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Leaders

GET WITH THE PROGRAMME!!

by Mike Robinson

It's fascinating to me how some hard-to-remember people can make some hard-to-forget statements. I believe I was about 19 years old at the time and a relatively new Christian. I think the man's name was George. It's hard to remember. But I have never forgotten the statement that he made that day. It is simple and uncomplicated Yet, it is a statement that attached itself to my heart and mind and has tenaciously refused to let go. It has become part of the way I think as a Pastor through to this very day. "People are more important than programmes".

That's it. Disappointed? Expecting something more powerful or transformational, maybe? Let me tell you that there is much, much more to that statement than first impressions might suggest. As I look back over some 30 years of pastoral ministry, I can see just how profound and practical is this statement. "People are more important than programmes".

That principle is true in all human relationships and in all walks of life. I believe it is especially true in the life of the Church - the family of God. But what prompts me to emphasise this truth at this point in time? Well, it has to do with some current dynamics in our Church family. You see, whenever we get excited about the potential of a new programme that may herald a new direction, we constantly need to remind ourselves that people are more important than programmes. Why? Because to ignore this principle will almost certainly see us falling into the trap of "using" people to ensure that the programme is a success. There's something fundamentally flawed with our thinking when that happens.

I tell you nothing new when I say that significant levels of damage have been done in the lives of some people in Churches over the years when the success of programmes has become more important than the welfare of people. When that happens, the Christian Church stands guilty not only of using people but also, at times, of abusing them. Of course the classic example of such abuse is that imposed by the religious leaders of Jesus' day - an abuse for which He reserved some of His most strident criticism.

Matthew 23 is a prime example of this. Some of us still have to learn that - to paraphrase a statement of Jesus - programmes were made for the benefit of people. People were not made to ensure the success of programmes (Mark 2:27) Sometimes Christian leaders look into the secular world - especially in the area of professional management - and we criticize those companies that abuse their employees by requiring of them long hours, unrealistic deadlines and time away from their families.

Even as I write this there comes to mind the face of a man who came to my office to pour out his heart about his work situation. The company for which he worked was "devouring" him in order to achieve their target goals - their programme. As I listened to his story my anger level rose dramatically. For that company, programmes were more important than people. This man knew that if he didn't comply with the company's expectations of him, they would terminate his employment. He was dispensable.

Maybe you can already see where I am going with this. How can Churches criticize such secular priorities but fail to see how often we are guilty of the same abuse when we require and/or allow people to be used or abused for the success of our own programmes? The fact that our programmes or ministries are "spiritual" or "kingdom" activities in no way lessens our culpability if we put programmes ahead of people by using people to seek success for the programme.

We seek to present a message that emphasises the grace of God and tells people that their value is not to be found in what they do or how well they do it. But if we then turn around and "use" people to achieve our goals, we deny the message of grace and, in fact, promote a system of works. Those who co-operate with the programme are more readily "valued" than those who seem uncommitted to that programme. Of course, there is a flip side to this scenario. It could be summed up in a question: "What if the programme or vision is right but the people who need to be involved choose, for less than acceptable or appropriate reasons, not to be involved?" "What if they do become involved but their low level of commitment is detrimental to the programme?"

What is to be our attitude to those people in our Church who give every appearance of apathy on the one hand or stubborn resistance on the other? Do we simply abandon the programme in the name of putting people before programmes? What criteria is both God-honouring and people-caring that will enable us to make the welfare of people paramount yet, at the same time, not compromise those purposes that we believe are God ordained for present fulfilment?

So this is an issue with at least these two dimensions that need to be considered if we are to reach a position that honours God, cares for people and yet accomplishes Kingdom purposes and goals.

Imagine the following scenario ......

You are present in a meeting in which the Pastor and a few key leaders in a local Church begin to share a sense that the Church ought to develop a programme to reach homeless people with the gospel expressed in practical action as well as words. The more they discussed the potential of such a programme, the more their level of excitement had risen. Now they are ready to share their vision and a possible programme for seeing the vision become a reality.

