Predictable Surprises in the Church

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Lovett H. Weems, Jr., encourages congregations to uncover and prepare for their “predictable surprises.”


Leadership is about the future, so leaders must take the future quite seriously. Their eyes must look beyond the current horizon even as they live in the present and honor the past.

Knowing what the future will hold is problematic at best. Since forecasting depends so much on past data and experience, even the most informed predictions often turn out to be wrong. However, that does not mean that leaders cannot anticipate and plan for the future. In fact, leaders have access to many clues for the future if they take time to pay attention.

Many of tomorrow’s surprises can be predicted today.

Many of tomorrow’s surprises can be predicted today. Several years ago, I came across a term — predictable surprises — that may help us anticipate what is ahead [Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, Predictable Surprises, Harvard Business School Press, 2004, 3-7]. Often when something dramatic happens, we act surprised. However, in retrospect, we can see the signs that led to the occurrence. Therefore, these events are both surprises and predictable; thus the term, predictable surprises. They take us by surprise even though we had the information that led to what happened.

In churches, these predictable surprises may come in the form of: a church realizing that it can no longer afford a full time pastor; there is no longer a youth ministry; the budget falls short, and staff must be let go; a youth leader leaves and takes most of the youth and their families to another church; the whole choir quits. You get the idea. These are all things that shock the congregation when they occur, but the circumstances that led to the surprise were well known to many leaders.

If the warning signals are present, often for years in advance, why do leaders fail to act upon them? We may discover some clues by considering the characteristics that Bazerman and Watkins found for predictable surprises.

Characteristics of Predictable Surprises
  1. Leaders knew the problem existed and that the problem would not solve itself.
  2. The problem was getting worse over time.
  3. Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
  4. Addressing predictable surprises typically requires incurring a certain cost, while the reward is avoiding a cost that is uncertain but likely to be much larger.
  5. Leaders often fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of the natural human tendency to maintain the status quo.
  6. A small vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own private benefit.
Your Predictable Surprises

So where should you as a congregational leader look for future surprises? Chances are you have a good idea where they may be found. Those surprises will probably come in areas in which you already have concern because of trends or perceptions. You may discover that you know only part of the picture, so involving others will help. It may turn out that new information will ease your concern or exacerbate it, but at least now others will be aware of the issue. You might consider involving others in an exercise to uncover predictable surprises. Below are some possible steps to use.

Uncovering Your Predictable Surprises

First, brainstorm areas of concern or needs in your church.

Next, narrow the issues to a shorter list on which there is general consensus.

Then, for each of the issues, ask:

  • Is the problem worse than it was three years ago? One year ago?
  • If we engage this problem, how difficult and costly will it be?
  • If we fail to engage this problem, how difficult and costly will it be?
  • If we succeed in engaging this problem, how much positive difference could it make?
  • Is this problem beyond addressing?

Not every problem or negative trend needs system-wide attention. It is likely, however, that there are some, it is true, that may not make much difference in the next year or two. But, if they continue to be left unaddressed, they may hamper your congregation’s mission irreversibly within five to ten years.

If you can identify one troubling area to address instead of letting things continue as they are, you will begin to shape a future better than you would have had otherwise. Take on something manageable, and learn from the experience. This will give everyone confidence and a greater willingness to address and avoid some other predictable surprises.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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