The True Meaning of Patience
The true definition of a word is important. That’s especially true when the word is a virtue, because using the improper definition can lead us to choose our actions, or even justify them.
Take for instance, the virtue of being meek. I’ve always thought that meek meant to be shy and timid. As a result, every time I hear the Beatitudes I think, “I’m terrible at that one.” Only recently did I realize that being meek is something else, and it certainly doesn’t call for weakness or timidity. It’s about being submissive to the will of God, and about being humble and gentle. Getting that definition right, according to what Jesus meant, is pretty important. He does not want us to be weak and timid in the world, but rather obedient to Him, and humble and gentle with others.
There is another word that I think we sometimes misunderstand or incorrectly define, and that is patience. It’s another virtue that I struggle with, by the way.
Too often we see patience as the permission to avoid taking action, and it becomes an excuse for procrastination, over-cautiousness, even fearful inaction. Now, we all know that patience calls us to avoid impulsiveness and frustrating self-reliance. But we are not meant to be overly cautious and afraid. And for a pastor, this is a critical distinction.
All too often, pastors take over a new parish and are told, “don’t change anything for a year. Just wait and learn and see how things go.” This is terrible advice for any leader, including a pastor. The window of opportunity for a new pastor is open particularly wide during his first few months, and to let that window close without taking advantage of it is a waste.
Of course, coming into a parish and changing things hastily just to show that there is a new sheriff in town is equally unwise, and a violation of patience.
And let’s not only apply this to a new pastor in a parish, but to any endeavor that a pastor undertakes to revitalize his parish in the pursuit of bringing people to Christ and His Church. A new initiative. A change in culture. The formation of a new team. Pastors must avoid the temptation to be rash, but perhaps more importantly, based on my observations, avoid being too slow to act in the false guise of being patient.
Knowing the difference between haste and procrastination is an art – one that is best accomplished in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and courage around what is best in a given situation, not what is based on our own fears. What I find interesting about all this is that fear is what drives us, whether we’re being hasty or too slow. And by the way, the devil really doesn’t care which of these errors we make. He wins either way, whether we fail to act quickly to address an issue because we’re afraid of being criticized, or we act imprudently, out of fear of failure and the desire to get things done more quickly than is best.
I’d like to encourage all pastors to ask themselves, prayerfully, which of these fears is the bigger challenge for them. Is it the fear of taking action that is necessary but which might bring about disappointment from staff members or parishioners? Or is it the fear of failure which makes us want to do everything right away and see the fruits of our labors too quickly? I think most of us are inclined in one way or the other. I tend to be rash and impatient.
Check your answer with your leadership team, see if you’re assessing yourself correctly, and then make sure everyone on the team knows where you fall on the patience continuum. You are either rash and hasty and want to change everything in a few months, which is certainly a violation of patience, or you’re slow and overly cautious, preferring to wait for the perfect and risk-free moment, which is also a violation.
Having this conversation will go a long way toward allowing your team members to coach you when they see you leaning too far in one way or the other.
Keep in mind that we are called to be courageous and gentle. To do things on God’s time, but to be ever-vigilant in avoiding unnecessary delay. It is an art, and an important one. And as always, we can’t master it without turning to Him in prayer.
And while you’re doing all of this, remember to be meek too.
Pat Lencioni | Co-founder
The Amazing Parish