3 Leadership Cop Outs That Sound Spiritual, But Aren’t

I often hear from people who say “We don’t any need more ideas/strategies/conferences/skills…all we need to do is ________,” and then they fill in the blank with something that sounds spiritual.

Maybe you have people like that at your church, or someone like that on your team.

It’s amazing how common this perspective is.

You know the drill.  Every time you suggest “Why don’t we try reformatting our services/changing our kids ministry/reaching out into the community” they shoot back with “what we really need to do is just pray” (or “what we really need to do is get back to the Bible…”) as though that settled the discussion.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not other people who have the problem. Maybe you’ve fallen for a leadership cop-out too—dodging the real issue by putting a spiritual mask over it.

Can it be that something that sounds so spiritual can actually stop some very spiritual work?

Well, yes. The answer is yes. In the name of God, some people end up opposing the work of God. And it’s all done in the most holy-sounding way.

Here are three leadership cop-outs that sound spiritual, but aren’t.

1. All we need to do is pray about it

This sounds so good. After all, how can prayer be a BAD thing?

I mean how are you supposed to counter that? It puts you or anyone around you in a horribly awkward position.

If you disagree, you sound like you’re coming out against prayer.

If you agree, you’ve just mothballed any productive strategy conversations.

I mean who really wants to come out against prayer? Not me. Not you.

And so, not sure what to do, we shut down the leadership conversation and all the potential that comes with it.

Prayer alone can become a smokescreen. Why? Because while prayer is foundational, God almost always moves people to do something.

The walls of Jericho ultimately fell down because having heard from God, people obeyed God, marching around the city for a week, blasting trumpets and shouting.

The early church grew because Paul prayed day and night then got out on a boat, escaped from jail and kept preaching the Gospel even if it put his life in danger, which it did again and again.

Jesus prayed all night long and then went out from city to city encountering people in a way that changed their lives and the world.

All of this kind of sounds like strategy doesn’t it?

Interestingly enough, the scripture is filled with strategy if you look for it.

I haven’t become an atheist. I agree that the church needs more prayer and I believe all authentic, effective ministry is rooted in prayer.

But saying “All we need to do is pray” really misses how God works.

If all we needed to do was pray, we could lock ourselves in a closet and never come out. But I’m not sure that’s how God has moved historically.

What begins in prayer should end in some kind of action, because prayer without action lacks courage.

As Augustine said, pray as though everything depended on God; work as though everything depended on you.

2. We’re Just Being Faithful

I’ve seen too many leaders behave like faithfulness and effectiveness are mutually exclusive.

They’re not.

Just because you’re being effective doesn’t mean you’re being faithful, but just because you’re being faithful doesn’t mean you’ll be ineffective.

And yet time and again I’ve seen leaders use faithfulness to justify a lack of fruitfulness.

Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade.

No, you’re not being faithful. You’re being ineffective. (Enough said.)

3. Jesus Didn’t Have a Strategy

People often tell me “Jesus didn’t have a strategy.”

Actually, he did.

He needed one. The opposition to his ministry was so intense to approach it in a haphazard, poorly-thought-through way would have meant disaster.

Think about it.

He prepared for thirty years for a three-year mission. that’s a 10:1 preparation to accomplishment ratio. He spent ten years preparing for every year of ministry he did.

During his active ministry, Jesus would disappear again and again to pray. He knew his private input would need to exceed his public output.

Jesus intentionally organized his community of disciples into concentric circles of 70, 12, 3 and then 1. His prayer resulted in action…thoughtful action. He built a succession strategy directly into his ministry.

The night before he went to the cross, he talked to God all night in agony to prepare him for what was ahead. Do you know what that was? It was a strategy.

Leaders, a great strategy is a wonderful companion to a great prayer life.

And it’s not just Jesus who thought and acted strategically. God noticed that Moses had a bad leadership strategy that was ultimately going to wear out both him and the people. So God used Moses’ father-in-law (of all people) to give him a new strategy that required tremendous reorganization.

