Remember the “Light of Day” Test

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A controversy arose recently over the Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a Bob Dylan-like photo. Although the issue included a substantive article about Tsarnaev, it was the cover that drew major attention. The editors may have remembered that an edition in 1970 featuring the cult leader and mass murderer Charles Manson on its cover was one of their best-selling issues and even won awards. Whatever the merits of using or not using the picture, and their rationale for its “look,” it is clear that the editors did not anticipate the response of the public.

Ask yourself, “If this decision and how the decision was made became known to everyone, would it seem reasonable?”

All of us as leaders have those “It seemed like a good idea at the time” experiences. The challenge for editors is not that they have to make decisions but that they have to make them over and over under tight deadlines; and almost immediately their decisions become public for all to see.

There is the classic case from 1989 when Rand McNally released a new “photographic world atlas” that omitted from its regional maps three U.S. states — Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota. If the publisher thought that the omissions would not be noticed, they were very wrong. Their first response was, “It was an editorial decision.” Another comment was something like, “Now that this has come to light, we realize it was not a good idea.”

Right now work is underway on the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington to remove an abbreviated quotation of King’s that changed the meaning of what he had said. Planners decided to edit King’s words because the original did not fit on the space available. The understandable outcry about the change necessitated an almost million dollar redo. Perhaps they thought no one would notice.

What does all this have to do with church leadership? Individual leaders and various groups make decisions all the time. Many are very public, but most take time for people to find out about them or to experience the results of the decisions. So church leaders are not accustomed to the immediate pushback (or affirmation) that editors or monument designers receive when large audiences experience their decisions immediately. Nevertheless, there are always those times when church leaders will hear responses to their decisions that they never anticipated, and they, too, will say, “It looked like a good idea at the time.”

No matter who has formal authority to make decisions, it is always a good idea to test those judgments with the “light of day” test. Ask yourself, “If this decision and how the decision was made became known to everyone, would it seem reasonable?” Another way to think about this is to ask every person in the group making the decision to imagine being assigned to go to five members of the church to tell them about the decision and explain it. Would it make sense to them?

Most of our decisions as church leaders will not make headlines or appear on the evening news. But they often will significantly affect the lives of those we both serve and lead. We can do no less than to put every decision to the “light of day” test.

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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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