The Thistle

Leading By Faith

Leading by Faith
by Dr. Bob Burns

Leaders live in the tension of taking initiative while being uncertain of outcomes. This tension moves the idea of walking by faith from a concept into a lifestyle.

Dictionaries define ambiguity as a state of uncertainty, a time of lacking clarity. A friend of mine once put it this way: “The only thing certain in life is uncertainty.” Self-help authors capitalize on ambiguity by addressing the need to achieve greater peace of mind in today’s troubled times. But this is nothing new. The theme of learning to live with life’s instability can be traced back to the day of Adam’s fall.

At the same time, it is rare to find the theme of ambiguity tied with that of leadership. In their 2001 article “The Work of Leadership” for the Harvard Business Review, Ronald H. Heifetz and Donald Laurie explain that “a leader has to have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frustration, and pain.” Walt Turner, chairman of the board of trustees of Covenant Theological Seminary, provides a faith-based perspective on this when he states: “As a husband, father, elder, and businessman, I am never sure what an outcome will be. I want to keep looking into the future through the windshield of life to see what will happen. I tend to calculate the risks and rewards and try to line up my decisions with the will of God. But more often than not, the only clear vision I have is through the rearview mirror, where I see that God was faithful and things worked out.”

This idea of learning to walk by faith in a world filled with ambiguity has been one of the fruitful lessons of the Intersect Forum, an initiative sponsored by Covenant Seminary’s Center for Ministry Leadership. The Center began in 2004, funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., to explore what it takes to sustain excellence in ministry. While the Center’s initiatives focus on pastors, the lessons learned apply to the entire church. Such is the case with the leadership theme of coping with uncertainty.

Concerning this challenge, Larry Catlett, a PCA ruling elder and investment banker, said:

I think ambiguity is part of being in a fallen world. Sometimes we assume that if we don’t come across as confident or if we don’t have the absolute right answer, that it is a sign of weakness, poor leadership, or a lack of conviction. I think we fear not having all the truth or not having the absolutely right answer. But we don’t have a crystal ball. Trusting in God and accepting the ambiguity of living in a fallen world teaches me humility. It keeps me from being overconfident, allows me to tolerate failure in myself, and helps me extend God’s grace to others.

Learning to live with ambiguity is embedded in two biblical principles that were often referenced in the ministry of the late Francis Schaeffer, a theologian and pastor. The first principle is that we are created in God’s image and are therefore called to be “co-creators,” reflecting the One in whose image we are made. The second principle is that although God’s revelation to us is absolute truth, as fallen creatures living in a broken world, we are not able to grasp God’s truth absolutely.

Think of the first principle. Genesis 1 and 2 teach us that we are created in God’s image. Therefore, as his image-bearers, each one of us is called to re-create and reflect God’s truth in all that we do. Such re-creating can be seen in many ways: establishing a beautiful garden, creating a work of art, writing a musical selection, or resolving a conflict between friends. It can also be seen in the leadership activities of a pastor or businessperson. For example, the natural life cycle of businesses and churches is to grow, develop, peak, and then decline. However, leaders express their image-bearing role by intentionally creating times of evaluation and reflection that require their people to wrestle with reality, take responsibility for their fallen condition, and face their most significant challenges.

At the same time, leaders also grapple with the second principle. While God’s truth is absolutely true, no finite human can understand it absolutely. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 (ESV), today we “see in a mirror dimly,” but one day everything will be clear. Yet in the here and now, as we seek to live and work in obedience to God’s truth, we struggle to understand how to do this in our day-to-day responsibilities.

So here is the ambiguity. As leaders serving in God-given roles—be it as businesspersons, pastors, teachers, parents, or others—we want to reflect God’s truth, leading “after God’s image.” Yet we are unable to do this perfectly. For example, I recently visited my son and his wife, who are raising three children under the age of five. Their commitment (as declared when they baptized their children) is to raise them in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” They have the Scriptures, a committed family, their church community, and a shelf of books to support them in this task. But at the end of a long day when their son has a meltdown because he doesn’t want to go to bed, they are forced to apply their best understanding of God’s truth at that moment and evaluate their actions after things have settled down.

In a similar manner, Christians in leadership roles are called to lead from their limited understanding of God’s truth and humbly rely on the grace of God in their successes and failures. This struggle is beautifully expressed by the author of Ecclesiastes when he states, “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:10–11 ESV).

One pastor involved with Intersect Forum has poignantly shared how this struggle has reshaped his understanding of leadership.

About three weeks after graduating from seminary, my wife announced that she was leaving me and the church. It was incredibly painful. I had been training to be a pastor, to lead God’s people, to be held up as some sort of a model as a believer and as a leader, but my life fell apart. It was during that time that the Lord taught me that leadership is not the projection of an image of a perfect follower of Christ. It is someone who knows how to embrace the truths of the gospel and embrace the gray areas of life. It was in those lessons of learning how to walk in the midst of profound ambiguity that the Lord shaped me into a different kind of a man and leader.

Leadership in a broken world requires that we learn to embrace ambiguity. By doing so, the idea of walking by faith transitions from a concept to a lifestyle. It means that we must learn to trust in a sovereign Father in heaven who knows what he is doing even when we hardly have an inkling of his purposes. It means that we learn to live by his grace, being profoundly aware of his kindness when things go well and being willing to acknowledge our mistakes when things go awry. Finally, it means that we recognize that we cannot accomplish God’s purposes on our own. We are part of a larger system—the body of Christ—and are dependent on one another.

A family business leader at the Intersect Forum shared the following story of how he sought to live by faith, expressing God’s will in the midst an uncertain situation.

In our business, we consider the people who work for us our most important resource. I had one employee—a distant relative whose mother also works with us—who is the fourth generation of his family in our business. He got involved with using heroin. [Legally] I could have fired him immediately. Or, because he is family, I could have orchestrated a way to hide his problem. Instead, we worked with his union representative and went the extra mile for him. Eventually we had to terminate him when he was tested and failed for the third time, but we didn’t just drop him. We helped him reenter a rehabilitation unit and work on a new career. That was tough because of family and union involvement. But it was the righteous thing to do.

Another Forum participant explained how he learned what it means to embrace ambiguity and live by faith.

My wife has a viral disease that makes the future extremely uncertain. We don’t know what is going to happen. Basically our life is filled with profound ambiguity. Walking in faith is really the only option we have—and it demands that we be more understanding and gentle with one another. This has taught me about grace-centered leadership. I’m very much of a driven hard-charger, and I want to be in control. But the Lord has his thumb on me to not let me be that person anymore.

Just as those involved with Intersect Forum have learned about leadership, I encourage you to take time to reflect on your own life and the ambiguity that God has built into it. Consider how he is using it to shape you into a leader who is learning to seek first God’s Kingdom and righteousness.

Dr. Bob Burns is currently senior associate pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He previously served at Covenant Seminary as director of the Center for Ministry Leadership and the Doctor of Ministry program. A veteran of two church plants and ministry positions working with youth, singles, families, adults, worship, and the arts, Dr. Burns has a heart to nurture ministry leaders in sustaining pastoral excellence. Growing out of his desire for the church to serve the needs of today’s world, Dr. Burns founded Fresh Start Seminars and is the author of The Fresh Start Divorce Recovery Workbook. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.