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The Certitude Paradox – Every Leader Must Understand It

Certitude is defined as an “absolute certainty or conviction that something is the case.” A paradox is where seemingly contradictory statements are both true. Certitude for leaders is a paradox, a blessing and a curse, a help and a hindrance. Let’s take a closer look at the certitude paradox.

Truth: Certitude Is Helpful

Having convictions is not a bad thing. In fact, they are necessary foundations for building our faith, our values, and our world view. Without convictions we are left without a moral compass. In terms of leadership, people tend to respect a person with convictions and rightfully expect certainty from leadership. Certitude from a leader at the right time and place can be a blessing both to the individual and the organization. Speaking and acting with certainty can motivate and inspire followership, provide direction in times of aimlessness, instill confidence in times of uncertainty, faith in times of fear, and comfort in times of tragedy. And yet, at times our certainty can be our downfall.

Truth: Certitude Is A Hindrance

We all have the need to be right and maybe no more so than for those of us in the ministry. Our congregants and staff expect us to know the right answers to spiritual and organizational leadership questions and decisions that, if we are honest, are often unknown and unknowable. Yet, we put ourselves, our churches, and others at risk when we allow the pressure to be right to dictate our preaching, teaching, and decision making.

Leadership certitude is a hindrance to the effectiveness of our churches when we take organizational leadership principles from a book or a class as universal truth and apply them to our churches without contextualizing them or placing them through the filter of Christ’s commands. When we borrow successful practices from other churches and “sell” them to our church staffs and leadership with the promise they will work in our church equally well. Or, when we confidently lead a church into massive debt because “God told me to.”

Certitude can become a hindrance to the gospel when it causes us to be perceived as arrogant, ignorant, elitist, sexist, bigoted, and naïve by those we are trying to reach. Examples abound, such as when we take what were intended in Scripture as parables, symbols, metaphors, and allegories and pronounce them as authoritative doctrine, theology, and historical fact. When we argue with assuredness the meaning of Revelation and the mystical language used by the Biblical writers. When we strain credulity to explain away, or worse, ignore the paradoxes and contradictions of the Bible. When we preach and teach a single and absolute interpretation of Scripture without even acknowledging the myriad of other possible interpretations as our Jewish forefathers tried to do when they practiced midrash. And maybe most often when we state with certainty who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell.

History Has Not Been Kind To Christian Certitude

History is littered with examples of where “unenlightened” Christian certitude had tragic consequences. The certainty of religious leaders that Jesus was preaching heresy led to his crucifixion. The certainty that the words of Christ compelled them to share the gospel led Spanish Catholic Priests to cut off the hands and feet of Native Americans who failed to embrace Him. The certainty of slave holders that the Bible encouraged enslavement led to consequences we are still addressing today. The certainty that Holy Scripture ordains men as leaders of and superior to women has led to the justification of an untold number of misogynistic behaviors in homes, businesses, organizations, government, institutions, and churches that is just now coming to light. The certainty of German Christians that Scripture showed the Jewish race to be inferior directly contributed to the Holocaust. Not to mention the countless wars that have been waged in the name of Christ and armies that have marched beneath the Christian flag.

This is to suggest that the dangers and abuses associated with leadership certitude can have far reaching harmful consequences. It behooves us then to know how to mitigate the potential hindrances associated with certitude.

Mitigating The Certitude Hindrances

The 12 Step Program teaches that an addict must hit rock bottom, must lose everything, and be truly humbled before they can understand and accept the deepest truths about themselves and their actions. History and experience shows that each time we move off of a position, change our beliefs, or become more enlightened, there is some degree of humbling involved. Humiliation, loss, failure, or hitting rock bottom has a way of making us more open, teachable, and knowledgeable of our limitations. In short, it makes us more humble.

Unfortunately, to be humbled is to experience some degree of loss, even if it is just our pride. We all must lose at something, stumble and be brought to our knees by reality. But it is there that we are transformed. The most effective leaders I know have been humbled….frequently, and often painfully. During my time as Executive Pastor at First Baptist Church, Jackson, MS I was blessed to work beside the most humble man I ever met, Senior Pastor Dr. Frank Pollard. One day we were talking about his upcoming sermon and he told me that he made it a practice of reading the past sermons he had preached on the passage he planned to preach on. He said invariable he felt his face become flush with embarrassment as he read how poorly he had once interpreted a passage and how arrogantly certain he was of what he preached. He said that practice kept him humble and open to new insights.

So, what is the secret sauce to mitigating the hindrances of leadership certitude? I think the evidence suggests that it is humility. If I could add one other ingredient I would add that of a contemplative spirituality. It is difficult to lead a spirituality contemplative lifestyle that leads to union and communion with God and not be continually humbled, or ever feel as if you have “arrived” or “know all the answers.” Simply put, the longer you sit with God the more you realize what you don’t know.

The older I get and the more contemplative I become, I increasingly realize that many of the things of which I was once certain I am no longer certain, and the things of which I am certain, I am certain of in a different way. Age, experience, contemplation, and being humbled frequently has a way of doing that. And, the one thing I am most certain of at this stage of life is that this pattern will continue.


Posted on August 25, 2020
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Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5