Believe things can happen

August 14th, 2015

There was a time when it was hard for me to believe that churches could undertake major goals requiring large sums of money. I found the financial aspects intimidating. It was so bad that when I had to talk to the congregation about buying a plot of land to build a larger facility, I would mumble the amount of money it would take in a low tone. After one such lackluster performance at a church-wide meeting, the chair of the building committee pulled me aside and said, “Pastor, it doesn’t matter how good the plans look or how much work we do; if you can’t say three to five million dollars plainly and with enthusiasm, it’s just not going to happen.” I will never forget what he asked next: “Tom, do you believe this can happen? Because if you don’t believe it can happen, then it simply can’t.”

One of the most important contributions a leader can make is to believe that things can happen. When we don’t, they won’t. It’s that simple. I had to learn not only to pronounce the words three to five million dollars but also to say them as though we faced a mild challenge, a shallow stream to cross, a low hurdle to jump. And before I could say the words, I had to believe them myself.

In the years since that conversation, I have been amazed at what can happen when you believe things are possible. As it turned out, the relocation and first phase of our new facility cost more than we anticipated. I had to learn to pronounce even larger numbers. And yet, it happened. Believing that it could happen and celebrating when it did led to other opportunities to exercise our faith. We have undertaken mission projects that seemed impossible, entered into community partnerships that seemed unlikely, started a nonprofit center that felt implausible, and embarked on many other adventures that started with a simple belief that they could happen.

It’s not all bad when you struggle with your own lack of confidence. It will help you feel a little desperate, and that will lead you to ask others for help. Your lack of confidence will push you to assemble a solid team to lead the effort. Soon you will be asking people for other resources as well, including their time, expertise, and money. The circle will get wider and wider as you reach out to everyone in the congregation to play a part in the goal all of you are attempting to reach. Believe that things can happen because you believe in the people around you. If you can get the right people together, you will figure it out, even if the issues are complex.

It’s also essential that you believe God can make things happen. There is a fine line for Christian leaders between marching people to certain failure, saying, “All things are possible with God,” and playing it so safe that it’s evident to everyone that God need not bother to get involved. Leaders live in and with that tension. I have found that the greatest things with which I have been associated were also the sources of my greatest anxiety. If you do not lie awake every so often wondering how you got into this mess, much less how you got other people to follow you, then you probably have not entered the deepest zone of trust in God’s ability to bless your efforts. It may be that the Bible’s regular admonition not to worry is a response to the consistent apprehension that the people experienced while pursuing God’s call. There are few, if any, biblical characters who did not fear their circumstances before they learned to stand in awe of God’s power.

I have learned a great deal about trusting God from my friend Bishop John Yambasu, who leads The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, Africa. Sierra Leone is a country where human and financial resources are scarce. Along with its many congregations, The United Methodist Church operates schools, clinics, hospitals, camps, and children’s homes, all of which stand in great need of resources. Bishop Yambasu constantly works to gather people who can lead these organizations, along with the necessary financial resources to sustain their development. Often he has to face disappointments. Doctors in his hospitals take better paying jobs in other countries. Donors are sometimes not able to fully give what they hoped to provide. Workers seek other jobs that might bring greater benefits or require less sacrifice. Add to this the difficulty of maintaining property in a tropical climate, and you have a very challenging job for a leader. I have been with him when he learned of the loss of a key employee and a significant and unexpected problem in one of his programs. He always takes things in stride. When I ask him how he handles these disappointments with such composure, he reminds me, “God is good, all the time.” He speaks of God’s ability to bring good out of bad and the ways that grace is often running ahead, preparing blessings we cannot yet see but will experience soon. These are not clichés to Bishop Yambasu. They arise out of a deep trust that God is able to make things happen, even when it appears that all may be lost. His faith and confidence inspire those he leads.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe that things can happen because they simply must happen. Many times leaders would not choose a course of action if it could be avoided. Major initiatives come on the heels of great success that needs to be advanced, as well as great needs that must be met. Judy, the principal of the local school where Floris United Methodist Church had been a community partner for ten years, challenged us to start a four-week summer school program to replace the one the school lost when funding was cut from the budget. The school’s test scores were low. Kids lost ground in reading and math over the summer. They often did not eat as regularly without school breakfast and lunch. Worst of all, gangs recruited kids who were not supervised because school was out and their parents were working multiple lower-income jobs to make ends meet.

Key leaders met to discuss the proposal. Everyone had many questions. Where would we find enough certified teachers or the money to pay for the buses and necessary school personnel? Could we generate enough volunteers to provide classroom aides, provide breakfast and lunch, and bring special programs with music, science, and the arts? It would have been easy simply to reject the proposal based on these concerns. But the fact remained that summer school was something that the principal felt the kids needed. It was a need too great to ignore, and so Camp Hutchinson was born.

Once you believe God is able, the people around you can do great things if they do them together. And when a need is crying out for attention, you start to understand that anything is possible.

This article is an excerpt from Tom Berlin and Lovett Weems' newest book High Yield: Six Disciplines of the Fruitful Leader.

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