Lead When You Don’t Have All the Answers!

by Judah Smith

On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with people and listened as they described in detail how their lives are falling apart around them. As the tragedies unfold, I start to get depressed because honestly, I don’t see a way out. 

The stories typically end with them asking me, “So—what should I do now?” Then comes an awkward silence, while inside I’m thinking, I have no idea! It’s at these moments that I have to remind myself that being a leader does not mean having all the answers. As a matter of fact, the people I’m talking to don’t need all the answers. They need Jesus. They need to learn to depend on him and walk with him one day at a time. My identity as a leader doesn’t depend on having every detail of every person’s life figured out. 

Proverbs 16:9 NKJV says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” As leaders, we will be tempted to try to make sense of people’s past, present, and future. It is imperative that we resist this temptation, trust God to be God, and simply lead people one step at a time. Genesis 1:1 might be the most significant theological declaration in the Bible: “In the beginning God…” This verse tells us not just that God is the Creator, but that God is first. He is preeminent. He is the beginning.

People, plans, and problems aren’t first—God is. He is where we begin. He is where we go first. He is our continual theme.

Sometimes people ask me what my ten-year plan is for our church. I don’t have a ten-year plan. I feel pretty good about myself if I have a ten-week plan, actually. Just thinking about a ten-year plan is enough to stress me out.  Maybe part of that is my personality, but I’ve also noticed that our culture tends to elevate plans and vision to an unhealthy place. Leaders are expected to have plans; so many times we concoct something in our own logic and understanding, even if God is not necessarily in those plans. I know I’ve done that—beyond doubt. 

There is something about making plans that makes us feel in control and secure. And when we fulfill those plans, we feel good about ourselves, so our plans become wrapped up in our identity and self-esteem. Maybe that’s why it can be so hard to relax, trust God, and live one day at a time. 

Don’t get me wrong—I have friends and staff members and a spouse who are far better at planning than I am, and I love that about them. I need their foresight and sequential way of thinking. But they are the first to say that plans have to be held with an open hand, because ultimately it is God who establishes and directs our steps, and He doesn’t always let us in on what he has in store. 

How can we be Proverbs 16:9 leaders? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Lead from today, not yesterday or tomorrow.

Don’t lead from grief for yesterday or fear for tomorrow, but from faith for today. Sometimes that’s a challenge because we know what happened yesterday, and it still ticks us off since that’s why we are facing problems today. But God, who is outside of time and space, calls us to face our present uninhibited by the past or future.

Think about it—God didn’t create the structure of weeks and days for himself. He doesn’t need nights or weekends or days off. He architected this daily rhythm for us. We are finite creatures who need to take life in bite-size pieces. 

When do we get overwhelmed? Not when we are considering the pressures of today, but when we obsess over a week, or a month, or a year, or a lifetime. We weren’t built to process past, present, and future all at once. That’s God’s job and he is really good at it. Our task is simply to face today with the grace and faith and confidence that God gives us. Jesus himself said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).

We have to be people that let go of yesterday and refuse to try to control tomorrow.  I’m convinced if we live in the day we are in, we’ll be more cheerful, have more friends, have a healthier marriage, and be less wrinkled and better looking. Who wouldn’t want that?

2. Lead with a sense and expectation of God’s power.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s strength is made perfect through our weakness. Our human limitations are never more apparent than in our inability to see or control the future. We can guess, we can estimate, and we can predict, but ultimately we have no guarantee that tomorrow will even come, much less obediently submit to our plans for it. 

Lead with the assumption that God is directing our steps and will do great things on our behalf. Be leaders that always lean on God. Be constantly aware that if God doesn’t lead, our leadership fails. If our leadership prowess is so phenomenal that we don’t need God, something is wrong. Remember, God didn’t pick us to be leaders because we always know where we are going or what we need to do. He picked us because he trusts us to follow him.

3. Lead with dependence and reproduce it in others

If we depend on God, we will reproduce people who depend on God. That’s far healthier and more sustainable than creating a culture where everyone depends on us because we have all the answers. No one knows everything, and people instinctively know not to trust people that act like they do.

I heard a pastor friend say recently that one of the moments that most impacted him in Bible college was when a student asked a theological question and the teacher replied, “I don’t know.” My friend had four years of revelation, instruction, and deep biblical principles, and the thing he remembers most is a teacher admitting he didn’t know all the answers. For some reason, that is really encouraging to me!

I have a friend who is new to Christianity, and every day we send each other a short summary of what we are thinking and praying about. I decided from the beginning to send him my honest, raw, gut-level applications and prayers (as opposed to the sanitized, “I’m a pastor who has it all together” version). To be honest, I think my weaknesses and needs have helped him more than my amazing revelations. That’s okay—like John the Baptist, our role is to point people to Jesus, not to ourselves.

4. Lead with empathy more than answers.

I recently spent an hour texting back and forth with someone whose world was crashing down around him. He was in a situation where he couldn’t talk, but his texts were more than enough to show how desperate he was. Most of my responses were things like, “Man, I’m sorry. I love you. I’m praying for you.” It wasn’t the time for answers and I didn’t have them anyway.

I think sometimes the answers we give are more for ourselves than for the people listening to us. Leaders are supposed to have answers, so if we can come up with a wise-sounding answer, then we are good leaders. Having an answer makes us feel better about ourselves. I’m sure you don’t need me to point out how backward that way of thinking is—yet I know I’ve done it.

Answers are easier to give than empathy, because answers can come from the intellect while empathy must come from the heart. People need us to focus on this moment, on right now, on where they are, and to just lead them to the next step. We aren’t in a hurry. We aren’t overwhelmed. We definitely don’t have all the answers. We just love them and are willing to weep with them, to laugh with them, to live with them. 

catalystleader.com/read/what-if-you-dont-have-all-the-answers Used by permission of Catalyst.

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