The early church continually rethought its strategy as the church grew and the mission expanded (see Acts 6Acts 13 and Acts 15 as examples).

Sometimes church people behave like strategy is the enemy.

It’s not. It has never been.

Strategy is not the enemy. Overly simplistic thinking is.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

So what’s the point?

Strategy should be a good word in the church. And it should be a good word in your church.

That means you should have the tough conversations.

You should surface disagreements (even pray through them).

You shouldn’t skirt tough issues.

It also means you need to lead.

Leadership requires your heart but it doesn’t stop there. It requires  your soul, your strength AND your mind.

So use your mind. And your strength. And your soul.

So Next Time

So next time someone interrupts the conversation and says “What we really need to do is pray”…what should you do?

I think you might agree…and say “I agree. We should pray.”

But then add.

“And after we pray, let’s get working on the most important issues facing us. The mission is just too important to ignore them.”

And when people say their’ being faithful, challenge them to be effective. When people say Jesus didn’t have a strategy, beg to differ and sharpen your strategy (prayerfully, of course).

Great prayer can and should lead to great action.

It’s time for the church to act. And to get the best strategy we can find to accomplish the mission God has given us.

Some Strategic Help

In the end, a prayerful strategy can be exactly what a church team needs.

I love producing resources that I hope will help with that.

If you want to drill down on why your church isn’t reaching new people, my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow covers the major reasons churches fail to reach new people. In the book, I outline 7 issues that keep churches from reaching their mission. You can get it here.

Plus I’ve created a Lasting Impact Team Edition video series that will help your leadership team discuss the book in a healthy way. You can get that here.

If your church is reaching new people but is stuck an attendance plateau (this is so common in growing churches), check out my Breaking 200 Without Breaking You course. It’s designed to lead you and your team through the barriers that keep growing churches from their true potential. While it addresses the #1 church growth barrier (200 weekend attenders), it has also helped hundreds of churches scale the 400, 500 and even 700 barrier. The principles are often the same.

Click here to learn more.

Both of these resources provide deeper help for leaders who want to move forward.

Anything Else?

Have you ever run into leaders who block action in a holy-sounding way?

Anything else you’ve said or heard others say that stunts your mission?

Scroll down and leave a comment!


  1. […] 3 Leadership Copouts that Sound Spiritual, But Aren’t by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  2. […] 3 Leadership Copouts that Sound Spiritual, But Aren’t by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  3. Sheila Beers on February 19, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    Yes, I have had a church full of women block a proposed child evangelism worker from coming to the church to conduct the vacation Bible school. Their “reason” that they would prefer to run a Vacation Bible School themselves instead of having someone from the outside (the niece of one couple in the church) come to the church to conduct the series. In the same breath, they claimed they were “too old and too tired” to handle VBS this year and “perhaps next year would be better.” As you well can imagine, the VBS and outreach to children never happened.

  4. Matthew Parr on February 19, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    I like your style and enjoy your articles. Sorry, but your use of “their'” for “they’re” . as in. “they are” detracts and distracts.

  5. Russ Baley on February 19, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks Carey I had this exact thing happen in our last leadership team meeting. This was more then fitting.

  6. J.K. Hamilton on February 19, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    This is great. I’ve honestly been on both sides of the fence. The “only pray” attitude only works if you want to “only stay” where you are. Great, great blog on the inevitable necessity for strategy to accommodate growth. I’m so glad that God led me to this blog via my wife. Bless God!!!

  7. Tony Broman on February 19, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    Great article. I wonder how many hours are logged in prayer vs strategy. I’m my 26 years of ministry I have seen a huge majority on the strategy side of the coin. The “bless us as we do … (what we think is right in our eyes)” approach to “prayer” is rampant in the westernized church. Strategy for sure but things seem grossly out of balance toward that option for years now.

