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Intelligence About Things to Be Done
by Tom Goodman
September 2, 2010

"Wouldn't be prudent."
Thanks to Dana Carvey, one generation of Saturday Night Live viewers will never be able to remember George H.W. Bush's presidency without thinking of that line.

But according to John Ortberg, prudence is the underappreciated virtue of leadership.  "Sometimes we think of courageous leaders as people who are constantly willing to bet the farm against all odds," he writes, "but great leaders recognize the importance, not simply of values, but also of weighing likely outcomes from concrete action."

Take Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12 as an example of imprudent leadership.  Upon the death of his father, the nation asked for some relief from the burdens Solomon had demanded of them.  But Rehoboam replied, "My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier."

Reflecting on this story, Ortberg said, "Rehoboam had courage, backbone, and vision to say those words.  He just lacked prudence.  And so the kingdom was split in two, and the unity of the people suffered a severance from which it never recovered."

Of course, this virtue is often mistaken, and we often excuse timidity and inaction by calling it prudence.  Ortberg writes:

Prudence is not the same thing as caution.  Caution is a helpful strategy when you're crossing a minefield; it's a disaster when you're in a gold rush.

Prudence is not the same thing as avoiding mistakes.  Churches are full of leaders who are afraid to make mistakes, and thereby insure that their churches will never move forward, and that their own souls will shrivel and grow cold from fear and avoidance.  But that's not prudence.

Prudence is not hesitation, procrastination, or moderation.  It is not driving in the middle of the road.  It is not the way of ambivalence, indecision, or safety.

So what is it?  Prudence is linked "to shrewdness, to excellence in judgment, to the capacity to discern, to the ability to take in a situation and see it in its wholeness," he writes.  "Prudence is foresight and far-sightedness.  It's the ability to make immediate decisions on the basis of their longer-range effects."

Thomas Aquinas called it intelligence about things to be done.

This is a useful virtue for leaders in any field, but God's people especially need leaders who have prudence.  When do church leaders need this kind of insight?  Ortberg suggests a few critical moments:

When they are figuring how to navigate change.

When they are choosing which battles to fight and which battles to skip.

When they are calculating decisions and outcomes.

When a team member is not contributing well.

When the congregation is growing restless, or complacent, or fatigued.

When a course direction needs changing.

You should click over to his article and read the whole thing.  It will help you develop a whole new appreciation for an undervalued leadership virtue.

Because, sometimes, "wouldn't be prudent" is more than a punch line for a skit.  Sometimes it's exactly what a leader has to say.


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