Stay Away from the Ministry Casino

Risk is usually called, “stepping out on faith,” in church. That’s a shame, because they aren’t the same thing. There is such a thing as stepping out on faith. It’s just not the same as taking faith-based risks that make common sense. For instance, “stepping out on faith” might mean a church aspires to a particular goal or vision God has for them that will require stretching and perhaps some risk. There has been a season of spiritual discernment, and such decisions usually take time to make.

Much of ministry doesn’t allow you the time to make long, prayerful decisions. This is why its important to walk in the Spirit at all times, and have a heart devoted to Christ before it’s time to make key decisions. In a perfect world, you could always take a month to pray about things. Often, you’ll get five minutes or less. Most decisions will take some time in between, and the decisions we make regarding risk will play a large role in the church’s future. We must make wise decisions regarding risk. This doesn’t mean not to take risk. I’m actually suggesting the opposite. We should step out on faith and take risk. However…

There’s stepping out on faith.

There’s taking a faith-based risk based on data and/or common sense.

Then, there’s gambling.

The ministry casino is where churches lose their shirts and leaders lose their jobs. It’s a place where the lingo is spiritual, but the agenda is really human. Most of the time, ego or greed brings us through the casino doors. Sometimes, it’s desperation. The ministry casino is, for instance, where we might set budgets for the upcoming year that have absolutely no root in reality, and then call it “stepping out on faith.” I once consulted a church that had a decline of 15% in offerings the year before who set a budget increase of 30% for the following year. They had been in decline for nearly five years, and had no ministry plan to turn things around. They called it, “stepping out on faith.” It was really more like, “stepping out to spend more money than we know we are likely to have.”

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am a big fan of challenging people to generosity. Church finance is dynamic, and trusting God to bring resources to further a vision He’s given you is the right thing to do. However, there is always a line between being wise with vision and wagering your vision at the ministry casino. I’m reminded of a quote from Jim Collins in his fantastic book, Great by Choice: “The only mistakes you learn from are the ones you survive.”

True enough.

Here are 11 ways to gauge whether we are stepping out on faith, taking faith-based risk based on data and/or commons sense, or gambling. There are more than these. Consider this a sampler, and have an answer to at least seven out of ten of these before you make a major decision or budget change.

1. Ask, “Where did this idea actually come from?” Sometimes it’s God. Sometimes it’s through a person or a group of angry people. Sometimes, no one really knows.

2. Be honest about how much time you have to make a decision. Anxiety is the father of many bad decisions. Give yourself an appropriate amount of time. If leadership is healthy, good decisions can be made rather quickly. Reactive leaderships tend to make decisions in inappropriate amounts of time — too quickly, or too slowly. Just be honest about it, and try to make the decision in the appropriate time frame.

3. Envision yourself sharing this with the church. Are you excited to do it, or worried about it? This may tell you something about both the decision itself–and even moreso–the health and culture of your church.

4. Ask yourself if you had to defend it from the pulpit, could you? Could you do it and even look forward to it? The odds are, you will have to. So, “be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within you” 🙂

5. Can you articulate in a sentence or two how this will help reach lost people or grow people into Christ’s likeness in a substantive way? If you can’t, it’s probably not worth doing. Or, if it is–you’ll be must better off clarifying the decision’s intent before making it.

6. Ask, “If we don’t do this, what is likely to happen?” Is what you’re considering actually catalytic in some way?

7. How bad could this be if it fails miserably?

8. Why do we think this is going to succeed?

9. What EXACTLY is the plan to pay for this, staff this (volunteer or paid staff), and continue to maintain/improve this? Don’t just say, “we’ll get giving to go up.” HOW? Don’t just say, “We’ll trust God for it.” WHY? Are there people you are willing to ask…cuts you are willing to make…a message series you are willing to preach…what.

10. If this succeeds, what good is this going to do to advance the Kingdom?

11. Do I have the energy to invest twice as much energy as I think I’m going to? Big ideas take big energy. Sometimes, the reason they run out of steam is because we do.

A couple of last things: my experience is most people in most churches would highly prefer leaders who step out on faith legitimately to those who try to hoard resources. God’s people have God’s Spirit in them, which is not a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). It stinks to give week after week with no sense of movement.

In addition, people love to give to worthwhile things. The ten questions above are meant to vet our ideas for their “worthwhileness.” They also force us to engage our brains, in addition to our hearts and imaginations.

Stepping out on faith is a legitimate part of the Christian journey and something every church should do. However, we need not put our vision in God’s mouth. Let’s make sure it’s really faith we’re stepping out on. When we do, God honors it. I believe he also honors those who obey the words of His Son and count the cost of the tower before we begin.

What else might you add or take away?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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