Every leader lives with the consequences of the day-today decisions that their predecessors made.
Every pastor inherits not only the legacy of the previous pastor but of all the pastors that went before. Their values have been ingrained into the church’s culture, not only by the big choices they made but also by thousands of small decisions and actions made on a daily basis. The long trajectory of a church’s customs, expectations, and methods are set by the small actions its leaders make in the short-term.
Short-term thinking is the enemy of long-term thinking only when we don’t take the long-term into account. We need both kinds. But there are times when we need really short-term thinking.
There are times when we recognize that a singular opportunity has presented itself and we need to seize the moment. Acts 8 tells how Philip, a leader in the church at Jerusalem, introduced the gospel to the royal court of Ethiopia by sharing the gospel with one of the queen’s officials on the Gaza road. He was directed to go there by an angel without being told why. If he had ignored the angel’s prompting, Philip would have missed the appointment.
Many of the ministry opportunities that come to pastors and church leaders are like this. They are unplanned encounters. They almost seem like accidents.
It may come in the form of a conversation we have in the coffee shop or a side remark made by someone as they are leaving the church. We may feel prompted to call on someone we haven’t seen in church for a while or maybe it is an urgent prompting to pray for someone out of the blue.
We usually don’t have the luxury of being told what to do by an angel, but we do feel prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is an even higher authority. This is the opportunity of the immediate.
The opportunity of the immediate is rooted in a theology of divine interruption. It is the temporal dimension of inspired intuition. Because we often focus on our own grand designs for the future, we lose interest in the here and now.
Since we are not attuned to the here and now, we miss the opportunity God places before us in the immediate moment. We are focused on the great thing that is going to happen next.
God is doing something amazing right now but we are unable to see it. This often takes the form of focusing on structures and strategies instead of people. Leaders can be so concerned with plans, programs, and targets that they fail to notice the details of the work that God is doing right in front of them.
We grieve over the fact that church attendance did not break the one hundred barrier and miss the fact that one person who did attend was profoundly affected by the message. We are so set on the big audacious goal we have set for the church that we are not paying attention to the hundreds of little goals that God is achieving on a daily basis.
A BOW AND ARROW AND THE HERE AND NOW
One story in the Old Testament that has always haunted me is the brief account of the encounter of Israel’s king Jehoash (or Joash) with the dying prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 13:13–19. The king came to visit Elisha because he had heard that he was ill. In fact, Elisha was on his death bed. But Jehoash wasn’t only concerned for Elisha’s health, he was worried about the future of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was being threatened by Syria. Jehoash was not a good king in the moral sense, but he had experienced some military success. He was hoping that Elisha could help him extend his success.
The prophet’s response was to require the king to perform two symbolic acts. First, he told Jehoash to get a bow and some arrows and take the bow in his hands. The prophet placed his hands over the king’s on the bow. Then he told him to open the east window, the one that faced the direction of his enemies, and shoot an arrow out of it. “‘The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!’ Elisha declared. ‘You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek.’”
Next, Elisha told the king to take the remaining arrows and strike the ground. The king struck three times and then stopped. Instead of declaring another victory, Elisha chided the king. “You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it,” he said. “But now you will defeat it only three times.” Commentators say that Jehoash should have known what was going on. The way Elisha placed his hands over Jehoash’s, his statement about the arrow of victory—it was all clearly symbolic action. The king should have recognized this.
The biblical writer seems to agree. There are no mitigating explanations for the king’s negligence. Only the curt report, “Elisha died and was buried” (v. 20). Foolish king, things could have been a lot better for you. Now it’s too late.
MISSING THE POINT
Of course, we know from the start that there was a problem with this king. Before the narrator tells us the king’s story, he tells us that Jehoash did evil in the Lord’s sight and followed in the sins of his ancestor Jeroboam. Jehoash showed outward respect to Elisha. He seemed to think he could help. Yet, somehow, Jehoash missed the point.
He struck three times and decided that it was good enough. I know I am not supposed to be on his side. He was a bad king. But I still find myself wanting to object. “How was he supposed to know?” I want to say. “You’re really going to penalize him because he shot three arrows instead of five or six?” The prophet isn’t even that specific about how many arrows the king should have deployed.
I know exactly how this would go if this had been one of my tests, and I had penalized my students for the wrong answer. “So which is it?” they would ask. “Is five enough? Is six?’ Isn’t God powerful enough to defeat His enemies on the strength of three arrows? Why isn’t it an act of faith to shoot only three arrows? Is it even about arrows?
The answer, of course, is that it isn’t about the arrows. It is about faith and missed opportunity. That is why the story is so haunting. I can’t shake the fear that if I had been in Jehoash’s shoes, I might have got that particular answer wrong on the test just like he did. I wouldn’t have struck the ground enough times. Or maybe I would have struck too many.
I wonder if I would have missed the point. I wonder if I am missing the point even now. How many opportunities have I squandered because I wasn’t paying attention to what God was trying to do right in front of me?
DON’T MISS THE NEXT FEW INCHES
When leaders ask themselves this question, they tend to think in large terms. They worry about the grand opportunity or great task. This can be a trap.
We try to move God’s agenda forward by miles when he is interested in the next few inches. Missed leadership opportunities are more likely to be much smaller than our great ambitions. That is why we miss them.
Perhaps it is the chance to speak a comforting word or enter into a new friendship. They come in the form of brief encounters and inconvenient interruptions. It is the chance to say a kind word, offer a comforting touch, or say an impromptu prayer.
An excerpt from Practicing the Present by John Koessler, Moody Publishers, June 2019.
John Koessler serves as chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute, where he has served on the faculty since 1994. He is an award-winning author who has written thirteen books and numerous magazine articles. He writes the monthly “Theology Matters” column for Today in the Word and is a frequent workshop leader at the Moody Pastor’s Conference. Prior to joining the Moody faculty, John served as a pastor of Valley Chapel in Green Valley, Illinois, for nine years. He is married to Jane and they have two adult sons. John and Jane live in Munster, Indiana.