We make decisions every day. Most of them are small and inconsequential. Others are big and momentous. The crucial issue is how to make decisions well.
Alan Ehler answers that question in his new book, appropriately titled How to Make Big Decisions Wisely. Ehler is a professor and dean of Barnett College of Ministry and Theology at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister. His answer combines biblical and theological reflection with insights gained from decision science.
To make big decisions wisely, Ehler argues, you need to know what constitutes a big decision in the first place. Part 1 answers that question. “Big decisions shape the course of life,” he writes. Drawing on Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Ehler proposes a grid for decision making based on four considerations: Is your experience limited? Is your level of clarity or certainty about the decision low? Is there disagreement among those involved with making the decision? And are there many seemingly good options to choose between?
If your answers to those questions are “no,” you can make a fast, intuitive decision. If it’s “yes,” however, you need to slow down and be intentional, because your decision is a big one.
The heart of How to Make Big Decisions Wisely is Part 2, which outlines an intentional decision-making model Ehler calls Story Shaping. The model consists of four steps:
- Read the backstory.
- Catch God’s story.
- Craft a new story.
- Tell the new story.
The first step requires decision makers to understand what is happening and why, as well as the outcome you desire from the decision-making process. “Whatever dilemma you may face,” writes Ehler, “you are more likely to make a better decision if you understand the real story, rather than just seeing what’s on the surface.” This is true whether the decision is personal or organizational in nature.
Catching God’s story is the second step. “The goal of Story Shaping is to collaborate with God in shaping your story,” Ehler writes. This is the book’s most theological chapter, focused on how to discern God’s will for our lives. We hear God’s voice most perfectly in Scripture, “which is God-inspired and uniquely trustworthy and authoritative,” as Ehler puts it. And yet, Scripture itself points to two other sources where we might discern God’s will: our perception of the Holy Spirit’s voice and the counsel of Christian community. While these sources can reveal God’s story, they remain subject to the controlling authority of Scripture.
The third step in Story Shaping is to craft a new story, which draws heavily on the secular discipline of decision science. Some readers may wonder why such a chapter is necessary. Isn’t catching God’s story sufficient? The answer to that question is obviously “yes,” but we need to ask ourselves, Sufficient for what? Scripture, the Spirit and Christian community always set the parameters for permissible decisions, but they do not always make the decisions for us. Typically, we have to choose among several good options.
Decision science helps us make good choices by showing us how to sift our options. “The goal is simple: generate as many solutions as possible, narrow them to a manageable list, evaluate each option, and then make the best possible decision,” Ehler writes. Ehler’s chapter on this third step contains detailed suggestions about how to do each thing.
Once a decision has been made, it needs to be communicated to stakeholders. This is the fourth step of Story Shaping: Tell the new story. When you communicate a leadership decision, Ehler recommends keeping things simple. Your communications should explain the necessity and benefits of making the recommended change, as well as how it will happen. Additionally, you need to address people’s fear of change by showing how it will improve their situation. Finally, you need to clarify what part the stakeholders themselves will play in making the change.
Part 3 concludes How to Make Big Decisions Wisely by demonstrating how it applies to personal and organization decisions, as well as conflict resolution. The four steps of Story Shaping may strike some readers as simplistic, but this section of the book shows how a simple model has tremendous power both to explain a problem and to craft a solution.
Alan Ehler wrote How to Make Big Decisions Wisely for a broad readership. It has obvious applications for both personal and organizational decisions, as well as for both ministry and business contexts. If you’re a minister, consider reading it for personal growth, but also consider using it as a leadership development tool with board members, pastoral staff and leading volunteers.
Alan Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely: A Biblical and Scientific Guide to Healthier Habits, Less Stress, a Better Career, and Much More (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).
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