And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 1 Samuel 8:7-9
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” C.S. Lewis
Here is a fundamental truth for church leaders (including pastors): the church is not for you (not really), nor is it about you. If you think about it, that is actually a rather freeing reality. That means it is not your responsibility to manipulate every outcome. Rather, it is your responsibility to speak God’s truth to the best of your ability and to love your people well…and love often means letting them mess up royally.
Most of my own best illustrations of this leadership principle come from parenting. If you are a parent, you already know the phenomenon well. There are times when a parent can see a wrong direction a child is headed and the very best way to teach this lesson is to simply warn them and then let them make their own decision (and live with the consequences). Take bedtimes, for example. Toddlers are simply told when they will go to bed. But, as they grow older, we eventually get to a point where they must learn to use their own judgment about sleep time. The first time we lift the bedtime requirement, we simply explain to them, “Go to bed whenever you like…but if you stay awake too late, you’ll be awfully tired tomorrow at school.” Then, that first night we find them playing on X-box at Midnight, we warn them again: “You’re gonna be awfully tired tomorrow if you don’t go to bed soon.” Well, you know how this one plays out.
That illustration is harmless enough. The worst outcome for that student is a little humiliation in class and perhaps a bad grade or two. But the more mature our student becomes, the bigger the consequences. We begin allowing them to make really big decisions with really big consequences. It is all a part of growing up.
Shepherding God’s people is no different. As leaders, there really is no other effective way to lead than to allow God’s people to make decisions as a people, even when those decisions are sometimes horribly wrong. You can give them the benefit of your own spiritual discernment, you can warn them about the consequences of their wrong direction, you can even ask them to please reconsider. But in the end, more times than not, it is their decision to make and not yours. You cannot make it for them. You cannot even make it for yourself. Most importantly, you cannot take it personally when they decide not to take your counsel. They will make their decision, and you and they together will live with the consequences of it, and you will just keep loving them as well as you know how.
God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 echo in so many of your church’s important decisions today. You can see the majority forming and you can see the damaging consequences of that direction. They are about to make a decision exactly contrary to how you have counseled them. This is when God’s whisper comes: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what [their decision will mean].” That is what leadership looks like. That is what love looks like. Swallow your pride, listen to your people, counsel them as best you know how, and then walk with them…even through the muck and mire of wrong decisions.