However, to their surprise - and somewhat to their consternation - their vision is greeted with a response in the meeting that is best described as "mediocre" on the part of many and even negative on the part of a few. Some people in the meeting question the timing while others are OK with the timing but are less than convinced that the strategy presented in the programme is the best way to achieve the desired results.

As you sit in the meeting, you become aware that tensions are rising among the leaders and people alike. So far as the leaders are concerned, God has given them this vision for the now, the immediate future. From your objective standpoint, you recognise that the attitude of the people towards the programme - for or against - has, in the eyes of the leaders, become the acid test for the approval or disapproval of those people by the leadership. The meeting is rapidly degenerating into a "them" and "us" situation.

What is wrong with the above scenario? Well, one thing that is wrong is that the leadership is in danger of making the programme more important than the people. They may well lose sight of the fact that "people are more important than programmes". Now, we could begin an examination of the process of how this proposal was conceived, nurtured and ultimately presented to the meeting. The issues of how one imparts of a vision are very important. But that aspect is also beyond the scope or purpose of this article. Rather, the focus here is one of attitude - the attitude of the leaders towards the people. Does the attitude of the leaders suggest that the success of the programme or the value of the people is the most important?

No one in the meeting wants to argue that the project of reaching homeless people is invalid. Maybe some people are threatened by what will be required of them in terms of time and personal commitment? Maybe others feel totally inadequate and poorly equipped for such a task? Perhaps others need time to ponder and reflect upon the vision presented to them? My assumption is that some who are reading this article are leaders in some ministry area of a local Church. As leaders you may well be picturing the face or faces or people who either have opposed an idea of yours in the past or are currently doing so now.

Let me ask you a question that I have had to often ask myself in days gone by. What is the most valuable to you - the programme or the people? Is your priority the task that you want to accomplish or is it the people who you see as the means whereby you fulfill the task? Here's another related question. When you, as a leader, reach out to people personally or by phone, do you primarily contact them in connection with your project or vision? Or do you make time to contact them just to see how they are doing apart from their involvement in your project? I suggest that the answer to those questions will give you a clue as to your attitude towards people and whether people are more important than programmes or vice versa.

But we must address the flip side of this situation mentioned earlier. What are we as leaders to do with people who just cannot or will not commit to what we know to be the Will of God now? They may tell us that it's a good idea but their words are not accompanied by actions indicating involvement. Do we berate them? Ignore them? Dismiss them? Do we push them out to the sidelines so we can enlist others who will get the job done? Will we sacrifice them on the altar of expediency for the sake of the programme or vision? In our eyes, do they become less valuable or important because they simply won't get with the programme?

Obviously there is a Catch 22 here. On the one hand, we know that God has put this vision into our hearts. For us, there is an obedience issue here. But we also know that, despite the less-than-encouraging response from others, we are called to love them unconditionally because they are valuable to God and loved by Him apart from anything they do or don't do for the Kingdom of God.

However, at what point do we make the commitment to move on and fulfill God's call concerning that vision? How do we manifest in our lives the priority of people over programmes but still obey what God has called us to do? Here are some suggestions:

[1] COMMUNICATE WITH THEM AS AN EXPRESSION OF LOVE

Let's do everything we can to make sure that we have fully and completely communicated the vision in all its aspects to the people. In every human relationship, communication with another demonstrates the value we place on that person. The very fact that we devote time and energy in that way says to that person, "You are valuable and your opinion is valuable. That's why I want to do all I can to communicate thus minimizing any possibility of misunderstanding while maximizing clarity".

The person/s may, as a result of our communication effort, come to understand the vision whether or not they agree and/or be able to commit to our vision or programme. The very least that will happen is that he or she will know that we value them highly and they are not just there for us to use like a piece in a jig saw puzzle or a pawn in a chess game.

When Paul wrote to Timothy and urged him to preach, correct, rebuke and encourage, he urged him to do so "with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4/2). When that same Apostle Paul endeavoured to describe love (1 Cor.13), he said that love was (firstly) patient. It's hard to be patient with some people. But that is one of the ways that we demonstrate our love towards them. Loving them patiently is one we way we can show and they can know that people are more important than programmes.

