Managing expectations

If you have been following the Premier League this season, you will know that Liverpool got off to an inauspicious start. The team did not play well in the first half of the season and, post-World Cup break, things have not really changed. Losing to Brentford was not the return to form they were looking for.

Now, you can blame managerial decisions if you want. There might be something to that. More people are blaming transfer policy than anything else, with an ageing midfield core and nobody appropriate bought in over the summer window. Then, of course, there are the big-ticket players they did bring in. Chief amongst them, the £64m signing of Darwin Núñez.

With big ticket players always comes big expectations. Comparisons are inevitably drawn between them and other big name players. You might be paying a lot for a proven player or effectively putting a price tag on potential. Either way, the question remains: does the player justify the price tag?

We can have something of this issue with expectations in the church too. Not buying people in and trading them in some sort of church transfer market. But just in the way we label things. Sometimes what we call stuff creates a level of expectation. Other times, what we call particular roles creates a level of expectation. Sometimes it’s not the nomenclature that causes the problem, it is the way we advertise and bill things. Expectations are often raised.

When people have expectations, there is an inevitable follow up: are expectations being met? It doesn’t really matter whether we have created the expectation or it has been raised in a person’s own mind. If expectations exist, people will necessarily assess what they see by them. Is this doing what I thought it was meant to do? Does this function in the way I expected the thing to work? Does this achieve what I hoped it would achieve?

For this reason, I think we have to be very careful to manage expectations in the church. We need to be clear what the church is for and why. We need to be clear what we are aiming to do as a church and what we think the mission of the church is supposed to be. We need to be clear what membership is and how it is supposed to function in the life of the church. We need to be clear what any given ministry, programme or activity is intended to do so that expectations can be managed accordingly.

Sometimes, I imagine we will do this well. We will be clear, we will reiterate, everyone will know what this thing is, why we are doing it and how it is intended to achieve whatever outcome we are aiming for. Other times, we will do this badly. We may not communicate what the thing is supposed to do, people may forget why we are doing it, it might not be clear in the grand scheme of things what this things was ever supposed to achieve or if it is doing so. Most of our churches, I suspect, will be a mixture of communicating these things well and communicating these things badly.

The point is that managing expectations matters. If we set high expectations, and fail to achieve them, we will discourage people because nothing ever achieves what it is meant to do. If we set very low expectations, we will certainly hit it and discourage everyone in the process as we achieve nothing. Which means we have to do our best to set realistic expectations. Not so high that we never achieve our aims, not so low that we never achieve anything at all.

For smaller churches with few resources, that may just mean being honest about what we are able to do. It might mean recognising some of what we do is going to look lower grade and less impressive than larger, resource rich churches. It means that whatever we do, we have to be clear why we are doing it because there will always be other potential demands on our resources so we have to be wise with what we have. It similarly means we have to be clear that what may look small and pokey might, nevertheless, be the best and most wise thing we can do with the resources God has entrusted to us. Clarity in these things will help manage expectations.