  8. Mark Kohls on February 19, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    I’d love it if you would flesh out point 2 a bit more. Frankly, oftentimes faithfulness is all that I left in the tank while leaning into the processes of effectiveness since it is often more slow and a longer progression as well as more fickle in its fulfillment. It’s not an excuse (apathy), it’s more about the motivation – who am I doing this for? Or maybe I’m getting hung up on what you mean by “effectiveness”. Love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

  9. Norma Evans Barber on February 19, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    “What do we need to do?” Prayer without action might be the response of the leader who has a fear of confronting. So might the excuse of being faithful.

    However, I’d like to hear how to address a leader who calls a strategic meeting in which participants are asked to evaluate with transparency. A few days later, one of the participants was told that the leader would assume charge of that participant’s ministry and assign workers because of limitations the participant transparently expressed.

    Perhaps the underlying problem is the need to train leaders to be effective conflict managers, similar to the way corporations train. Neither “skirting tough issues” nor penalizing the outspoken makes for effectiveness in leadership.

    • Randy Baker on February 20, 2018 at 7:49 am

      One thing I believe is overlooked in leadership is understanding personality types of yourself and others. Before retirement, my employer used Jungian based “colors” team training that would identify personality types. Where I am currently pursing my Bachelor of Religious Education degree, I will be required to take the Birkman Assessment for similar purpose.

      People such as myself whose personality type is analytical can be in conflict with those personality types to react more from the gut. I have found those whose personality type is more emotional, push back at questions designed to draw out facts for discussion or analysis. When the individual does not recognize or accept my motivation for the question, I am often shut down and sometimes excluded for being a negatron.

      Conversely, before I took the “colors” team building training, I perceived some of my peers to be reckless in their actions, ill informed in general, and incapable of perceiving and understanding the big picture.

      What that training taught me is that I need the person who thinks through their “gut” to reduce the time I spend on analysis. On the other hand, the “gut thinker” needed me to be able to perceive and understand the interconnections within the big picture. With that understanding, the potential to reduce tension and conflict is reduced, and the ability to respect each other is improved. The number of mistakes made by either personality is reduced.

      I believe the problem that is growing in churches is the secular issue where if you don’t agree with me, I am not going to waste my time explaining it to you so deal with it. This works great to get like minded people together, but it seems to me at least, it does take away from how Paul speaks of the Body of Christ.

  10. Travis Henderson on February 19, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Great thought – and so true! I’ve heard those same arguments regularly. Usually when people are at a loss. I think there must be a healthy balance – as you said, “prayerful strategy” – they must go hand-in-hand.
    On that note I think you reversed the quote from Augustine. You typed, “Pray as though everything depended on you, work as though everything depended on God.” I think the quote is the other way around. “Pray as though everything depended on God, work as though everything depended on you.”

  11. Jill Wilson on February 19, 2018 at 11:47 am

    We hear some people say that organization and startegy is not allowing the Holy Spirit to lead. That seems a hard thing to combat as well as “let’s just pray about it”.

  12. Brian Prigge on February 19, 2018 at 11:13 am

    These things are difficult for most people as most people are not leaders, so to speak.
    I believe a right attitude is to open the time together in prayer asking for guiding, wisdom, open ears and for the Lord to be glorified.

    Then the one leading the meeting ought to try to guide he meeting in a way as to illustrate the problems.

    Next, as ways to address the issues come out, they should be identified, described and discussed.

    After that, perhaps a course of action may seem plain, and it may not. If it is plain, a course of action can be drafted and implementation measures and monitoring measures, (if needed) are defined and ascribed.

    If a course is not plain then the course is plain, prayer for the same.
    Meanwhile, the cause for the lack of a plain path must be prayerfully examined.

    Sometimes he problem is not the problem. Sometimes the problem is only a tool that God is going to use for one or many to grow.

  13. Jeff Keady on February 19, 2018 at 11:11 am

    Jesus also strategized using a boat as a platform to speak to many people on shore, and had the 5K people sit down in groups of fifties and hundreds, and sent people out two by two with a strategy of who to reach with their message, and what to do if it was rejected… to name just a few of the many more!

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