3 Spiritual Phrases Christian Leaders Should Stop Saying

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.

In the name of God, some people end up opposing the work of God. Click To Tweet

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.

Prayer without action lacks courage. Click To Tweet

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.

Too many leaders use faithfulness to justify a lack of fruitfulness. Click To Tweet

Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade.

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

Sometimes, church leaders, you're not being faithful. You're being ineffective. Click To Tweet

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.

Great strategy is a wonderful companion to a great prayer life. Click To Tweet

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.

Strategy isn't your enemy. Overly simplistic thinking is. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

Great prayer can and should lead to great action. Click To Tweet

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!

3 Spiritual Phrases Christian Leaders Should Stop Saying

31 Comments

  1. Lee Thompson on January 25, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    Minor issue, but you commit three sentences to this point, so thought I’d bring it up. I don’t think that it’s completely accurate to say that Jesus “prepared for thirty years for a three-year mission.” If we take his age at death as 33 +/-, then you’d be saying that he was intentionally preparing for a three-year ministry from the time he was a toddler. He *probably* was not being intentional about his future ministry between the ages of 0 and twelve, and while the things he was learning as a child and as a teen were probably preparing *him* for ministry, we have no evidence that he was intentionally preparing and — to use your word — building “strategy” for the ministry he would have as an adult during his teen years. It might have been the case, but no evidence to suggest it. It could be argued that Jesus had no strategy at all: Jesus himself told us that He “can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees [present tense] his Father doing [present tense], because whatever the Father does the Son also does… By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear,” This kinda-sorta gives the impression that much of what Jesus decided to do, including his ministry strategy, was moment-by-moment, as the Father revealed it to him, necessitating a persistent dependence upon the Father’s voice.
    Anyways, like I said, a very minor point. Always love your posts/pods.

  2. Zach W. Lorton on January 25, 2021 at 11:06 am

    Unsure what you mean by #2. I’m a semantics guy, so it could be my head playing tricks on me, though. Does that phrase “we’re just being faithful” translate to “we’re relying on our faith that God will do something for us instead of acting in accordance with what we know His word says”?

  3. Genevieve on January 25, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Great post. God gives us our reason to use for His glory as well as what He might directly tell us. Definitely we need to ‘test the spirits’ with new things, but often part of that testing is trying it out. I’ve often seen and heard such spiritual comments trying to block what is often the authentic work of the Spirit. One thing that I think can be helpful if it’s in a meeting setting is acknowledging that yes, we have to pray about it and offering something like, “Let’s look at our options, the possibilities for going forward, pros and cons [or whatever else might be important for the proposed change/new initiative/etc], and we’ll all pray about it over the coming week (or month, etc) and see where we’re at.” It both stops the spiritualist comment from being a block to planning, but does invite the Holy Spirit in to further guide our thinking and the development of the proposed change. It might not be possible all the time, and might slow the process a bit, but I think it can end up resulting in greater buy-in as well.

    I generally follow St. Ignatius’ principles for discernment, they acknowledge very well the unity of our faculties and that God wants us to sometimes rely on our reason more times than others in our decision-making.

  4. Nancy on January 24, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for an excellent post! I would love to see a similar one titled “Three Phrases Christian Managers Should Stop Saying” when they try to avoid constructive criticism of under-performing staff.

    Here’s my top 3:
    1) “That’s just not their gifting.”
    2) “We have to look for the best in everyone.”
    3) “Let’s not be critical.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:15 am

      Some real truth right there. 🙂

  5. Sean Howard on January 24, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    One of my favourite verses in all of Scripture is Nehemiah 4:9. When facing opposition from a number of sources, this is the approach they took: “We prayed to our God and we posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” It’s not either/or. Has to be both/and. Thanks Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:15 am

      Such a great point Sean!

  6. Rose on January 24, 2021 at 11:32 am

    What an excellent post; as a congregation board member who is now discouraged and about to quit, this post talks to my mind and soul.
    If only there was a french version of this to share with my dying church!
    In wonder if it could be translated and shared, Mr Nieuwhof?
    Many thanks for your teaching. May God multiply his blessings on your ministry

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:16 am

      Rose…wonderful to hear from you but sad about the circumstances. There are many web based free translation services that night do this for you if you cut and paste the post. Just an idea.

    • FionaG on January 25, 2021 at 4:12 pm

      Some really helpful elements to this post. Thank you. When these 3 things are said as excuses for inaction, or ineffective action, I’m right with you. However, I’m always wary when activists put prayer in lists like this, because the one problem I don’t believe the church in the West has right now is that it is praying too much. Quite the opposite, which explains a lot.

  7. Wayne Crawford on January 24, 2021 at 11:09 am

    Jesus gave us the examples we need to connect to the strategy (plans) of his heavenly father. Yes he told them in fact that his authority came from his obedience to do what he was told to do. Although as a human being letting go and getting past his own self centered flesh, he had to spend the disciplined time, in prayer required to receive the will and authority required to do the will of the Father!

    • Sharon Yancey on January 25, 2021 at 7:32 am

      Thank you! Needed to hear that today.
      100% agree that this is the way forward.
      Obedience and prayer to have the courage to do it. Should be the field manual for every ministry leader leading innovative /everyday ministries and the headwinds that come with it.

  8. Moses mbuga on January 24, 2021 at 10:24 am

    Dear Carey,
    God has called you to shape the leaders of the end time. Your lesson to pray and strategy has removed the mask from me and has encouraged me not to allow this religious spirit to keep me down.
    Much prayers that God will give you more leadership lessons to open our eyes and expand the work of God by acting on our prayers.
    Many thanks,
    Moses

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:17 am

      Thanks Moses!

  9. Samson Moraba on January 24, 2021 at 10:23 am

    Thank you very much for contextualising the 3 often made statements or excuses, in the work of God.

  10. Andrew on January 24, 2021 at 10:22 am

    Quite great information, insights. Experienced some of this serving in a Christian organization. Very frustrating and discouraging to some moment in a meeting.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:17 am

      It certainly is discouraging, but it sounds spiritual.

  11. Pastor Obed Ochwanyi on January 24, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Good piece, especially for us here in Africa where everybody thinks they are holier than everybody else.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:17 am

      I did not know that. Sounds like some Canadian/US churches I’ve been to. People are people, right Obed?

  12. John on January 24, 2021 at 9:43 am

    I am not a pastor, I am Chairperson of our church Council. I have read many of Carey’s posts (and usually the comments) with an open mind and heart to the message being sent. This particular post struck me with it’s very thoughtful and pragmatic approach. Perhaps it struck a nerve because I have been in some tough meetings with many people when someone threw in the “all we need to do is pray about it” comment and it shut down the meeting. I love the reference to prayer and strategy, the way Jesus did. Thank you Carey for this most helpful information as our church denomination struggles with some difficult issues and a good strategy will be needed. God bless you and your work!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:19 am

      Thanks so much John. I would normally say something like “We definitely need to pray about it. We also need to act. So what are we going to do?” Or “Sure, let’s pray about it for five days and return and make a firm decision.” Just moves us forward.

      • Robert Stocker on January 25, 2021 at 8:26 pm

        Carey, I was thinking the same type of answer to “all we need to do is pray” response. My thought was “An excellent idea, let’s pray about it, and then next Sunday let’s meet again and get our action plan written down so that we can get started. This is too important to not have prayer and an action plan to move us forward.” I’m facing several issues as a new pastor at my first church that this article is going to become a great source for me to review many times.

  13. J.D. Partain on January 24, 2021 at 8:55 am

    As a visionary pastor who is also an activator, I’ve heard everything you’ve described (how I wish you had been able to post this 15 years ago!) and I feel the common thread is simply this: movement creates discomfort. Religious people tend to bring themselves comfort through escape – and the leveraging of spiritual concepts (there is truth in #1 and #2), provides the means of escape. Naturally, this cripples the movement. THANK YOU for this post!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:20 am

      Thanks so much J.D. Wish I’d known it 15 years ago. Was still figuring it out.

  14. David Faulkner on January 24, 2021 at 5:06 am

    The ‘being faithful’ one is the one I’ve heard the most often. And there is truth in it, if it means ‘We’ve heard the voice of God and we’re obeying, whether it’s popular or not.’ But more commonly I’ve heard it in the context described by one conference speaker I heard many years ago. ‘People will say to me, ‘Mrs Smith is faithful,’ when all they mean is she comes every week. That’s not being faithful, that’s just being regular.’

    • Wayne on January 24, 2021 at 8:15 am

      Good comment on another good post by Carey. There are lots of spiritual-sounding excuses for either poor planing or laziness. More often I think being fearful and/or ill-equipped is involved in inaction. Strategy is so important to Kingdom thinking, that’s what the Great Commission is about. On balance, I must admit that God has blown up a few of my strategic plans because I didn’t pray before I planned or acted. It seems presumptuous to ask God to “bless what we’re doing” if we not doing what He’s blessing. Prayer and planning are inseparable spirit partners.

    • Grant Wilson on January 25, 2021 at 12:14 am

      It’s interesting that in the parable of the talents, the one-talent servant was completely faithful with the one talent entrusted to him. He didn’t spend it, he didn’t gamble it away, he kept it completely safe and secure for his master. Totally faithful. However, the master was looking for him to also be fruitful, not just faithful. Maybe there’s something in that for all of us?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 25, 2021 at 6:20 am

      Ha ha ha ha. 🙂

  15. Kabugo E Hope on March 6, 2020 at 1:21 am

    Thanks for the wonderful message

  16. Katie on March 2, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    I have a music leader who regularly tells me that the Lord will ensure we do a good job on the day – which sounds a lot like ‘it doesn’t matter that we haven’t practiced enough and keep missing the opening/transition/syncopation etc.’ I’ve realised that yes, it does mean that, so I keep modelling and teaching that we trust the Lord will help us on the day, but also honour Him by practicing ’til the whole team is confident of the songs; but I’ve also realised that in his particular case it comes from a lack of confidence in his own ability – it’s a security blanket that helps him stand up in front of people, carrying many years of self doubt and discouragement. So I’m more gentle about it now than I was to begin with.

  17. Paul Millar on March 2, 2020 at 9:42 am

    I appreciate this post and have been in that situation where you feel trapped and the call to prayer feels uniformed, and leads to frustration and awkwardness. What I do appreciate is those people around the table who have such a discerning and listening spirit that they truly know when we need to pause, pray and listen. Those are the people we all need (!) and there is a difference between the two.

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