L. Gregory Jones: Executing with urgency

Christians are gifted at generating ideas. But we tend to pay too little attention to taking action, at the cost of achieving our mission.

“We are looking for Christians who understand and practice leadership as an entrepreneur would,” the philanthropist told me. We had already talked about some key aspects of such leadership, such as developing vision, taking risks, being willing to fail and learn from failure, and tolerating ambiguity. But then he said that the heart of the issue was what another friend described as lacking among Christian leaders: people who could “execute with urgency.”

I heard those three simple words as a judgment, recalling too many Christian meetings I had sat through, and even convened, where we had confused having a meeting with taking action. We had acted as if we had all the time in the world, as if nothing really was very urgent. Indeed, we had often met as if we were a group gathered primarily for social purposes.

I soon recalled an image given to me by another Christian philanthropist friend. Normally a quite patient woman, this friend came out of a meeting and said, “We Christians have this frustrating habit of huddling and then going to sit on the bench, and then huddling again and then sitting on the bench, and then huddling again. We call some really interesting plays, but we never actually stay on the playing field!”

Too often we Christians don’t execute, much less with urgency. That drives people doubly crazy, not just because we are inefficient but because people care so deeply about what Christian institutions have to offer -- the end(s) for which Christian institutions exist. People turn to Christian institutions because they engage people’s deepest yearnings and address ideas and concerns that are critically important to people’s lives. Our lists of noble themes, admirable commitments and inspiring outreach efforts capture people’s imaginations and draw people into participation. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to participate in ministries of healing, education, reconciliation, presence with the dying or community with recently released prisoners?

Perhaps it is precisely because we think the ideas matter so much that we pay comparatively little attention to how we implement those ideas in organizational form, and whether the organizations we create to embody our ideas will themselves be generative. The organizations tend to survive over time because enough people believe in the intrinsic worthiness of the causes and so give of their time and money. But they don’t thrive as they might, or as their ends would call them to, because they remain so focused on the ideas that they don’t attend adequately to organizational structure and execution.

As a result, many well-intentioned Christian organizations remain small and struggle to stay viable. They have little capacity to develop the types of capital -- intellectual, network, service, human or financial -- they need to maximize their mission and renew their vitality. Christians are not the only ones who experience this gap between great ideas and generative organization and effective execution. In his book “Making Ideas Happen,” Scott Belsky notes that great ideas are a dime a dozen; most of them never amount to anything, because the people who imagine them don’t know how to turn them into reality. He writes, “The quality of ideas themselves is less important than the platform upon which they materialize.”

How, in Belsky’s judgment, do ideas actually materialize? He offers the following formula:

Making Ideas Happen = (The Idea) + Organization and Execution + Forces of Community + Leadership Capability

Belsky’s formula is broadly instructive and a reminder that creativity and vision can be overvalued. Christians are excellent at having important, life-giving -- and indeed life-saving -- ideas. Further, Christians recognize and are called to embody the importance of what Belsky calls “forces of community”; indeed, we are called to be a part of thriving communities and to cultivate networks of such communities.

If we followed Belsky’s advice and focused more on organization and leadership capability, we would likely develop more network models of Christian institutions, which would mean they would be more generative and less likely to remain so small and fragile. They would develop more sustainable forms of design and have much greater capital on which to rely. And we would find that they would be making more and better ideas happen.

I suspect there is something more here as well, something my philanthropist friend alluded to at other points in our conversation: the power of the Holy Spirit. He invoked Acts 2 at several points, and I suspect that was in part behind his reference to executing “with urgency.” I sense he gets frustrated by his perception that too many American Christians have an allergy to the Holy Spirit: his references to Acts 2 were in the context of talking about a Christian sense of social entrepreneurship, of being willing to put our time and our money and ourselves at the disposal of the Spirit’s work in the world in witness to God’s reign.

When viewed in that perspective, the urgency suggests a two-minute drill rather than a huddle. Patience remains a Christian virtue, but there is no room for passivity.