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Toughest Decisions of Leaders—Part 2

Toughest Decisions of Leaders—Part 2

We asked six influential ministry leaders to tell us their stories of
the toughest leadership decision they’d ever made—and how they went
about making the decision. Last week, Craig Groeschel shared his decision to give it all away. Now, Nancy Ortberg tells us about when she had to take two steps backward …


First, I am compelled to clarify this is one of the toughest decisions I’ve made. To choose the toughest? Too tough.

So there I was, leading Axis. Axis was the “postmodern” (all the kids were using that word then) ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, which met on Saturday evenings and late Sunday mornings in the gymnasium. Things were going well; we were excited and grateful, which is a terrific combination. Over the past few years, we had grown significantly, so people were paying attention.That can be exciting. And scary.

We were growing not only in our weekend attendance but in our weekly community groups and, perhaps most exciting, in our outreach efforts to the under-resourced and marginalized within a stone’s throw.

Like any good leader, I love momentum.

Nothing stops momentum like slowing down.

And that’s what I had to decide.

Right in the middle of all this exciting stuff, we had a number of young people join our staff through our church’s internship program. At first it was great. Kind of like free help. They worked really hard. They fit in. Clearly one of those win-wins.

But then I started to notice something. They were young. There was development that needed to be done and spiritual formation. One of the young leaders had grown his community group from a handful to more than a hundred in a relatively short time. Good, right? Well … I started to notice a lot of his leadership seemed to be anchored in people pleasing and image management. Don’t ask me how I knew.

Takes one to know one, right?

How did I make the decision? Some frustration, several conversations and a memory.

Honestly, in that moment, I think my preference would have been to just keep using his highly effective leadership to grow the ministry. (Now I am wishing I would have written this under a pseudonym.) It frustrated me to think I might need to slow down to do the more tedious soul work in one of the leaders entrusted to my care. And tedious work doesn’t show as quickly—it doesn’t get people’s attention.*

I complained to my boss. He was confused, since I had originally been such a big fan of the intern program. Now I kept saying how much extra time it was taking.

Tougher than the decision to slow down, to do part of the work of a leader in developing and forming my staff, was the decision to take a look at the embarrassing motives that were true of my own heart.

Honest conversations, at first with myself (Do I really not want to have soul-plumbing conversations with this person because it will take up time I want to be spending on other stuff?), then with some trusted friends, allowed me to see some ugly truths in my own soul.

Once I felt some clarity there, I had several conversations with God to see if He could do anything about that junky stuff in me. He could.

Then a final conversation with my boss. He asked me a question: What changed me back to both loving the interns and slowing down in order to tend to them?

A memory of someone doing that very thing for me when I was 19 years old and an intern on the high school ministry team at my home church.

NANCY ORTBERG is a speaker and author of Looking for God (Tyndale). She and her husband, John, live in San Francisco. This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Neue magazine. Check back next week when Dr. Joel C. Hunter tells us about his decision to pray at the Democratic National Convention.

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