Recently, I was meeting with a young minister who is beginning his second year in his current ministry. We were reflecting on the whirlwind of his first year. Through the course of the year, he responded and reacted to the different voices, expectations, traditions, and possibilities that he both inherited from and brought into his context. It was a rich year of learning. At the same time, it was an exhausting and directionless year. Nevertheless, the young man spoke with great enthusiasm about his anticipation for year two. He felt that he finally had some clarity about the ministry’s direction and some good ideas for how to begin moving in that direction. He commented, “It feels good to be moving forward on one front.”
As we processed year one and prepared for year two, my mind kept returning to his statement. It reminded me of the classic strategy game Risk, a board game in which players tactically work to take possession of territories in an effort to take control of the entire board. The game’s strategies became a powerful metaphor in our conversation. Not only did they capture many of his experiences, they also offered some helpful principles for his future success in leading through change.
Risk is one of the most popular board games of all time and a personal favorite. It is the perfect blend of strategy, skill, chance, and interpersonal relationships. Allies and enemies are just as important as cavalry, cannons, and lucky dice. If you’ve ever played Risk, you know that it can take a long time to finish a game (world domination doesn’t come quickly, of course). Although it is possible to lose the game in less than an hour, winning the game requires a slow, patient, deliberate process replete with calculated moves and a bit of good fortune.
The Risk-y Business of Change Leadership
Every ministry leader experiences seasons of change leadership (for those unfamiliar with the term, this article in Forbes provides a helpful explanation). In some cases, this leader will have a vision for a new future in which he is leading the rest of the community to participate. In other cases, a leader is responding to the community’s transition into a new future and does not want to be left behind. In either case, leading through change is not easy. As with the game of Risk, change leadership is a slow, patient, deliberate process replete with calculated moves and a bit of good fortune. There are allies. There are enemies. The only things missing are the little plastic figurines.
1. Honestly assess your strengths and circumstances before you come up with a plan
At the beginning of the game, every player has pieces scattered across the board. While it’s helpful right away to employ some strategies and a general idea of what works, it’s just as important to honestly assess your strengths and determine the difference between pipedreams and possibilities. What worked in the past or what works somewhere else won’t necessarily work in your situation. You have to customize your action plan to best leverage your strengths and lean into real possibilities.
2. Concentrate your resources
Fighting on multiple fronts is exhausting and paralyzing. Know the difference between defensive positions and offensive positions. When you decide where you want to move, concentrate your resources there. Put your best thinkers, doers, and movers/shakers on that front. Then, encourage them forward.
3. Cover your back
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and momentum of movement, especially if you’ve been stagnant for a long time. As you begin to move forward, make sure you aren’t leaving gaps and holes in the territories behind you. These can be blind spots that others can watch for you. These can be weak spots that others can protect for you. While concentrating your resources on the main front, make sure you reserve enough support to cover your foundation – your home base; these are the folks who believed in you in the beginning. These are the folks who will need to continue to believe in you to the end. Don’t leave them hanging or unsupported.
4. Think about moves 3 and 4, not just 1 and 2
The early moves are typically the most obvious. Every victory creates new opportunities and new challenges. You can anticipate some of these in advance by thinking ahead and having short term and long range goals. How do you take steps today to begin the journey towards a place you want to be next month or next year? Without long range goals pulling us forward, we can easily slow or stall after a few early wins.
5. Follow momentum
While it might seem counterintuitive, momentum can be a scary and stunning thing. We invest so much to move inches. Gaining ground rapidly can begin to feel like a runaway train when compared to the slow crawl we experienced before. Take advantage of the momentum. Ride the wave with wisdom and grace, but don’t let it stall out of fear. Having a long-term plan will allow you to take full advantage of gaining momentum by staying on track.
6. Press through adversity
In Risk, statistically the defensive position has the advantage, which means there will be casualties. Recognize that the slow road to change will require patience and perseverance. Adversity is also a good ego and emotion checkpoint. When we’re faced with strong resistance we are forced to ask questions such as, “Is this about what I want or what the church needs?” “Are we making decisions based on emotions and personal opinions or on prayerful, spiritual discernment?” There may come a point when you will have to ask if it is all worth it. If the answer comes back yes, then press through.
7. Know when to retreat and regroup
Perhaps in the midst of the struggle you realize it isn’t worth it; the cost is too high or the goal is too small. Perhaps you come to realize that winning the battle may mean losing the war. Never lose sight of the attrition of change. It isn’t a game, and we’re not moving figurines. Don’t recklessly handle your congregation’s love and investment for a future too few want or need. Be responsible with their hearts.
8. Share the victories
Risk is as much a social game as a strategic one. Your success can mean someone else’s opportunities. Share your victories and acknowledge everyone’s contribution. Who invested in the dream? Who sacrificed for the new future? Share the credit and the praise – this is everyone’s win.
9. Little victories add up over time
While there are a few prime territories in Risk that are extremely valuable, most of the game is spent acquiring small territories and slowly growing your capacity for success. Don’t underestimate the importance of small victories. They mean new allies, new resources, new possibilities, and greater diversity.
10. Don’t fight out of fear
The worst way to play Risk is paranoiacally. When you think everyone is out to get you, you react out of fear and flail about to your own demise. Wisdom and hope are the antidote to fear. Fear is erratic and irrational. Wisdom is measured and proactive. Hope is positive and inspiring. If your change leadership is motivated by fear – fear of losing or fear of failing – you will realize the outcome that you most despair.
All Metaphors Break Down (i.e., How to Really Win)
I hope employing the Risk metaphor of warring forces bent on world domination hasn’t betrayed the spirit of wisdom, hope, and grace that should saturate all of our leadership movements. Change is hard and costly. It requires as much pastoral care as it does dogged determination. Perhaps that’s the meta-lesson from Risk. At the end of the day, win or lose, we pack up the game, put it back in the closet, and return to the table to sit with our brothers and sisters. If my relationships with my brothers and sisters are stronger because of the experiences we shared through the game, we all have won. If my relationships with my brothers and sisters are weaker and frayed because of the game, we all have lost.
As a leader, you will be called on to lead through change. Never lose sight of your love for your brothers and sisters. Never risk the unity of the community for the triumph of your agenda.