Should good leaders "ask for forgiveness rather than permission?"

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Should good leaders “ask for forgiveness rather than permission?”

May 12, 2022 -

© ruslanshug /

© ruslanshug /

© ruslanshug /

Are you a forgiveness or permission person?

You have heard the statement. Maybe you’ve said it recently. It goes, “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.” We love to simplify things, to reduce complex living to supposedly clear binary choices. (Have you noticed how frequently we now use the word ‘binary’? That word used to live exclusively in the computer science department but has migrated to every corner of our lives.) Excuse me for digressing. Anyway, we like to make things simple. To frame our understanding of reality around a narrow set of, usually two, options. The most obvious for ministers is, “Are you saved or not?”

But we need to be careful. Someone once said, “Any philosophy of life that can fit in a nutshell should stay there.”

Are you an “ask for forgiveness” person?

Back to my topic.

I’ve noticed when someone says, “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” they often have a spirit of bravado about it. Somehow it seems that plunging ahead against the norm or the rules is an act of great courage. Sometimes it is. We need risk-takers for sure. One of my mentors, a great pastor in the Dallas area, taught us it’s good to have a bias for action. Leaders make assessments, determine prayerfully what they believe God wants to happen, and then lead boldly. Pastor/leaders need to be change agents. Nehemiah comes to mind. I’d much rather be a risk-taker than a caretaker or an undertaker. Don’t we all want to be like Peter who boldly asked Jesus if he could come to him on the water when the other eleven stayed in the boat?

But scripture also taps the brakes on bold leadership by warning us of presumption. Presumption is spiritual arrogance. It is running ahead of God rather than waiting on him in humility. The Pharisee who croaked in prayer about his “superiority” is an example (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus also warned us about thinking too much of ourselves and wrongly picking a seat of honor (Luke 14:7-11). Later, James warned us, “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16, NIV)

Or, are you an “ask for permission” person?

I think there can be sin on the other side too, the “ask for permission” side. Taken to an extreme, always asking for permission expresses a lack of trust in God and his leadership. It belies a consistent refusal to trust that God is involved in our lives. It’s the spirit of always questioning and doubting God with a spirit that is never willing to step up and step in to what God is prompting. This was the spirit of Gideon. Over the years, I’ve heard believers who were facing a big decision use Gideon like, “fleeces” to gain direction and affirmation. Nowhere in the story of Gideon’s struggle to do God’s will do I see God celebrating his repetitive doubts. Going further, several times Jesus rebuked his chosen apostles for the ways that they lacked faith and refused to follow him confidently.

By personality, I’m more of a permission than a forgiveness guy. Historically, the more entrepreneurial (sometimes presumptuous) types have gotten frustrated with me as I lead my church. I’ll admit, I often admire the “forgiveness leaders” who go in with guns blazing. I’ve prayed to be more like that. However, I’ve also seen that form of leadership create unnecessary mistakes and leave bodies lying around without any commitment to seek forgiveness. The explanation becomes, “look what we accomplished.”

On the other side, we permission folks sometimes miss opportunities that God presents and provokes due to our hesitancy spurred by doubt and disbelief. Permission seekers can hide behind statements like “I need to pray about this more” or “I’ll get back to you on that” as a means of dodging decisions and taking appropriate risks.

Three steps to a solution

What’s the solution? First, seek God’s help in finding the sweet spot between courageous risk-taking and wise discernment. All situations need both and we need the Spirit’s help to know which tool to use in each moment. Second, it’s helpful to find out what your natural bent is. Some of the conflicts in my church leadership group got better when we identified where each of us was on the risk-averse scale. Tools such as “The Working Genius Assessment”, “Strengths Finder”, or “Leading from your Strengths” can help. Last, it’s best to assemble a plurality of leaders and listen to each other in humility. The goal is to work together for God’s glory and purposes. To walk with the Spirit without running ahead of or behind him.

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