Choose Your Hills Wisely

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Jim Cowart says it’s important to stay focused on the right objectives. Instead of being content with what is, taking on too much, or choosing the wrong battles to fight, good leaders choose carefully the hills they need to conquer.


As a leader, you must choose your battles. And you better choose wisely. If you don’t, it can cost you dearly. We’re familiar with the military expression “Take the hill.” The strategic higher ground must be secured before the troops can advance.

Effective generals don’t dream vaguely about winning a war. They conceive bite-sized goals that move them to an overall victory. Ground wars are won or lost one inch at a time and one hill at a time. There are often thousands of skirmishes for hills in a single war. For civilian or church leaders, “the hills” are clear-cut objectives that we can lead out people to achieve. It’s higher ground that we need to take in order to move our church or organization to the next level.

But sometimes leaders have trouble with taking hills. And the trouble generally centers around three predictable complications: We have no hill; we have too many hills; or we choose the wrong hill.

We have no hills

With no hills to take, both the leader and the organization tend to slowly stagnate. The word plateau is a familiar concept in organizational leadership. Conversation centers around hills taken in the past, and energy is expended on maintaining the status quo or taking care of members. In reality, the status quo tends to move toward decline because leadership is more like riding a bicycle than a mule. You can’t just sit still if you want to lead. You have to pedal!

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (prov 29:18 a KJV). “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control” (Prov 29:18 CEB).

We have too many hills

With too many hills to take, the people are busy but not in a unified way. A lot of churches find themselves in this camp. There are programs, events, and meetings, but busyness alone isn’t the goal. We need focus, unity, and clarity of vision. We want our efforts to move us somewhere worthwhile.

We choose the wrong hill

With the wrong hill, a lot of bad things can happen. You could be completely “successful” at the wrong things. You might have heard the sad declaration of the businessman who spent his entire career climbing the corporate ladder only to realize, “When I got to the top of the ladder, I discovered it was leaning against the wrong wall.” No matter how successful, if a church isn’t pursuing the Great Commandment (loving God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (making disciples), it is still a church?

Or you could lead your organization into a place it isn’t supposed to go. It’s a sobering thought. You — a very smart, well-intentioned person — could lead your family, church, or business into disaster. You love God, you pray, you’re generous, you keep the commandments … but if you choose the wrong hill or fight a battle that’s not yours to fight, it can end in disaster — no matter how well intentioned you are.

How to choose the right hill

So, how do we avoid choosing the wrong hill and fighting the wrong battle? Hills and battles can sometimes look pretty similar from our vantage point. Here are some scriptures to guide us: 

  1. Communicate. Jesus says, “I can’t do anything by myself. Whatever I hear, I judge, and my judgement is just. I don’t seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (John 5:30 CEB) Stay close to God. I think Jesus would tell us that staying close to God is not only important but essential. Imagine a military captain on the battle field as a spiritual metaphor. He has studied maps and strategies and philosophies and theories of battle. But how does he know which hill to take? Through communication with his Superior Officer. 
  1. Don’t put all your trust in your feelings or intelligence. “Trust in the Lord will all you heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep you straight. (Prov 3:5-6 CEB). 
  1. Get good advice. “Without guidance, a people will fall, but there is victory in many counselors” (Prov 11:14 CEB).
  1. Pray this prayer. “Lord, please protect us — especially from ourselves.” This prayer is not magical or foolproof, but this is a prayer we pray around our church. If prayed sincerely, it will have great effect. Note that this prayer embodies the first and second suggestions above.

This material is excerpted from Leading from Horseback: Lost Lessons Every Church Leader Needs (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Jim Cowart. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Jim Cowart

Jim Cowart is the founding pastor of Harvest Church, a United Methodist congregation in Warner Robbins, Georgia, and author of Leading from Horseback: Lost Lessons Every Church Leader Needs (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.


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