You might remember the book “Into Thin Air” from over a decade ago? It catalogs some teams climbing Everest and attempting to summit on May 10, 1996, a day which became the deadliest day, in the deadliest year, of Everest mountaineering history. One of the heroic stories of that day was the actions of Ed Viesturs and his climbing team, who were on the mountain to make an IMAX film. Though they would summit later, their encounter of the storm created an entire reshuffling of their expedition’s goals and timetables, as the needs of the moment superseded previous goals. You can read about all that here. Ed demonstrates the priority of what I call “adaptive leadership”
There’s a fine line between healthy vision and ambition, on the one hand, and the dangers of unbridled devotion to one’s goals, on the other. Scott Fischer and Rob Hall were leading expeditions that day and what made them great climbers was their commitment to their summit goals. They were the kind of visionaries who could see the future so clearly that they’d let nothing stand in their way of getting to the top. That same sense of drivenness, though, is what made them dead climbers by the end of that same fateful day.
There are important lessons to be learned here for anyone who’s charged with leadership. I was at a conference two weeks ago, where some high powered, nationally famous pastors were charging up a room full of low powered, anonymous pastors. There were lights, rocking music, and lots of good teaching about vision casting and leadership. There were plenty of “take aways” from this conference, and I was grateful to be there. I’m still digesting lots of the valuable things a learned.
I left this conference feeling these guys were the spiritual rock stars of American Christianity. They have goals to plant 1000 churches, or take their stuff ‘on the road’, franchising their worship services for sites across the country. They’ve some ambitious summits in their sites. This is a good thing, largely. We all need goals, because goals frame our values and priorities. They unify people and align their energies towards a purpose. They catalyze. Yes. Yes. I get that.
My biggest problem with this, though, is that many stories of the Bible don’t point me in the direction of unbridled devotion to goals.
#1 – God tells Abraham to go to a new land, where he’ll become the father of nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham might have questions: “How long will it take?” “Where is this new land?” “How will I know when I’ve arrived there?” “When will the baby come?” Over and over again, God says, in essence, “I’m not telling – just follow me.”
#2 – God tells Moses that he’ll lead people out of slavery, into the promise land. He doesn’t talk about how whiny the people will be, or how they’ll make idols, or how he’ll never actually realize the goal.#3 – Jesus tells Peter at the end of John to follow Him, and hints that some things will happen to Peter that will be hard. Peter looks at John and says, “What about him? Will he have it tough too?” Jesus won’t answer, he just says, “you follow me.”
#4 – Over and over again in the church of Acts, the apostles are essentially saying, “what do we do now?” We’ve grown faster than we thought we would, or one of our members has been killed for his faith, or there’s some doctrinal division cropping up, or some people in need of help over here because of a famine. What’s next?
These Bible stories paint a picture of leaders who knew a general direction, but its clear that there was more about the future that they didn’t know, than that they knew. When I listen to the rock star pastors, and then have breakfast with a guy who’s leading a church of 40 people, I realize that there’s a missing piece to the grand vision discussion, and the missing piece is adaptive leadership.
We who lead need to be mindful, not only of the grand vision, but of the continually changing landscape of personalities and events around us that are beyond our control. We can’t control how many people will come to our church (I suppose we can, by being sloppy about what we do, but you get my point). We can’t control how our children will respond to the gospel. We can’t control the economy. We can’t foretell where the next earthquake, or terrorist attack, or doctrinal challenge will come from. But we can adapt. We can respond to our situations in such a way that we emerge from unanticipated crises stronger than ever.
The climbers who died that day allowed unbridled commitment to the summit to become the real vision, and it cost them their lives. We who lead churches are called to do one thing: go into the world and make disciples. We’re not told how far to go, or how many disciples to make. We’re not told whether to franchise our efforts or content ourselves with a house church, or simply making disciples in our family. We can expect fruit, surely. But that timing and nature of that fruit is, frankly, beyond our control. Presuming a certain particular scope of fruitfulness might get us in trouble, if our commitment to that scope causes us to lose sight of more important things, like the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. Failures here have resulted in abuses of power that have wounded multitudes over the centuries.
As our church begins a new season of ministry, we have plans, and we’re growing, and we’re believing God wants us to impact our city significantly. But we’re holding all of it with an open hand because in the end, how high we’ll climb is dependent on factors outside our control, which is actually very good news when the One who’ll make that call is Jesus.
I welcome your thoughts…