the shape of leadership

Challenging Your Assumptions

How to learn, unlearn and relearn

Every church leader approaches work and ministry with a set of assumptions. We have assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, assumptions about our philosophy of ministry, and assumptions that shape how we view the world and the church. Assumptions are a good thing … when they’re right. Unfortunately, they’re often not.

American writer, futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler once said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” That’s what’s so hard about challenging our assumptions — we’re afraid we might have to unlearn something we’ve believed for so long.

Please understand this: Assumptions can start off right but over time become irrelevant and obsolete. I’m not talking about theological doctrines but rather the beliefs we hold onto that shape how we do ministry, how we lead and how we process new ideas. We must be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Learning helps you chart a new course. Unlearning helps you raise the anchor. Learning reveals best practices. Unlearning removes the obstacles to implement them. Learning is the passport to relevance. Unlearning is the exit ramp from the highway of irrelevance. So, how do you challenge your assumptions? Consider these four practices as a starting place:

1. Conduct an assumptions audit. Gather your team around you, and brainstorm a list of your assumptions regarding why you do what you do. For example, what assumptions do you have about worship, evangelism, discipleship, kids ministry, youth ministry and spiritual formation? What you believe about these areas most certainly shapes how you deliver ministry.

For example, if one of your assumptions is that people grow best through church-wide training events, what outcomes can you point to that support your assumption? If you assume that everyone in your church (and community) has a similar background to yours, how can you get to know the stories of your congregation and community? Conduct surveys, do demographic research, and put your assumptions under the microscope. You might be surprised by your discoveries.

Operating with false assumptions can consume an enormous amount of time, money and energy, and yet produce very little fruit. Have the guts to conduct an assumptions audit, and then identify the areas where your assumptions are misguided, incomplete or false.

Unlearning is the exit ramp from the highway of irrelevance.

2. Recruit a new inner circle. Your inner circle might be your staff, leadership team or key influencers. You may not be able to get an entirely new inner circle, but you can certainly expand it with new blood. This will help you replace worn-out thinking with fresh perspective. If your current inner circle has fresh ideas, then start listening to them.

Proverbs 1:5 says, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” If you’re not willing to welcome feedback and allow others to challenge your ideas, the best team can’t help you.

3. Relate to a new outer circle. The people outside your church make up your outer circle. They might be denominational leaders, ministries or even ministry friends. We all have a list of people outside our church who we listen to the most.

However, if you want to challenge your assumptions, widen your outer circle to include fresh voices that can stretch your thinking and give you new insights and ideas. If you always drink from the same well, eventually you grow stagnant. Proverbs 23:12 says, “Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.”

4. Consider innovation over incrementalism. I love tinkering with strategies to constantly make them better. Tweaking how you do things can refine your ministry approach and improve your effectiveness. However, there are times in ministry when incremental tweaks are not enough. Sometimes you need an innovative overhaul.

When you challenge your assumptions, it leads you to a place of change — sometimes, radical change. If you’re unwilling to make changes, don’t bother challenging the assumptions that created how you currently do ministry.

In their Harvard Business Review article, “When Growth Stalls,” Matthew Olson, Derek van Bever and Seth Verry make an important observation about assumptions. After researching various companies, the authors observed, “One culprit in all our case studies was management’s failure to bring the underlying assumptions that drive company strategy into line with changes in the external environment — whether because of lack of awareness that the gap existed or was widening, or because of faulty prioritization.”

In other words, while numerous factors caused growth to stall in the companies the authors studied, the common denominator was their “underlying assumptions.” Here’s their most important finding: “When we examine individual case studies, we so often find that those assumptions the team has held the longest or the most deeply are the likeliest to be its undoing.”

What are your longest-held assumptions? Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe those are the very assumptions that are hindering your growth, ministry effectiveness or willingness to try something new? Just maybe the solution you’ve searched for is on the other side of your assumptions. Have the courage to challenge them, and then act on your new discoveries.


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