleship and leadership are deeply tied to risk.
Yet as much as I enjoy growing spiritually, if I’m honest I’ve noticed that I’ve become weary of risk taking. I realize that I’ve even become risk-averse as internally I long for the safest place to do ministry hoping this will bring some relief.
For many church leaders, most of our lives have been built on risk. It is common for weariness to eventually set in. Even the mention of another risky conversation or frontier now makes our entire body tense up as fear takes over.
Is it possible to keep taking risks long term? Or was that just for my younger years? Should I start settling into safe ministry now that I’m getting older?
What if I just don’t want to take the risk?
Recently, a leader I have been discipling realized, with fear and trembling, that significant change needed to happen in his church. He realized that the culture of his church would never change until he found the courage to honestly address some negativity in the church, perpetuated by a few people.
Easy to say, but terrifying for him to do. We had been processing what God had been saying and doing in his life for months, and I knew this conversation was pivotal. Our conversation had turned from “what if…” and “maybe I should…” to “I think I…” and then there was a moment of silence.
It was a significant moment, and in these moments I am always tempted to speak or teach. In these moments, I want to revert to my old way of leading by giving wise counsel and sage advice. Instead, I waited… and I realized he had come to the end of excuses and other options.
He realized God was asking him to take a risk as a leader. “I know what I have to do,” he said, “but I just don’t want to do it.”
The risk felt too big for him. It seemed God was asking too much of him. He knew what God was saying, but was afraid it would cost too much.
Discipling people through times of risk is never easy! As a leader in that moment I had a few options:
Option 1: Collusion
Collusion is a secret agreement or cooperation between two parties. Often, when I disciple others I am tempted to help them find ways to manage and minimize risk, and it becomes is a form of collusion.
I am tempted to shrink back and help the leaders I am working with feel comfortable and safe again. I want them to like me. Deep inside I know how it feels to stand on top of that diving board, and I understand the fear of jumping. I can help them come up with strategies to avoid risk.
It’s easy in those risk moments to “let people off the hook” and suggest some more possibilities or answers. It’s always easy for me to lean into pragmatic solutions.
- Maybe you could hold a meeting and let people share their frustrations and allow them to be heard.
- Maybe you could work on developing other leaders and hope the negativity clears up on its own.
- Maybe you could preach a new series on forgiveness.
Ultimately, of course, avoiding risk is just postponement of the inevitable.
Option 2: Command and control
Another temptation in these times is to resort to a “command and control” model, trying to force someone to do what they sense God is saying.
- God has spoken so you have to obey.
- You can choose to not listen to God if you want, but that never worked out well for people in scripture.
This approach promises to get “results,” but our job is never to push people off the high dive. Our job is to open a door so that the God who deeply loves his children can speak and be heard.
In Philemon 8-9, Paul says, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.”
Paul is making an appeal to his disciple Philemon to follow God and to be obedient and forgive Onesimus and welcome him back in. He is saying, “I could do this from a place of authority, as your spiritual leader. I could try to control this situation and make you do the right thing, but for love’s sake, I’m choosing to appeal to you.”
“For love’s sake…”
When I feel the temptation to command and control others or collude in helping them manage their risk, I often remember this phrase from scripture, “for love’s sake…” I try and ask what’s the most loving, compassionate question I could ask next, for love’s sake.
So back to my friend who was wrestling with being called into risk, I asked “What’s the worst thing that might happen if you take this risk?” He started to answer:
- “This leader could become angry and leave the church.”
- “They could spread false rumors about me and my family if I confront them.”
- “They could get me fired.”
He stopped and said, “That’s what I’m really afraid of! If I get fired, I don’t know what to do or who I am and I will feel as if I would have disappointed God as well as everyone I lead.”
From that point on, because he was able to name reality, we could address what was really going on! At that moment, God opened a door where he could speak good news to my friend’s bad news. From there the conversation radically changed from a conversation about fear of risk to a conversation about identity, grace and God’s goodness.
Ultimately, every discipleship conversation is about what we believe about God and what we believe about us.
Naming our fear
Whether we ourselves are facing risk or the people we disciple are facing risk, the hard work we need to do is to name and address our fear. It’s in the exploration of those fears that we realize that most fear is just disguised unbelief.
It’s bad news working against God’s good news for us. What is often needed is not moving to the shallow end but a dive deeper into what’s really going on. We can never force people to dive deeper but we can go deeper ourselves and hope others will follow.
The life of faith is full of risky moments at the top of the diving board. To jump off is always a type of death, so it’s natural that we will always initially resist it. However if we resist risk, we also resist change into the good plans God has for us.
There are so many leaders who are walking through “unlived” lives because they are constantly managing risk instead of embracing it. I don’t want to be complicit in that. Instead I want to help leaders embrace the risk of following Jesus.
Questions for reflection:
- How has God been inviting you into risk?
- What’s the real fear that you are facing?
- If you’re discipling someone through risk, are you tempted to collude or control?
- Has there been a moment in your life when a compassionately curious question changed your thinking?