Leading by Not Doing: A Reflection on Wesley's Instruction to “Do No Harm”
"I know," said the church council chair, "and he never returns phone calls. I never know what he's going to come up with next."
The first woman continued, "He's not much of a leader, if you ask me. He's got his favorites, and he basically does anything they tell him."
"We really ought to talk to the staff-parish chairperson about him," replied the council chair.
The third woman sat quietly and then asked, "Have you ever talked directly to the pastor about these things? We complain about his leadership, but what kind of example do we set when we talk about him behind his back?"
Good leadership is commonly defined by the things we do — by our skills and abilities and accomplishments. Rarely do we reflect on what not to do as leaders. Although it is important to engage in good activities, it may be even more important to refrain from bad actions.
John Wesley, in his instructions to all those desirous of salvation, explained that the evidence of their sincerity was "First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced ..." (Book of Discipline 2000, ¶103, p. 73) Even before listing good things to do, Wesley began by listing harmful things to avoid doing. There is a powerful lesson for Christian leaders in this instruction — as valuable as good works may be, it is even more valuable to avoid those things that might harm others or destroy the foundation of trust of the congregation.
So what does it mean for leaders in the congregation to "do no harm"? What are the "evil" actions "most generally practiced"? For our purposes, I want to focus on five important ways to "do no harm": (1) refuse to gossip, (2) avoid unfair criticism, (3) rely on fact rather than rumor, (4) be respectful, (5) deal with disagreement openly and honestly.
Refuse to Gossip
The opening story illustrates how easy it is to talk about people behind their backs. We all have opinions, and we all find fault with the behavior of others. Problems arise, however, when we talk about people rather than talking to people. Gossip is like a cancer: It takes hold, spreads, and offers nothing of value to the whole organism. Gossip is toxic, and it is insidious because it is so easy.
Because gossip is so prevalent in our culture, it is startling when we encounter someone who refuses to engage in it. It is deeply humbling to be in the presence of someone who will not speak ill of someone else. We should never underestimate the power of this simple witness. There is only one way to eliminate gossip — and the toxic influence of gossip — and that is simply not to do it.
Avoid Unfair Criticism
This applies only to people who are not perfect. Perfect people have an absolute right to criticize anyone they want to. For the rest of us, it is better to adopt the old cliché, "if we can't say anything nice, we shouldnn't say anything at all."
There is a place for honest, constructive criticism; however, most criticism is offered with less-than-noble intentions. It is often the case that we criticize those with whom we disagree or those we don't like or don't want others to like. Most criticism requires not only the judgment of a behavior, but a judgment of the person as well. There are strong biblical admonitions against such actions.
The opposite of criticism is encouragement. Criticism points out what someone is doing wrong — or not doing right — while encouragement focuses on a positive alternative and promotes improvement. Criticism releases negative energy; encouragement releases positive energy. Criticism usually does more harm than good. Effective leaders seek a better way to move toward improvement.
Rely on Fact Rather Than Rumor
It is estimated that fully half of all our decisions are based on rumors, hearsay, and assumptions. We like to think of ourselves as logical, rational people; but a juicy rumor can send us off into all kinds of wrong assumptions and poor decisions. The only good rumor is one that is thoroughly confirmed; then it ceases to be a rumor.
Rumors are closely tied to gossip. Without gossip, there could be no rumors. But human beings are human beings; and gossip will always be present, so rumors will always exist. There is only one effective solution to the destructive power of rumors, and that is for leaders to become "rumor blockers."
The function of a rumor blocker is simple: No rumors ever pass a rumor blocker. Christian leaders who make a commitment to never pass on a rumor actively fulfill the instruction to do no harm. A rumor received by a rumor blocker dies a quick and painless death. (Sounds simple, doesn't it? The problem with rumors is that they are often a lot of fun. It takes a lot of practice to become an effective rumor blocker.)
The Golden Rule is not just a happy little saying; it is a fundamental value of the Christian life. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you requires a fundamental respect of every person you meet. As a child of God, every person is endowed with value. Reminded that as we act toward any other person, so we act toward Jesus Christ, we have more than enough encouragement to treat others with respect and dignity. We have no right to treat anyone unkindly, even though he or she might treat us poorly. As Christian leaders, it is imperative that we establish a standard of kind behavior. When we treat other people with respect, we model civility, decency, and acceptance; and we make it nearly impossible to do harm.
Deal Openly and Honestly With Disagreement
Local congregations across the denomination are being torn apart by conflict. Many of the disagreements are simple problems that escalated into major catastrophes, usually because of poor communication. One burden we carry in the church is that we must be "nice," and we define "nice" as not saying anything negative or disagreeing publicly with anyone else. However, being Christian (rather than "nice") sometimes requires that we disagree. Disagreeing is not the issue. How we disagree is the issue.
No one can resolve a problem that is hidden. Disagreements, conflict, and controversy must be brought into the open so that they can be addressed. Good leaders look for the areas of disagreement and bring them into public settings. To ignore problems or pretend that disagreement doesn't exist is dishonest and potentially dangerous. Our fear of doing harm though disagreement sometimes leads us to doing greater harm by driving disagreement underground. When disagreement is unresolved, stress develops, tensions mount, hurt feelings and ill will increases; and misunderstanding can erupt in tragedy. An important way to do no harm is to address conflict early and often.
Ultimately, the work of "doing no harm" is about "doing something" — modeling a way of being Christian in the world. Our behaviors carry as much impact as our words, if not more. How we treat one another is a significant act of leadership.
We wish our world to be a better place — a kinder, gentler world where decency, kindness, and consideration are the norm. Building such a reality is not simply about doing good things, but also about refraining from those things that harm, that reduce, that destroy. Nothing is lost to us when we refrain from gossip. We are not made better by putting other people down. We are not made stronger when we react to rumor as if it were true. Being disrespectful doesn't make us superior to anyone. And hiding our true feelings and allowing resentment to build cannot help but hurt us as well as others.
The less we engage in activities with the potential to do harm, the more we will be freed to engage in activities that build up. As leaders, we have the opportunity to point the way to a better way of living, of sharing, and of being the body of Christ.