Navigating the Thinker/Doer Dichotomy

I’ve been a huge fan of Andy Stanley since I first attended Passion’s Thirsty conference as a college leader in 2002. When I hear him preach, it makes me want to preach. When I hear him talk about leadership, I’m excited to go lead.

So imagine my disappointment when I was catching up with his leadership podcast yesterday and heard him tell leaders both inside and outside of the church to hire, promote, and invest in “doers” not thinkers. And lest there be any confusion, he goes on to talk about how doers are smart people, so it’s not about smart and dumb. It’s about being a smart doer, not a thinker of any stripe. He goes on to clarify even more, talking about how boring philosophy is, and you can hear the pain in his voice as he says it.

My first reaction was completely defensive. I’ve always thought of myself as a thinker, and that’s the way others see me, too. I love to learn and I try to be thoughtful about what I’m doing so I don’t mess up. So is Andy saying there’s no room on his team for someone like me?

What’s more, I’ve just spent the last 5 years of my life in seminary, which required hours upon hours of intense thinking and not a whole lot of “doing.” Again, Andy is very clear here: it’s easier to train a business person in theology than to train a seminary grad in the business of the church.

Ouch!

Even worse, I’ve experienced much of this in my own church while in Dallas. My commitment to study well has been in constant tension with my church’s expectation that leaders get out and get things done. It’s quite a quandary to feel called by God to ministry, be affirmed in your home church, move 1000 miles away and spend thousands of dollars trying to be faithful just to find you’re disqualifying yourself for leadership by Andy’s standards. And Andy’s standards are well-regarded.

After I got over my initial shock, I started thinking. (It comes in handy!) I don’t think Andy means what he’s saying. What’s more I don’t think he realizes this.

The idea of thinking vs. doing is wrongheaded if you take it at face value. Everyone thinks, everyone does. The point is not to pick one at the expense of the other, it’s to do both the best you can.

What Andy seems to be saying isn’t “don’t hire people who think” it’s “don’t hire people who ‘do’ poorly.” This has nothing to do with thinking, preparing, planning, strategizing, discerning, etc. and everything to do with executing and applying.

There’s something truly biblical here: God calls us to an active faith, a life of obedience. Christ commanded the Apostles to make disciples of all nations “teaching them to obey.” As protestants and evangelicals we don’t believe we are saved by works, but our faith should surely produce obedience. And leaders should set themselves apart as examples, who faithfully do what Christ commanded. If fleshly lusts or apathy or doubt or confusion keep you from obeying, you probably shouldn’t lead until you’ve sorted these things out.

So I don’t think Andy really means hire doers not thinkers; I think he simply means hire people who can get the job done well. It’s sad that he’s associated poor performance with seminary graduates, but I guess he’s entitled to call it like he sees it.

That being said, I’m not completely vindicating Andy here. Here are a few quick points to chew on in closing:

For one, I think it’s unwise to place so much emphasis on high-energy performance if that means not thinking things through carefully. A good result comes from a good process, not diving in head-first and hoping for the best. The way the “doer/thinker” dichotomy is worded will trip up people who may not have realized this.

Two, Andy knows this. In fact it’s a huge part of his ministry! He spends as much time as he can stepping back from ministry to figure out how it works, why it works, and how to make it work better. There’s a word for this. It’s called philosophy.

Three, sometimes thinkers produce results high-impact leaders aren’t measuring for. They navigate the world of ideas and help spot land mines before they blow up. This may feel tedious when you just want to cross the field, but in the long run it’s worth it. Other great leaders know this, and some of the greatest leaders are those who have invested their lives in this and impact their students and create movements. Throughout the history of the church contemplative people have had a profound impact.

Fourth, Andy’s approach to ministry and his thinker/doer dichotomy drinks heavily from the well of pragmatism, a philosophy popularized by William James over a century ago. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but if you’re not able to critically evaluate it, you’ll be owned by it. If you turn away everyone aware of these issues and capable of grappling with them, you will limit your ministry. Maybe that’s a risk Andy’s willing to take. If so, maybe that means he’s more in bed with William James than he realizes.

I’m not out to badmouth such a great and godly leader as Andy Stanley. I still think very highly of him and will continue to learn from his great work. But I would like to challenge anyone else involved in this conversation to be smart about this issue. Don’t blame bad execution on too much thinking, and think twice before you turn away leaders whose very strength may be your blind spot.

2 thoughts on “Navigating the Thinker/Doer Dichotomy”

  1. I didn’t hear the podcast; but, if you are accurately representing Stanley, I think that his opinion sadly represents most of the evangelical culture’s position on thinkers and doers.

    I always think of Schaeffer’s comments: “Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy. This has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical, orthodox Christianity – we have been proud in despising philosophy, and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellect.”

    But then, Schaeffer goes on to knock evangelical seminaries: “Our theological seminaries hardly ever relate their theology to philosophy, and specifically to the current philosophy. Thus, students go out from the theological seminaries not knowing how to relate Christianity to the surrounding worldview. It is not that they do not know the answers. My observation is that most students graduating from our theological seminaries do not even know the questions” (‘He is There and He is not Silent’).

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