Leadership is a lot about asking. After casting bold visions, leaders ask people to help make them become reality. Leaders describe pressing problems that are imperiling mission achievement and then ask people to devote their best thinking and most innovative ideas to solve them. In church work, leaders ask spiritual seekers to consider Christ. They ask believers to grow up in their faith. They ask staff members and volunteers and donors and contractors to show up and give their best time and money and energy and heart—all because they believe so much in the cause they’re pursuing.
So I realized long ago that “asking” would always be a significant part of my leadership role. What I didn’t know was that the longer I led, the bigger my “asks” would get. I had no choice: God was laying big visions on my mind and heart, and the only way they were going to get translated into reality was if some big asks were made.
One of the biggest challenges I have ever led involved an expansion effort we did at Willow. As far as I knew, it would require the largest capital campaign ever attempted by a local church. The stakes felt sky-high, and I frequently had to remind myself that I was going to have to be absolutely shameless in asking people to join me in this grand, God-glorifying endeavor.
And shamelessly ask I did … publicly, privately, and prayerfully.
In the end God worked powerfully, resulting in the launch of several dynamic regional campuses, a terrific new facility at our Barrington location, and increased funding for the WCA (Willow Creek Association). But it also yielded an interesting insight: when handled properly, people are actually quite flattered to be asked to do significant things for God. Granted, they might not always say yes—they can’t always say yes—but they are almost always honored by a wise and well-timed ask.
I saw this even more clearly once I found myself on the receiving end of a few big asks. I’d been leading Willow for a couple of decades when authors started asking for book endorsements, organizations started asking me to serve on their boards, and charities started asking for large financial gifts to help their ministries. Interestingly, each time one of these big asks came in, I’d realize I wasn’t offended in the least. In fact, I felt quite honored.
When someone asked me to help advance their cause, I’d think, “Wow. They must think I’m kingdom-oriented enough to care about something like this. What’s more, they must think I actually have a contribution to make in achieving their goal.”
When they’d ask for money, I’d think, “They assume I’ve handled whatever financial resources have come my way responsibly enough that I would have the capacity to do this.” What a compliment!
I’ve become a huge advocate of leaders getting clear in their heads about both the necessity of big asks and the way to make them wisely, because when they’re done well, they can actually build relationships. When they’re done well, there is rarely a downside.
Let me offer a simple framework that I keep handy so that whenever God prompts me to make a big ask, I’m ready. First, it’s important to set the context. Often over a lunch table, I’ll say, “God has led me to challenge you with something today, but please know from the outset that we’ll be okay whether you accept this challenge or not. My goal here is to be obedient to God’s prompting, not to force you to do something. I have zero attachment to the course of action you choose on the back end of our discussion today. It won’t affect our friendship or my respect for you because this is not between you and me as much as it is between you and God. Are we on the same page here?”
Second, when I make the ask, I do it as clearly and succinctly as possible. On many occasions, I have sat across the dinner table from a seeker and said, “Tonight’s the night I’m going to ask you to receive Christ. You may not be ready, and that will be fine, but I want to briefly review how God’s love can change a human heart and then give you an opportunity to respond.”
I’ve sat across from marketplace people and said, “In a few minutes, I’m going to ask you to consider joining our ministry staff. Before I do that, though, I want to give you four reasons why I am challenging you to join our ministry team. When I am done, I really want you to pray about leaving your job and coming on board with our staff.”
I’ve sat across from high-capacity executives and said, “I’m asking you to consider volunteering your time to our board.” I’ve sat across from billionaires and said, “I’d like to ask you to pray about giving more of your hard-earned money to God’s purposes in the world.”
Sure, sometimes I feel a bit nervous and have a lump in my throat during conversations like these, but there’s just no escaping the fact that effective leadership requires growing in this skill. And I know the more confidently I do it, the better off everyone will be.
After making the ask, I always suggest that the other person take it before God and then get back to me in an agreed-upon amount of time. “Could we meet again in a week [or two, or four] to see where you are with this?” I ask. Sometimes that subsequent meeting yields a no. But just as frequently I’ve had people return to me with a “Hey, I’m in! I brought your request to God, and he gave me a green light!”
Again, when making the ask is handled in a spiritually and relationally intelligent manner, there is very seldom a downside. Any outcome is fine.
The nature of human beings is such that we tend not to drift into better behaviors. We usually have to be asked by someone to consider taking it up a level.
In my own life, I’ve rarely made a sizable step forward—spiritually, physically, emotionally, or otherwise—unless someone asked me to do so. Along the way, I’ve radically altered my eating and exercise habits because exceptional leaders have asked me to consider becoming a healthier person. I’ve channeled resources toward worthy causes because courageous leaders have asked me to help them achieve a compelling vision. I’ve parented more intentionally, supported my wife with greater devotion, practiced spiritual disciplines more faithfully, and upped the ante on my own leadership development, to name just a few, all because gutsy leaders asked me to do so.
And each time, I’d think, “Maybe I really can take it up a notch. I’d just never thought much about it until now.”
If you’re chasing a bold vision, one of the greatest gifts you can give the people around you is to get in front of them, eyeball-to-eyeball, and ask them to step up and do something great for God. Do it well, and you’ll bring glory to God, esteem to the other person, and much-needed resources to your ministry.
Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.