The sustained pressures of unanswered questions, unsolved problems, and an unknown future have caused leaders to pull back, hesitate, and in many cases, play it safe.

Here are a few statements from leaders in the past few weeks.

  • I know we already committed, but I’m not sure this is the right time to build.
  • Maybe we should wait to launch the next campus.
  • I think I need to hold back in my preaching with all the cultural tension. 
  • Maybe we should not hire anyone right now.

When you are on the front lines of leadership, these are not easy decisions.

One pastor said about his preaching in light of the cultural tensions, “If I say nothing  – I’m in trouble, If I say the wrong thing –  I’m in trouble, If I don’t say enough – I’m in trouble. Basically, I’m in trouble.”

Totally understandable, but not the best perspective. By his own words, saying nothing is a problem.

Playing it safe may seem like a good idea because the leadership landscape is so uncertain.

The truth is, we are responsible for leading, and the nature of effective leadership is not a safe proposition. Leadership takes new territory; it moves us into the unknown.

Playing it safe doesn’t work.

Let’s take a look at 5 reasons why.

1) If you coast internally, you will stall externally.

I strained a muscle this week working out; the smart thing to do is pull back for a few days by skipping a workout or two.

It’s important that I allow only the needed time to “coast” (do the minimum) and get back in the game, or my fitness will stall. And we all know that an extended stall results in a decline.

This past year acts as a sustained muscle strain; you have stressed your leadership muscles, so we naturally pull back. That’s smart for a short time, but you have to get back in the game to prevent a stall.

The curious thing about coasting as a leader is that you still feel exhausted because you are so stressed from these past months of craziness.

The remedy for some is to get the rest and renewal you need but watch that process closely, so you define a time to get back in fully and no longer play it safe.

For others, the remedy is to stay in the deep end, navigate the rocky waters with a guide because you need to keep moving.

Which one fits you?

2) Playing it safe is actually a high-risk move.

Do you have any money invested?

I’m not an expert by a long shot, but we’re all aware that knowing when (or if) you should pull your money out of a volatile market and move it somewhere “safe” is a high-risk move because it’s even more difficult to know when to get back in.

The previous point (#1) takes a personal approach; this point takes the same idea but addresses it organizationally.

We all desire momentum, something most leaders are praying and working hard to regain in their church. Playing it safe rarely regains momentum.

Taking a risk to regain momentum is not about a big, crazy, and wild move; it’s about regaining belief in and clarity of your vision in a time when that’s difficult to do.

Any time you make a decision that causes you to keep moving forward and making progress, you have stopped playing it safe.

3) You send a message to the leaders around you.

Playing it safe communicates an unintended message to the leaders around you.

Holding back right now is understandable; in many ways, it makes sense. But leaders move things forward even when it’s difficult to see around the corner.

When you play it safe, the unintended message is that you stopped leading, even though in your heart, you haven’t stopped at all.

For a very short period, playing it safe has relatively low consequences, but over an extended period of time, the sharp leaders around you may begin to lose confidence.

The remedy is not to hide what you are feeling (you aren’t really hiding); instead, bring a few top leaders close to you and talk about it.

Vulnerability has power in the right moments with the right people. Breakthrough often comes!

4) Playing it safe doesn’t fully engage trust in God.

Trusting God for a big, bold move isn’t meant to be a case for reckless leadership. Trusting God is not about a lack of willingness to plan or pray or about being lazy. It’s about trust in achieving a vision bigger than you.

Fully trusting God in difficult times is something most leaders struggle with, I sure do. I tend to take things into my own control even though I know that’s not smart and doesn’t work.

It’s a panic moment. If you’ve led for any length of time, you know what that feels like.

The important thing is to move as quickly as you can from panic back to trust no matter how bumpy the ride.

God doesn’t always answer our prayers as we want, but He always answers them in the right way at the right time.

Believing that’s true is core to trust.

5) Playing it safe often requires hard work but without results.

One of the greatest pitfalls of playing it safe is that you work just as hard but with little to no results.

That’s true in life and church leadership. You may be playing it safe, but life keeps moving forward full speed ahead. So is culture and the impact on your church.

When you play it safe, you still go through all the motions of everyday life, solving problems and dealing with the day’s conflicts.

You still expend your energy.

The issue is that expenditure of energy made little difference. Nothing changes when you play it safe. You have to tackle the big things, and they are never safe.

  • What are one or two things you need to tackle head-on to move the ball down the field?
  • Who’s help do you need?
  • What is preventing you from starting? Start there.