by Jon Weatherly
Leaders plan. Leaders write and revise and execute and evaluate plans. Leaders plan planning retreats.
Elders are leaders; therefore, elders plan.
Today, all of humanity, including the church, is about a half year into the COVID-19 pandemic. All our plans have been ground to dust by a microscopic strand of RNA.
The Letter of James says some pointed things about planning:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13–15).
There was a time when I read those words and thought, “That has to do with selfish planning about getting rich. It has nothing to do with other kinds of planning, not church planning, not my planning.” Well, amid COVID-19, I’m revising that understanding.
James cautions us about our plans because we humans are terrible knowers of the future. With hindsight we love to take credit for knowing things in advance, but the truth is, we’re just educated guessers who sometimes guess right and conveniently forget our wrong guesses.
God, on the other hand, is a perfect knower of the future. And God is a perfect promise-keeper about the future. That’s why James says we should say, “If it is the Lord’s will,” not as a pious formula but as a confession of our weakness and our utter reliance on the Lord. James was simply applying Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:31–34:
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Our ignorance of the future should not paralyze us. It should direct us to trust the God who knows the future and cares for us so much that he sent his Son to die for us.
This tells us something about our planning, something more constructive than “stop planning.” We cannot project the future accurately, though we can make reasonable guesses about parts of it. But we can not only trust God but work to enhance the capacities of the Lord’s church to trust God under any circumstances. James begins his letter by telling suffering Christians to count their suffering as joy because it produces perseverance and maturity (James 1:2–3). Moments when hardship grinds our plans to dust remind us that the Christian life and Christian leadership are about not being the best planner but becoming a persistently faithful, trusting follower and helping others become the same.
So at that next planning retreat, on the other side of the pandemic, let’s talk about the future, in full humility and as best we can. But let’s place ourselves in the Lord’s almighty hands and ask ourselves what we can do to grow up to persistent, mature faith and guide others to the same destination. It has a promising outcome: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).