What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with being a church leader? Everything. The law of unintended consequences is not confined to the world of economics or government regulation, but is alive and well in the life of the local church. When church leaders are preparing to make decisions – even relatively minor decisions – we need to keep the law of unintended consequences in our minds.
Consider the following scenarios:
- A worship pastor introduces new songs to the congregation resulting in the singing of hymns less frequently. The worship pastor’s goal is to enliven and enrich the worship of the people in the church by broadening their worship experience. The unintended consequence? A segment of the church feels their worship is now restricted, as the songs they have grown to love are no longer sung as often.
- Church leaders decide to scale back the children’s ministry worship experience. Their goal is to minimize the need for hard-to-find volunteers (especially at the regular worship hour) and to increase the discipleship effectiveness of the ministry by reducing the “entertainment” portion of the weekly event. The unintended consequence? Parents think that the children’s ministry is no longer important to the church.
- The church installs new chairs in the worship center (or new pews, depending on the church) and decides that coffee they serve in their café is no longer allowed in the sanctuary. Their rationale is to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to them by preventing spills and stains. The unintended consequence? People perceive the chairs are more important than them.
All of the scenarios above are real. And, I am sure that church leaders who are reading this article could add dozens more. The simple truth of the matter is that, whenever decisions are made in the life of the church, there are consequences that we cannot anticipate. Indeed, consequences beyond our control. Of course, if the consequences are “unintended,” what can we do about it? Fortunately, there are a few ways to minimize the fall out.
1. Anticipate Negative Perceptions
I remind our staff that perceptions trump intentions, always. So, do your best to put yourself in the shoes of a person that will be affected by the decision. Then, try to think of the most outrageously negative reaction you can. I’m serious. Why? Because, more often than not, it is the reaction that you don’t think will happen, that will. It is the far-flung-nobody-will-ever-think-this reaction that will end up being the perception. If you can anticipate it, you can proactively respond to it.
2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Too often church leaders spend a lot of time in planning for a major change, and then implement it without properly communicating the entire thought process behind it. We have to be mindful that, just because we have been thinking on a change for months, does not mean our people will warm to it when we share it the first time. We need to communicate the need for the change, the impact of the change on current ministries, and what will happen if we do not make the change. We need to do this, not in a combative way, but in a consensus-building fashion. We also need to communicate in a variety of methods – one video on a Sunday morning just won’t get it. We need printed pieces, videos, skits, signage around the building, and personal communication from key leaders.
3. Change, if Necessary
This may seem counter-intuitive, but, even after all the planning, communicating, and anticipating possible, it may be that the decision we made was poor. When that happens, we need to be quick to acknowledge it and adjust what we have done. The church that wanted to protect their new chairs, for example, just could not get over the perception that they valued furniture more than people. So, they decided to give out lids with the coffee they served in their café and planned to have the pews cleaned on a semi-annual basis.
These are just a few ways to deal with the unintended consequences arising from leadership decisions. What are your stories? What decisions have you made that had consequences (perceptions) that you never expected? What did you do about it? What would you add to the three suggestions above?