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First Thoughts

The Ninth Commandment on Staff Relationships: Thou Shall Not Insist on Your Own Way

The Presence of a Preference Is Not an Argument to Pursue It

When any team member departs a church staff, it is always painful, but years ago, we experienced a departure that nearly split the church. The trauma was not because the person who left was highly effective, profoundly influential, or was more loved than anyone else. In fact, he was strongly divisive and deeply controversial.

The reality that nearly killed the church was the sinful way this man behaved in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of his departure.

He refused to accept correction amid repeated attempts to help him improve. He demanded to do his job on his own terms and refused advice and input from others on the team. When the church could not afford to meet his financial demands, he became angry and bitter. On his way out the door, he made alliances with hostile members of the congregation and began working to sow division in the congregation he once said he loved.

In the end, he refused to play for the team. He insisted on placing himself and his interests above those of the congregation. He insisted on his own way.

In so doing, he created a context where dozens of people left our church. Some of those people left so angry and bitter that they spread lies and bad feelings about our church to this day. It is very dangerous when ministry staff members insist on their own way. It can even be fatal. Having walked through the pain of this danger in my own ministry, I write to appeal to all of us serving on church staffs to avoid fighting for our preferences.

The Difference Between a Principle and a Preference

We will all work hard for something in ministry. We will fight for the advancement of some cause. We need to be sure we are fighting to advance principles and not our own personal preferences. That requires knowing the difference between principles and preferences.

Principles are ideas, goals, and activities that are of chief importance. They don’t usually change and are non-negotiable. The principles of your ministry should be informed by the Word of God, emphasized by the leadership of your ministry, and agreed upon by every member of the team. At First Baptist, we articulate these principles in our mission statement, our seven core values, and the five commitments we have for every member. The principles of your ministry will be different than ours, but the principles of your ministry should be uncontroversial for your team. They are the things you never fight about.

Preferences are all the different attitudes, opinions, and inclinations that exist on the team about the way you will accomplish those principles. Those preferences will vary by year, month, week, and hour. There may be as many preferences on your team as there are members of the team.

Principlizing Your Preference

All ministry staff members are prone to a strong temptation. The temptation is to graduate your preferences into principles. You want to take your favorite way of doing something and make it the absolute right way for everyone at all times. Your way becomes the way.

When we work on teams full of people turning their preferences into principles, the only result will be chaos, conflict, and sin. Teams can’t thrive with everyone fighting to the death to have it their own particular way.

This means we need discipline and care to discern the difference between our preferences and the principles that govern the entire ministry.

Five Steps to Avoid Insisting on Your Own Way

Instead of demanding that everyone do it your way, I encourage our team members to do these five things.

First, don’t avoid having a preference. Having a preference is a direct result of thinking, being passionate, and having an opinion. A preference means you’re doing your job. I want people on my team who are thinking hard about how we will do things. They need to have opinions. They just need to be honest that their preferences are not principles. They also need to be kind and flexible, allowing their preferences to rest in the palm of their hand instead of clutching them in their fists.

Second, listen to the opinions and preferences of others. It is great that you have your preferences. Just remember that your teammates have theirs, too. James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.” You are already an expert on your preference. A good team is full of people who listen to, learn from, and improve because of the other members of the team.

Third, you must love and trust your team. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says love “Does not insist on its own way.” A person who demands that things must go their way does not have love and respect for their team. That person is selfish and hateful.

Fourth, serve the best interests of your ministry. After you have shared your preferences and listened to the preferences of others now you must make a decision. That decision requires you not to do what you want to do but to do what is best for your ministry. This truth is particularly relevant for those of us in leadership.

Fifth, chill. I learned this from my oldest son, Carson. He is a great guy who is very laid back. When people in our house are getting unnecessarily worked up and exaggerating things beyond all proportion, his one-word response is to tell people to “Chill.” Most of the time, this is great advice.

Strong organizations do not typically debate matters of ultimate importance. At First Baptist, because we are guided by the Bible and our other principles, we never get into arguments about ultimate matters regarding the authority of the Word of God or the centrality of Christ. Our conversations and disagreements are about matters that are far less ultimate. Though we tend to get worked up about matters close to our area, usually, these are not ultimate matters. We need to heed the advice of my son, we need to chill, and we need to put the best interests of our ministry ahead of our own.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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