140. Overoptimism and Overconfidence — Helping Church Boards Be Spiritually Discerning.

Recently I was reviewing an article written by Charles Roxburgh, published in 2003, and entitled “Hidden Flaws in Strategy”(McKinsey Quarterly, May 2003). His basic premise was that “the brain can be a deceptive guide for rational decision making.” He identifies eight common flaws “that can draw us to the wrong conclusions and increase the risk of betting on bad strategy.”

According to Roxburgh the first flaw in thinking processes related to strategic leadership is “overconfidence” and its related challenge of “overoptimism.” In his view “our brains are programmed to make us feel overconfident” particularly in our abilities and our capacity to make accurate estimates. Overoptimism leads us to see things in a rosier perspective than facts would otherwise indicate. When it comes to developing strategies, human leaders rely “too often on unrealistically precise and overoptimistic estimates of uncertainties.”

Theologically church board members know that human thinking is marred in various ways because of our sinful condition. One of the effects of this is pride and an inordinate confidence in human ability. Conversely, believers have God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. Christians are optimists because they know that in the end Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. Believers usually struggle in decision-making to discern the difference between faith and presumption. In other words church board members are reluctant to take risks because they lack faith in God’s promises or they assume too much risk expecting that God will bail them out in the end.

I remember several times in my board experience discussion getting encumbered with accusations either that some board members were afraid to exercise faith or that some board members were being reckless in their belief that somehow God will provide resources which are just not discernible in the present context. Perhaps you have experienced similar impasses in your board experience.

Christian congregations are “faith-based” agencies and their governing boards operate in accordance with “faith-based” values. We believe that God is sovereign and does miracles. Sometimes these miracles come in the form of unexpected provision of resources or the resolution of some external bureaucratic impasse that is preventing the vision of the congregation from being achieved. Again, we know from experience that such things happen. However, it is one thing to know that God can act powerfully beyond our expectations; it is quite a different matter to implement a strategic plan that depends entirely upon God’s direct and miraculous intervention. I am not saying this should never be done, because God delights in surprising our faithful obedience. However, should it be the norm? I think that is the conundrum that many church boards face. In some cases faith becomes presumption. We also believe that God has the power and wisdom to bring good out of bad situations. However, we should not intentionally engage in bad planning or bad implementation expecting that despite our bungling God will get it right. This would be tantamount to doing what Paul rejects, namely “sinning so that grace might abound.”

What advice can a church board chairperson give to his or her board in the matter of strategic planning so that the board does not become overconfident and misled by overoptimism? What spiritual principles should you be sharing with your board about spiritually discerning God’s will for your faith community? I would suggest the following as an initial principles:

1. Strategic directions and plans need constant re-calibration in the light of new information and experience. Despite the best efforts of any church board and ministry leadership circumstances change and this means that strategic plans require ongoing review. Nothing reveals overconfidence or overoptimism as the cold reality of actual experience and results. For example, if your church board has assumed that the youth ministry will grow 40% in the next twelve months and this assumption also led to the projection to hire an assistant for the youth pastor, but growth in fact turns out to be 5%, then you cannot really proceed with this part of the strategic plan until you have re-evaluated your assumptions.  Or take another estimate that frequently is overoptimistic — the increase in the amount of financial giving from the congregation over a twelve month period. If you get half way through your fiscal year and discover that the estimate is being missed regularly, then the board needs to take some action mid-year so that significant deficit is not incurred at the end of the year.

2. Embrace humility and when part or all of the strategic direction goes awry, stop, reflect, pray, and re-design. Strategic plans express the best guess of the board as to their expectations for the congregation’s development over the next year or two. It remains unproven until you reach the specified dates and evaluate your progress. However, you cannot foresee the future in all of its particularity and undoubtedly some aspects of the strategic plan will not unfold as expected. Some parts will show much greater development and some much less. So hold the strategic plan somewhat lightly and do not tie your personal leadership as chairperson to its success or failure. If some parts are not successful, then admit it, evaluate why, and then discern new direction. God may have something far more wonderful that He wants to achieve. Do not let your ego get in the way.

3. Trust God, but use all of the wisdom and competence your board can muster. As we read in the New Testament, we walk by faith and not by sight. Yet God has given us many abilities which presumably He expects us to employ in discerning his will and making wise decisions. The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament expresses this truth consistently. Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom, but there is much we can learn from experience, study, and the counsel of others. You use good process in making effective decisions believing that the Holy Spirit works through process. You implement board decisions, trusting that God will guide those responsible and provide the resources necessary. You celebrate the benefits that good decisions bring, giving God glory for all of his work as you evaluate what has been accomplished.

4. Access external information and resources to check whether your initial conclusions stand the test of expert scrutiny. Sometimes we develop ‘tunnel vision’ because our information is limited and distorted or we rely too heavily on direction from one source. This generates a false confidence in our ability to discern the best direction. If we had more information, we would discover that our initial perspective was quite inadequate. In some cases board members will regard the use of external expertise as ‘interference’ in the autonomy of the local church. Or they may be suspicious in general of ‘experts’. Regardless, as chairperson you need to help the board access the best information so that their decisions truly are wise and prudent.

5. In important matters strive for consensus among the board before enacting a strategic decision. There is a difference between unity, unanimity, and consensus. A board should always strive to work in unity, i.e. with common values, mutual respect, and singular vision. There will not always be unanimity, i.e. total agreement, about any issue among board members. Some decisions do not require unanimity, only a majority agreement. An important decision should be made with the consensus of the whole, i.e. the agreement among the board members that the discussion has been thorough, diverse viewpoints expressed, and recognition by all that the conclusion reached is the best way forward even though some board members would prefer an alternative. Of course, there will be significant issues around which it is impossible to achieve total agreement among all board members. However, if the process of discussion has been thorough, fair, and patient, most dissenting board members will feel that they were heard, even if their viewpoint ultimately was not accepted.


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