In 2005 we moved to Spain with our 1 year old daughter and a team of 4 Americans, 1 Mexican, and 1 Spaniard to do campus ministry. We were sent as Short Term Internationals, even though we were planning on staying long term. The idea was to go for two years as short termers, try out life and ministry in Spain, and then return as long term missionaries. In Cru, short term teams are sent out to get things done, and do as much as they can within a year or two time frame, hoping to get ministry and movements up and running in a rapid period of time. This strategy has actually worked well in certain contexts and normally with young singles carrying the load. Unfortunately for us, Spain is not a good context for this strategy, nor was it a good situation for us a family leading a multi-cultural, multi-generational team. Three weeks after we touched down in Spain, and having not yet even moved into an apartment, we were expected to start ministry. Our first year in Spain was a spiritual, mental, marital, and team nightmare. We kept up a peripatetic pace trying to engage with students, maintain our team, learn language and culture, and set a strategic course for accomplishing our ministry goals.
Daniel Patrick Forrester in his excellent tome on pausing to think, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization, speaks of the human proclivity towards “action bias.” Action bias is basically a tendency to do and act, rather than sit back and reflect or think through a problem. Evangelicalism typically has a strong action bias. We have been doers, and through the Protestant work ethic, and a typically fearful stance towards more contemplative (read Catholic) spirituality (echoes of Taylor and Weber here), we tend to attack problems and challenges by stepping out in faith, rolling up our sleeves, and taking action. This isn’t always bad, and probably has led to some tremendous movements, growth, and societal change. Action bias isn’t always wrong. However, Forrester points out that action that is always separated from solid thinking that understanding of context and meaning can be destructive. Moreover, living in a global, connected, technological world of rapid pace and speed where emails and messages should be answered in just minutes, “action bias now manifests itself in impulsive and instantaneous responsiveness to every request… the trade-off is easy to make: we gain speed, immediate connection, and reactions while giving up richer contexts that emerge only when we take time to think (loc 337).”
This can be seen in our short term experience in Spain. We didn’t have time to reflect or think about the culture, about what would work best to communicate the gospel, or even how to best live incarnationally… we just had to do. Most missions organizations want new missionaries to go through a period of adaptation, learning language and culture and spending adequate time thinking about their future ministry in this context. Actually, once we became long-term we were afforded this time to process, and we are allowed to sit back and learn from the first two years of working in Spain. This allowed us the time to think through with ourselves and other long term staff, strategies and tools for connecting with the culture, and even process in real time, instead of running around trying whatever. Moreover, we have seen the productivity and fruitfulness of ministry grow over time as we have had the time to learn and think through how best to do life and ministry in Spain. Now we are at a pace where we can actually work faster, more competently, and focused on many tasks. But, all of this took time to think through and process, maybe even more so because it is a cross-cultural experience.
Forrester explains that as leaders mired in a connected world of constantly having too much to do, and constant media distraction, to avoid organizational and personal disaster it is imperative that we take formal, structured time to think and reflect. Otherwise, we can become so consumed by action bias that we will miss the key changes, decisions, and innovations that will truly grow an organization. In a sense, “in our culture of immediacy, we can easily solve the wrong problems with great speed (loc 554).” This is how my first two years in Spain felt: “Coupled with our culture’s bias towards action and exacerbated by constant distraction, it can be nearly impossible for today’s leaders to consistently pose and then answer the right questions while employing sound judgment (loc 801).” It was only when we had time to gather the big picture of Spain and ministry there, that we could process it and begin to move forward with confidence tackling the correct issues before us.
Forrester thus encourages leaders to make time to think and reflect, even in hectic and overly busy schedules. The mind needs time alone, its own space, to focus completely un-distracted on the issues, challenges, and opportunities before the leader. Otherwise, the leader will simply make knee-jerk decisions that may or may not be helpful. Moreover, Forrester explains that thinking time must be reflective in that it must be able to question perceived data, the status quo, and group think. In a sense, good leaders schedule time to think! And they do serious, heavy lifting thinking. This means closing down email and setting the phone on silent, and engaging in serious focused thinking. Forrester also encourages leaders to create time for everyone in the organization to think, and to create a “reflective culture.” That is a culture “that makes it possible for people to constantly challenge things without fear of retaliation (loc 1511).” This allows for ideas, innovations, and checks of bad decisions or practice to arise within the organization. Issues like group think and terminal niceness (saying yes to bad ideas) are thus avoided. Forrester points out that many successful companies like Google insist that their employees have time to think and also reflectively challenge company assumptions.
Returning to my experience in Cru, I believe that as Christians we need to find a good balance between thinking and action. Too much thinking can become negative and paralyzing, but action without attention to thinking can lead to waste and even disaster. So it is essential that we build in structured time within our organizations for thinking and reflection. As my responsibilities and roles in Spain continue to ramp up, I need to make a more and more concerted effort to spend time alone, just thinking.
In short, if you want to be a good leader, make time to think, and help others also think and express their ideas.