Balancing priorities: when both/and is simply not practicable

Dave Williams has posted an interesting article regarding the use of church resources. You can read his post here.

Dave is seeking to address the question of balancing competing priorities. In brief, he makes a case for a both/and approach rather than either/or. That is, he suggests we ought not to say we need X, Y and Z and therefore must prioritise which is most important; we should say we need X, Y and Z and all are equally important. Instead of prioritising one over another such that we determine where to place our resources, he suggests we ought to allow circumstance and providence to dictate which we go after whilst hoping to get them all at some point.

There are certain circumstances in which a both/and scenario would work. I know of more than a few healthy, well-resourced churches with not a little bit money swilling around in their coffers. Such churches, when presented with a choice between a building extension, a women’s worker, youth minister, full-time outsourced cleaning services and an official ‘flower arranger’ for the meeting hall, would have no real problem making them all happen. They simply have the resources to throw at all of these things at once.

However, for most, resources are limited and they must be put to best use. We might have enough for an extension but it would mean we can’t afford another worker. Alternatively, we might be able to afford an assistant minister but it would mean we couldn’t take on a youth worker. It’s very nice saying, ‘all these things are important’ and that we’ll just appoint ‘whichever becomes available first’ but that is not always practicable.

In fact, if we take that approach I’m going to suggest we’ll run into the problems. It would lock us into employing the full-time cleaner that somebody thinks vital to free the church for evangelism because they were available before other gospel workers we deemed necessary. An on-site janitor might be very nice – possibly even helpful – but it is a luxury purchase, not an essential one. To take Dave’s football analogy, it would be like buying a forward – albeit a great one – when you already have 3 or 4 decent strikers whilst neglecting your defence that is currently conceding goals for fun.

I’m also not convinced Dave’s reasoning stands up to scrutiny. His football manager analogy doesn’t translate because, even in a football team, the question of priority arises. A manager does not simply say, ‘we need a goalkeeper and a forward; let’s get both’. He typically says, we have X amount of money and can afford either a goalkeeper or a forward. He, therefore, has to prioritise which he will get and make use of the youth academy until he’s in a position to get the other. Nor does he simply sit and wait to see who is available, he sends scouts out and actively begins looking for whichever position he has chosen to prioritise.

In the same way, whilst we may think it highly important to have an assistant pastor, youth worker, women’s minister or whatever; unless we are an excessively wealthy church capable of employing several staff members, we inevitably have to prioritise. We may – like the football manager – say, we would like all these positions filling. However, unless we are Man Utd or Chelsea, we’ve got to accept that our limited resources mean we have to decide which of these positions are a priority for us right now.

Obviously, I can’t (and wouldn’t) speak to Dave’s particular experience. It is notoriously difficult to address experiential, anecdotal evidence. However, it does appear that the second reason undercuts Dave’s own argument. He states, ‘we set out with a three pronged strategy’. By definition, beginning with a strategy means that we are prioritising some stuff over other things.

For example, if we have the vision to see gospel messages written in flower beds on every roundabout in our area, we might pour our resources into a full-time flower arranger and the purchase of lot of plants (I desperately hope that isn’t anyone’s mission strategy for their church, by the way). If, however, we are mainly concerned with people being won to Christ through relationship and public witness, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the full-time flower arranger might be something of a waste of money.

The question isn’t, ‘what became available first?’ and nor is it the more valuable but still lacking, ‘does this serve our vision?’ The real question is, ‘does this serve our gospel strategy most effectively of all the options available to us?’ The question is not one of availability, or even inherent value, but of greatest value and priority. We cannot assess what is of greatest value unless we know what we are trying to achieve. Does this serve our mission and does it add more value than anything else we could do now or in the near future with the resources we currently have? That is the question.

Similarly, Dave’s third reason ties in here. He’s quite right that it is annoying when people suggest something will stop us doing something else that was never viable in the first place. However, I don’t think the answer to that is to affirm people in their stupid suggestions. The answer is to explain why the suggestion isn’t viable and, therefore, why our proposal is not the thing stopping the unworkable project they are currently pushing. Arguing that ‘they’re all important’ strikes me as a bit dishonest if we think the suggestion is ridiculous (pastor, the Lord has laid it on my heart to run a yearly asparagus blessing to reach the local Wiccan society) or unworkable (our membership of 3 people should be opening the church every evening to house and feed every homeless person in the borough).

If, as Dave suggests, what lies behind such suggestions can be a ‘politeness’ which doesn’t want to disagree with us (for which I read lying or – at best – cowardice), rather than affirming that their alternative project is ‘just as important’, shouldn’t we try and delve into (a) their commitment to it and (b) why we are making our particular proposal? At some point, somebody has to make the value judgement that something is, or is not, worth pouring our limited resources into. Sometimes, the answer will be that the suggestion is not worth spending money on. Other times, the answer will be that the suggestion is credible – even worthwhile and helpful – but not the most useful at the current time. Maybe the suggestion would bring the greatest gospel value for the resources we have available and we can say ‘yes’. Whatever the case, it should be assessed by gospel priority, not simply availability of something that might otherwise be good.

But what if we are dealing with two genuine priorities, as opposed to silly suggestions? I still don’t think the answer is simply, ‘do both’. Our lack of resource won’t allow that and we might be foolish to pump money into a building extension at the expense of adequately discipling the people in our church. That’s not to say a building extension is wrong or unhelpful, it is to say it may not be the pressing priority. Conversely, we might be so full and in desperate need of extra space – and feel as an eldership we are across the pastoral matters in the church – that an extension makes more sense than an assistant pastor. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong but I am saying that the decision must be driven by the priorities we have set as an eldership not simply a both-are-important-and-we’ll-do-whatever-comes-up-first approach.

It is possible to have a gospel vision and come to different conclusions on what the priority is in our particular context. Nonetheless, both/and is really nice but is not always practicable. At some point, we’ve got to decide which we will go after. It would be my contention that we prioritise what we go after based on gospel concern, not just what happens to be available when we start looking. If we’re going to be proactive, we need to proactively look according to our biggest and most pressing gospel priorities, not just whatever good thing happens to be available at the time.

*Update: Dave has left a clarifying comment in the comment section.

4 comments

  1. Hi Stephen thanks for the response. A couple of corrections and clarifications. 1. As per follow on posts ( and reading me in context) I am writing in the context of a strongly intentional approach where we clearly know what direction we are going in. That means someone thinking strategically has also done the what if analysis and knows that there is more than one route from a to b. All the intentional stuff of looking searching out, using the youth academy etc is part of that so I am not advocating a relax and let circumstances direct your strategy in fact the opposite I’m saying don’t let circumstances or someone’s daft idea dictate the strategy. Set the strategy be clear about it and then act in line with circumstances. Oh and yes if someone has the daft idea you are never going to do … exactly – tell them!

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  2. I never cease to be surprised that some ‘priorities’ set by churches for throwing their money at include things never seen in Scripture, such as ‘youth workers’ and ‘music leaders’.

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  3. Whether those things ought to be priorities or not, I suppose, is for individual churches to make in light of their own context. But I think you’ll struggle to read the Psalms and maintain music leaders are ‘never seen in Scripture’. And, what was Eli to Samuel if not a youth worker? If that is not compelling (which, to be honest, it isn’t), there is plenty in scripture about training up young people, of which the OT Jews did a pretty good line. There is no scriptural reason not to appoint someone to help dedicate themselves to that task if you think it would be the most valuable use of your resources in your particular context.

    What is more, some would argue pastors (as we often understand them) are not to be found in scripture either and thus we should do without them. I don’t quite agree with the charge but it is as superficially true as the point you seem to be making.

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