This was a hard one.
I like goals – clear and purposeful, with a deadline, and milestones on the way. A plan without a date is a wish – you know the kind of thing. I’ve used them for years – I mean, I’m no Michael Hyatt or John Maxwell, but I do think good goals are clarifying, and point me in the right direction. They’ve helped me write, to work, and to change roles.
Other people set them in the new year, but I’ve found the rhythm of setting them in the early summer fits me better; when I was at college it fitted the academic cycle, but as a pastor I‘ve found for many years that it’s a good activity to take three or four of the quiet days of summer, and prayerfully look 18 months ahead (Antipodeans, I realise that this is a very northern-hemispherist viewpoint; please translate accordingly).
So you can guess what was coming – in December 2014 my goals for 2015 were shredded, and replaced with a big sheet of nothing. True, the diary was full – blood tests, PET scans, chemo and checkups, and then the big thing called surgery.
But – and this is why it’s so hard – in all of those event I was completely passive. I just turned up, and other people did stuff to me, for me, around me.
I was the place where other things happened.
Now this is where the language of ‘goals’ is really important, and why I’m not prepared to abandon the concept.
One of the key reasons people set goals which they they then fail to reach, in my experience, is that they set goals for which they are not the principal agent. I’m a pastor, so let me give you an example: plenty of churches will say something like, ‘Our goal is to baptise more people than last year’, our goal is to have twenty more conversions than last year.’, and so forth. Now, those are noble and energising – but they are not valid: I can’t convert anyone, can I? Only God can do that.
The distinction works for my health too – ‘I will have recovered from surgery by October 2015’; ‘I will not experience pain in November’; that’s twaddle .
Our church could set a goal that we would visit every home in our area, or run an apologetics course as well as an evangelistic one: that’s OK. And as long as we plan in line with James 4:14-17, I’m happy with that.
And my year without goals taught me that, in line with James, God had willed that my plans would not be accomplished. And that’s (tough lesson) fine too. I had to start learning about my pride, my transience, and my replaceability.
But, it taught me something else, too: there’s a level of planning and decision making which is precisely not dated, or indeed achievable. ‘I intend to be more patient when I am in pain’; I intend to be more cheerful to the nursing staff who are here to help me,’ I intend to pray every day, however I feel’, ‘I intend to be as active as I can be in assisting my recover.’
Those are what the great theological Jonathan Edwards would recognise as ‘Resolutions’: ‘RESOLVED – that I shall…’ Mine were piecemeal and small, by comparison with his list, but they share the characteristic. Because they are all sub-elements of the end of being more Christlike, and because that’s not complete until resurrection day, I can never tick them off the do-list. They’re never ‘done.’
So this year, as you peer into 2016, can I encourage to set both goals and resolutions; to sit passionately but loosely to the first, but cling like death to the second.
Those of you who read management and leadership books will be familiar with the various ways that goals, vision, mission, plan, ambition are used. Different authors use the same terms in different ways, and some are quite confusing. I’m trying to distinguish things which are achievable (goals, and when they form a coherent pattern they make a vision, or ambition), and things which are never achievable but keep us pointing in the right direction (resolutions, or mission, or – more flabbily – values). I fully recognise that other good writers use those terms in other ways.