It was a very impressive group of church leaders. Clergy and laity alike, they were successful and savvy men and women who had been patiently listening to me make repeated invitations to engage in a spiritual discernment process rather than a more traditional strategic planning process.
They were polite and had made a token effort to pray and invite God into their conversations. However, it was thin, shallow and not very sincere prayer they offered.
What they really wanted to do was move past all the God-talk and get to the main event: The session when they could finally roll out their brilliant ideas about the direction they thought their church should go.
Despite my appeals, they were determined to get their agendas on the table and then start a campaign to convince others to follow their lead. They had a fine-sounding purpose statement and multiple proof texts ready to roll out.
In other words, they wanted to continue what they, and most other church leaders, think is the task of leadership in the 21st-century church: Come up with great ideas and run with them.
As we approached a pivotal planning day, I decided to let them have their way. Right out of the gate, I invited them to “spend the next 10 minutes writing down your very best ideas for your church to pursue in the near and mid-future.”
The race was on, with each person scribbling a laundry list of impressive ideas. One even pulled out a preprinted copy of ideas he had been harboring for just such a moment as this.
After 10 minutes, I called a stop to the writing frenzy, insisting they put down their pens. “Who wants to go first?” I invited.
One especially impressive gentleman rose to his feet and, with a flourish, offered his litany of ideas. I called him forward and took his paper from him, as though to share with the rest of the leadership team.
Unknown to him and them, I had brought with me a paper shredder for the occasion. As I set it up in front of the group, nervous laughter broke out. When I ran his exquisite list of ideas through, the reaction was stunned silence.
“Who’s next?” I called out. Reluctantly, one after another, the sheets of ideas made their way into the shredder. No words were offered, just many sighs and exasperated faces as the noisy machine wreaked havoc with their genius.
After the last list of ideas had been turned into confetti, I asked the obvious question: “Now what will you do?”
One saintly woman’s voice cut through the tension and said simply: “I guess we could ask God what he wants for us.” That was the turning point for that church.
We went on to take seriously the radical notion that God wants our hearts before he wants our ideas.
Once we got that straight – once we acknowledged the futility of planning without a divine purpose and direction – we were able to accomplish a significant and God-sized agenda. Until then, we were simply playing church.
My friend, David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston Salem, N.C., recently reminded me of the tradition of “holy indifference.” Though it sounds like an invitation to apathy, it is actually a radical call to discipleship.
In the 16th century, Ignatius proposed the idea that when one becomes focused upon and devoted to God’s leadership and will in life, to the exclusion of all else, then a sort of holy indifference to our own agenda emerges.
We become so consumed with following and pleasing Christ that we grow less worried about or preoccupied with, and more indifferent to, our own agenda.
When a person or congregation adopts a singular focus upon Christ as its central agenda, then holy indifference begins to make sense.
Hughes suggested that unless a church seeks and values a collective holy indifference to competing agendas, then most planning processes will fall far short of what God intends.
In fact, we often see planning processes become embroiled in controversy as competing factions campaign for a particular style of worship, a personal preference regarding ministerial staff, preconceived ideas about ministry models or dozens of other issues.
Too often, no one seems willing to ask the larger question of what God’s dream for the church might be. They are too busy promoting their own.
So, what would holy indifference look like for you? Probably something like a shredding machine.
Take your ideas, opinions and prejudices and lay them aside. Shred them. Instead, ask God to show you a better way. His way.
Isn’t that what Jesus taught us in the garden? “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Pray those seven words and see what happens.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.