I can remember once being told that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It was said tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly.
The premise for that maxim is that getting permission can be time-consuming and requires a degree of tact and diplomacy.

You also have to be adept at patiently explaining yourself, so it is easier to go ahead with your plans.

If you get it right, everyone will be happy. On the other hand, saying “sorry” if you get something wrong is relatively easy.

From an expediential point of view, I have some sympathy with that perspective. However, it is not a very gracious or inclusive approach and probably only works in the short term, especially in a church context.

You can only ask for forgiveness so many times before people start to question whether you are doing a good job.

We do need to trust those we have asked to lead us. For example, there’s no point in electing a government and then insisting that they hold a referendum on every issue.

But that trust needs to be earned, and it needs to be respected and not taken for granted.

To forge ahead without seeking to explain ourselves or without worrying about what other people think based on the understanding that we can always say “sorry” if we get it wrong is not very honorable.

It is often at the root of what causes a government to become unpopular. When people think that leaders have stopped listening to or caring about what the public thinks, their popularity will begin to decline.

In a church context, especially one with congregational governance in which the gathered church makes the big decisions, those in leadership should never allow themselves to take for granted the perspectives of others.

In Baptist churches, every opinion matters. In fact, I think they matter more if they differ from mine (or from the majority), as the interaction between differing opinions can have a refining affect, just as pebbles on a beach smooth each other out as they are rubbed against each other by the waves on the shore.

It is worth taking the time and trouble to fully explain decisions and proposals and then offer the opportunity for people to seek clarification or suggest alternatives.

It is worth asking for permission before taking action rather than asking for forgiveness afterward because God might have something important to say through others.

After all, people in church leadership are there to serve not to dominate or impose.

It may take longer, but it is better when making important but not urgent decisions to take the time to include as many people as possible in that process.

Of course, there has to be a balance between leadership, consultation and group decision-making.

There also has to be trust in the leadership and the tasks delegated to them, so that a large group is not micromanaging an organization.

We need to discern what decisions need to be made by the larger group and what details need to be delegated to the appropriate leader.

But if we are genuinely seeking to do that, we can attempt to do those tasks well with permission granted.

Then, if we make a mistake for which we must seek forgiveness, our request will be well received.

Nick Lear is one of the pastors of Colchester Baptist Church in Essex in the United Kingdom. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Nukelear Fishing, and is used with permission.

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