This process may take a lot more time than an impatient leader is willing to give. So here is another observation.

[2] GIVE PEOPLE TIME TO UNDERSTAND THE VISION

Sometimes we fail to realize that, given time, there are people who will willingly and gladly "come on board" with the vision that stirs in our hearts. That vision which has taken the Lord God months or even years to develop in our lives will not be communicated to others in just one sitting.

We honour and love people when we give them not only our time in the communication process but also time and space for them to carefully consider the nature of the vision and the implications of it for them. Let the dream you have shared have sufficient time to put down deep roots in the hearts of those who you believe will share in the dream becoming a reality.

"Yes", I hear someone say, "but how long is long enough?" That will depend upon the person who is processing the vision. Some people grasp concepts quickly and make decisions quickly. Others will chew on it like a cow chewing its cud! Our relationship with and knowledge of the person or people we are seeking to persuade re the vision or programme will help us answer the above question.

[3] REALISE THAT ONLY A FEW WILL EVENTUALLY COMMIT TO FULFILL THE DREAM

Most visions become realities because of what I call Gideon's three hundred! It's a nice thought (but totally unrealistic) to imagine that everybody will or can commit to the fulfilment of a particular vision. It didn't work that way for Gideon as recorded in Judges 6 & 7. In fact, I'm not sure that, in that situation, God's strategy could have been successful with more than 300.

Then, it seems that not everybody who followed Jesus was able or willing to be part of what turned out to be a small band of Twelve.

If I present a vision or a programme with the hope that everyone will cheer and sign up, I am living in a fantasy world. However, I do need to identify those who are raising their hands and to decide if they are the equivalent of Gideon's 300 - be they few or many.

If it becomes obvious that those offering are too few, I have to go through the above steps to see if I have adequately communicated the vision to them, given adequate time for people to process the data and to determine if I have realistic expectations of how many should be involved. I also need to ask myself some questions about the timing of the vision and its implementation. I believe that every vision/dream/programme has its time - what the Bible calls "at the proper time". It may be that I can't "staff" the vision because it's not yet time.

[4] BE PREPARED TO MOVE AHEAD WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT.

A friend of mine once said in my hearing, "If we wait for everyone to be ready to move, we will still be waiting when the King comes back!" Somehow he caught the tension of all that I have been addressing in this article.

My only answer as to the right time to move is to suggest that, if we have carefully monitored all the previous steps and believe we have clearly communicated, patiently waited and honestly accepted that it will most probably be the few who will be instrumental in the fulfilment of the vision, then maybe the time is near to move ahead with the implementation of the programme that will realize the vision.

For my part, I would want to have the support of my fellow leaders at least - if not the whole Church. If my fellow leaders were not convinced about the rightness of a course of action, I would have a serious question within me as to whether or not I had accurately heard from God.

But if all the above was on line, I would begin to move ahead with one further commitment high in my heart and that is…..

[5] KEEP LOVING THOSE WHO CHOSE NOT TO COME ON BOARD

In some ways our willingness to love those who don't come to embrace our vision becomes the acid test of our own attitude. By loving those for whom we are pastorally responsible regardless of their attitude to our vision or programme, we model unconditional love.

As a shepherd, I have a responsibility to care for the whole flock, not just those who agree with my ideas and leadership. If I do not love the whole Body, I will quickly create a "them" and "us" situation and make some people feel second class with its accompanying sense of disapproval and isolation.

Of course, those who remain unconvinced or opposed to the programme may take my commitment to move ahead as a rejection of their opinion and resist my attempts to display unconditional love towards them. I have no choice but to commit them to God and leave it between them and their God as to how they respond to me.

Thank you, George (if that is your name). I guess when you said that day that people are more important than programmes, you had no idea how that would influence the life of that 19 year old who sat in your class. Who knows but that the truth you spoke that day may lodge in the heart of someone else who reads this article.

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