Balancing relationships and the goal.

Back in 2001, a number of folks from Memorial were part of a process called “New Church, New Century”, which challenged us to consider what it meant to engage our community with the Gospel of Jesus in ways that are both faithful and relevant.  This experience was catalytic in a number of ways that are still bearing fruit in our ministry together today.

What do we prioritize?  The goal or the relationship?

In one of our training seminars, I remember the speaker drawing a graph like this:  with the lower left hand corner representing minimum focus on both the goal (the mission/ the purpose / the task at hand), and minimum focus on relationship (the people we are connected with in the process).  Obviously, in that lower left hand corner, not a lot gets done either way.

Some leaders are goal oriented to the exclusion of relationships – they get a lot of things done, and sometimes a lot done quickly, but at a corresponding cost to the people involved.  Folks who are ‘my way or the highway’ could fit into this category.  In a church setting, this can be represented by a leader who is so sure of not only the mission, but their methods, that other voices are not heard, or people’s needs are not taken into account.  The end results might look impressive in the short term, but the costs in terms of those who are hurt in the process or who check out that otherwise might have stayed and contributed to the longer-term success of the mission are hidden costs to this style of leadership.

Other leaders maximize their emphasis on relationship; taking into account the needs and situations of the people around them, willing to jettison the goal before jeopardizing the relationships.  This can perpetuate a sense of peace and family connection – something highly valued in church settings – but it can be a false peace based on not ruffling anyone’s feathers.

What kind of leader was Jesus?

If we look to Jesus’ style of servant-leadership as a model for our own, we note that Jesus was very relationship driven; he had particular compassion for the weak, the wounded, the folks that didn’t seem like leader material.  He often slowed down his work or changed his plans in response to the needs around him (like when he wanted to take the disciples on a retreat to rest and regroup, and instead found himself surrounded by crowds of people who were spiritually and physically hungry, which became the setting for the feeding of the 5000).  At the same time, Jesus had a habit of saying disturbing things like: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…” [Matthew 10:34-39].  Jesus wasn’t advocating violence, or trying to break up families, but he knew that prioritizing the kingdom would disrupt relationships, not because he wanted that to happen, but because pursuing God’s kingdom inherently attracts opposition, from those who do not want it, or understand it (yet), and spiritual opposition.

So it seems natural that we aim for maximizing both the mission and the relationships in the process; that we pursue the work of the Kingdom of God, while making sure that people are healthy in the process, and engaged and energized as goals are achieved.

When push comes to shove…

That’s what we *aim* for —

But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen weird things happen in people’s lives right before launching into a new ministry or responding to something they strongly feel God calling them into.  Which could be its own conversation about the deep need for prayer and the reality of the spiritual dimension to what we do.  Or when we’re about to start a new initiative, and a key leader is suddenly unable or unwilling to fulfill their commitment to it.  What do we do? How do we navigate that tension in seeking to maximize our effectiveness in the goal, and bringing people along, which is the point, after all….

First, it’s important to know where we believe our tendency is on that graph, and to consider how we can compensate for that.  While I know which part of the graph I want to aim for, I also know that I have a tendency to want to keep relationships, if not at the cost of abandoning the goal, then willing to accept a slowing down.  Sometimes that’s good.  Other times, it indicates a failure to hold others accountable to the commitments they’ve made.

While it may not always be possible to maximize both the goal and the relationship in every situation, growing in our ability to do so means keeping the importance of both parts in view:

Evaluating the Goal

How critical is this?  Does it need to happen now?  What if it doesn’t happen at all?  How essential is the time factor?  Can we afford to go slow?

Discerning the Relationships

What is the nature of the relational challenge in relationship to achieving the goal?  Is it about understanding, or buy-in?  Is it an external circumstance?  Is it a communication issue?  Is this a matter of unrealistic expectations on the part of the leader, or a lack of follow-through on a commitment made?

What if it’s choosing between relationships?

One of the bigger challenges, especially concerning change, is when some are heavily invested in the goal, while others are resistant.  It can even boil down in the worst cases to someone holding the group hostage, saying (literally or figuratively) “either I get my way, or I take my ball and go home.”

In those cases, while we want to do everything we can to bring as many along as possible – which can mean slowing down at times – we do not have the authority to abandon the purpose to which God calls us together.  And that means being willing to let go of those who will not be a part of the journey.  That doesn’t mean we don’t care about them, or can’t continue to listen to and learn from them, but that we have to honor their ability to choose to share in the goal or not.  The same Jesus who would track down the one lost sheep while the ninety-nine were safe, told the disciples to shake the dust off of their sandals when a community would not receive the message of the Kingdom.

But when balanced well, we achieve the bigger goal, which is not just the mission itself, but of embodying Christ-like community in the process.

What have you learned about leadership and balancing goals and relationships in your own experience?  Share in the comments: