When a leadership team faces a dilemma, “What did we do last time?” is a question that tends to pop up. The assumption is that past precedents help you make the right decision now.
While this is true, it’s not true as often as leaders expect.
Here are five reasons why arguing from precedent might lead your ministry in the wrong direction.
1. You’re a different ministry now
If you always repeat the decisions you made in the past, you will stay stuck in the past. Lots of changes take place as the years pass. Your church or ministry develops and matures (at least hopefully). You grow as a leader.
As a mom and dad grow as parents, they make different decisions from child to child. They do this because their family has different needs and capacities than it did with no kids, or just one.
In the same way, leaders should make different decisions based on where the church is now and based on how they’ve developed as leaders.
2. This is a different decision
Despite how much the circumstances of your current decision overlap with a past decision, just one difference could change everything.
To continue the example from parenting, it would be foolish to make the same parenting decisions with each child, because each child is different. The amount of freedom you give, the way you discipline, and the way you encourage changes from child to child.
The same is true in church life. The amount of patience you show while exercising church discipline – even for the same sin – may look different based on how the member responds, or how far down the road of sin he has traveled.
3. The pride factor
Sometimes you have to break precedent because you made the wrong decision in the past.
Instead of saving face, cut your losses and move on. Apologize to those who require apologies, and make a different decision this time.
4. People pleasing
One of the reasons it is so tempting to base a leadership decision on precedent is that it gives the leader an easy answer for those who question the decision. This is leading out fear of man, not God.
Allow me to belabor the parenting example one more time.
Say you have two daughters, one thirteen and one sixteen. The thirteen year old expects permission to start wearing makeup because that’s when her older sister was allowed to. But older sis applies makeup in a modest, understated way, while little sis has dreams of all the popular boys asking her out to homecoming.
For her own good, your younger daughter needs you to hold off permission. She needs you to break precedent.
(This won’t make her happy.)
The same principle applies to how you deal with different ministries and programs in your church. Some need to be shut down, others drastically changed, and others are doing just fine, thank you very much.
If you want to please every ministry, you’ll have to make every decision based on the precedent you set by permitting some ministries to continue.
But if you do this, you won’t be leading.
5. Scripture is the standard, not your previous decision
Ultimately, the reason not to base decisions on precedent is because precedent is not what God will hold you accountable to.
People in your church might hold you accountable to precedent, but on the last day, the only standard that will matter is the Bible.
So make your decisions based on how the Scriptures guide you. Pray for wisdom and discernment. Pray for soft hearts for those who will not like the direction in which you lead.