Pastoral Leadership and the Kobayashi Maru

By Bryce Ashlin-Mayo - Westlife Church, Calgary

In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, James T. Kirk is faced with a theoretical training scenario known as the Kobayashi Maru.  The Kobayashi Maru is a no-win situation that tests the leader’s character and ability to redefine the situation or problem.  Starfleet Academy knows that good leaders are not only able to make good decisions, but they are also able to navigate difficult situations with integrity and wisdom when a positive solution seems elusive.

Over my years as a pastor, I have encountered several Kobayashi Maru leadership situations.  Circumstances where there was no clear outcome or way forward.  In my experience, these situations led to one of two conditions in the life of the leader (I’ve experienced both).  One is fear and worry and the other is trust and peace. 

This may seem easy, but it is not. 

Trusting God with the inanimate, impersonal, and distant is easy but trusting God with a complicated situation, wrapped in fragile personal relationships, with unknown outcomes and potentially devastating fallout, is more difficult than words can express.  As any starship officer would attest, peace is easy when the Starship Enterprise is in space-dock, but it is an entirely different situation when it is in battle.

Conflict is complicated.  A few years ago, I walked several people through a conflict resolution process.  It was extremely complicated with no obvious solution presenting itself.  Adding to the complication was the messy reality of the pastorate; I was friends with all parties involved and they served in various church leadership positions.  If things went poorly, I could lose dear friends and the church would feel the impact of their relational conflict.  As I led them forward, all I could do was help them discern the next step and encourage them to take it.  Although the conflict was complicated, God was faithful.

As I continue to learn these lessons as a pastor and leader, the following three truths have been battle-tested in the most difficult of circumstances.

Keep Your Eyes on Jesus

This may seem obvious for a pastor, but in the midst of a leadership challenge it becomes all too easy to focus on an easy outcome, our preferred solution, or our ability to make good decisions.  In difficult leadership situations, I need to constantly remind myself that Jesus is more invested in them than I am, the Holy Spirit is working, and Jesus (not me!) is the head of the Church.  Sometimes, as pastors we need to proclaim the truth that Israel declares in 2 Chronicles 20:12 “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” 

Ask for Wisdom

Kobayashi Maru leadership situations are such that there is no easy way forward.  There is no easy answer.  There is no simple solution.  In these situations, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we need to ask God for help and wisdom (James 1).  I have learned that God’s wisdom doesn’t come all at once but in a constant trust-inducing stream that runs at God’s pace, not mine.  In other words, we may not know all the steps to take in the situation, but we just need to trust in God for the next one.

Find Peace in Jesus, Not in a Successful Outcome

In my experience, leaders and pastors bear too much personal responsibility for successful outcomes in pastoral situations.  We falsely assume that other people’s choices are our responsibility.  We can set the stage for good decisions, give good counsel, and have a good next step to offer, but often people will ignore it and go their own way.  If our sense of peace is rooted in things ending well, we will be constantly worried and trapped in fear.  However, if our peace is rooted in Jesus and being obedient to the steps He gives, we will find peace regardless of other people choices or our perception of a successful outcome.

As you’ve faced Kobayashi Maru leadership situations of your own, what have you found to be helpful advice and counsel to weather the storm, keep your eyes on Jesus, and grow in your faith?