Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Strategic Stumbling About In Search of Surprises

Precise long range planning isn’t difficult. It’s impossible!

We often talk about the need for a gracious and humble revolution in mission leadership, but we are vague about precise objectives. I suggest that powerful leaders must have a compelling vision, but they seldom are sure of precise outcomes. They recognize success when they see it, but aren’t sure what it will look like ahead of time.

Many books by management experts proclaim that the first thing a person needs is a measurable goal. They say “If you don’t know where you are going, you may end up some place else.” Some management consultants teach the need for precise long-range goals, divided into short-range goals and then put on a time chart They say you can not plan unless you have predictable goals. But leaders disagree. They say if you have precise, predictable goals you are aiming at something of secondary importance. Peter Drucker writes: “the non-profit organization exists to bring about a change in individuals and in society.”[1]

1. The most important goal is to glorify God and help others come to Christ and progress in their pilgrimage toward Christlikeness. Such goals are imprecise and will not be fully accomplished this side of the Jordan River. It is impossible to predict how much progress pilgrims will make in the next few weeks or few years. But when we see growth toward maturity we will recognize it and rejoice. We cannot predict where the path will lead, but we know where it will end.

2. The means for facilitating Christlikeness are also out of our control. We are involved in a spiritual struggle with forces not made of flesh and blood. The best teacher plays only a minor role in the process of Christian maturity. Spiritual growth comes only by the grace of God, not by precise methods. We need to be committed to the methods God uses to bring us to himself.

Tom Peters, famous for the book In Search of Excellence, writes in a recent article:

"Plans? Goals? Yes, I admit that I plan and set goals. After I’ve accomplished something, I declare it to have been my goal all along. One must keep up appearances: In our society “having goals” and “making plans” are two of the most important pretenses. Unfortunately, they are dangerous pretenses -- which repeatedly cause us to delay immersion in the real world of happy surprises, unhappy detours, and unexpected byways.
Meanwhile, the laurels keep going to those mildly purposeful stumblers who hang out, try stuff with reckless abandon-- and occasionally bump into something big and bountiful, often barely related to the initial pursuit.”[2]

Too often, business-oriented management theory dominates Christian views of leadership. According to management theory, leaders need specific, measurable goals. “If we aim at nothing specific, we’ll hit it every time.” Or, “what gets measured gets done.” But precise goals are alien for pilgrims who are facing unpredictable dangers on the road. There are too many precarious experiences along the path. Pilgrims must have a strong sense of direction and destination, but they are not specifically sure where the path will lead in the near future. Leaders who get bogged down with measurable, short-term objectives often miss unfolding opportunities that arise around them. By definition measurable and predictable goals are not eternal! We are headed to a heavenly city. We are concerned with the inner character development of pilgrims. We are fighting for the souls of people. The most important things in life and in eternity are not measurable: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Yet pilgrim leaders don’t lack vision. Effective leaders must have an obsession for the glory of God and a passionate love for other people. They have a picture of how eternity can be different because of God's influence through them. They have a strategic vision for eternal goals and they know how to respond to the opportunities unfolding around them in light of that vision. Christians may achieve excellence as managers and administrators and yet damage pilgrims. Good management can be a useful tool, but management should never be confused with leadership. Pilgrim leaders are people with a passionate love for God who use their spiritual gifts for developing other pilgrims.

Pilgrim leaders are also concerned to stir up a clearer sense of vision in other pilgrims. They study God’s vision as explained in the Map of the Word. Their focus in not on short-term activity, such as “covering” a certain amount of material, but on the long-term development of people for the glory of God (pp. 71,71).[3]

Pilgrim missionaries who are deeply committed to promoting the development of people for the glory of God are not afraid to stumble about. But the stumbling is not random or irrational -- but purposeful. We need to plan with much common sense and clearly focus on a vision. But for some reason, God intended life to be unpredictable -- at least from our perspective. We long to be in control of results. But while God gives us a significant task, he does not allow us to be in control of our own lives or want us to control the lives of other people. And yet our stumbling is not aimless or purposeless. We stumble about led by the unseen hand of a loving Father who delights in giving us joyful surprises.

“Since future victory is sure, be strong and steady, always abounding in the LORD’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever wasted.” 1 Cor 15: 58

[1] Drucker, P.F. (1990). Managing the non-profit organization. NY: HarperCollins.
[2] Peters, T. (Feb. 1991) in The Bookstore Journal.
[3] Plueddemann, J.E. & Plueddemann, C.E. (1990). Pilgrims in progress. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers.


  1. I am intrigued by the effect that emergent thinking, missional church and the whole Forge/Frost/Hirsch ideas is having on missions, and what missions may look like in the coming era.

    As the church continues to truly embrace its call to love those who are other - how do you see the traditional church > sending through mission agencies > to foreign field changing?
    Do you think it will entail more than just a renewed emphasis on holistic type mission?

    I don't hear much about this on many blogs so I'm wondering if I have missed something foundational.

  2. This is a excellent post. I have been telling my students similar things. They have been reading Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Church. Warren shared about his "vision" for Saddleback at its first service.

    I have been telling them that anyone can think of a "vision" or what you call "a measurable goal" that has to do with the A,B,C's (attendance, buildings, and cash). But it may have nothing to do with God. For example, one of the students is interested in camp ministry. I say in a kidding way about this: "I have a vision for your camp to have 1000 acres, room for 5,000 campers, with a Swiss Lodge." For a student interested in basketball inner-city ministry, I say, "I have a vision for 1000 kids attending a Christian basketball camp in a state of the art new basketball arena in inner-city Chicago." I can rattle off that measurable goal without thought or prayer.

    Surely, Christian leadership must be more than "measurable objectives" as Eisner has pointed out.

    You use the terminology "vision" as something vague and positive unlike Warren's definition. I understand what you are trying to say. Sadly, the term "vision" is so often used in megachurch circles to mean "measurable goals" the term is pretty ruined for me.

    On another note:

    I love Tom Peter's quote:

    "Meanwhile, the laurels keep going to those mildly purposeful stumblers who hang out, try stuff with reckless abandon-- and occasionally bump into something big and bountiful, often barely related to the initial pursuit.”


    I also like this which you write:

    "The most important goal is to glorify God and help others come to Christ and progress in their pilgrimage toward Christlikeness. Such goals are imprecise."


  3. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Have to say I really resonate with this article. Coming from an 'administratively' gifted purpose who has studied management and tends to want all my ducks in a row- you wouldn't think I would agree. However, years of working in a country where things 'never' seem to go as planned has helped me to learn a new perspective. Recently I have enjoyed the real excitement of 'less' specific/measurable planning, but what feels like more results. One of the keys: the need to consistently look to His leading, because you don't know what is best. It sure allows for better adjustment to whatever circumstances arrive in a changing world.