Over the past few decades many have advocated the approach of focusing on a single topic or role until you acquire “expert” status. Specialists have come to dominate professions in economics, politics, law, medicine, finance and many other professional domains. You also see this within many larger church and ministry settings where specialization makes more sense. Still there are indications that being a generalist rather than a specialist can give you and your ministry strategic advantages.
Note: This article applies specifically to having an expertise in a specific topic or role and doesn’t apply to knowledge of the Bible. Obviously, we would all benefit from being specialists in the Bible, as this should be the central foundation that shapes our entire worldview.
Specialists typically work within a single field and relate everything they think and do through a central vision or a single system. They consciously or unconsciously seek to fit ideas and concepts into (or exclude them from) one unchanging, all-embracing (sometimes self-contradictory or incomplete) inner vision. When faced with conflicting data, specialists may be forced to jump through intellectual hoops in order to justify their perspective.
The Specialist’s Shortcomings
The world we live in is growing increasingly complex and interconnected. Developments in one nation, ministry, technology or social group can have significant affects on seemingly unrelated areas. Rather than deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, or poorly-defined dynamics, specialist’s choose to hyper-focus on one element they feel they understand or can control. The problem is that they tend to ignore elements and possibilities outside of their domain, impeding their ability to accurately predict the future or the probability of unforeseen challenges. In fact, in a 20 year study conducted by Phillip Tetlock, it was found that specialists were less able to accurately predict the future in their own areas of expertise than nonexperts. One way this is described is that specialists not only fail to recognize the forest for the trees, but may fail to see or understand the tree for their hyper focus on the bark.
Where Specialists are Still Needed
The specialist’s skills and logic are still needed in fields within natural and physical sciences such as chemistry, biology, astronomy, and physics. But any field or environment that is subject to uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (such as most ministries) will benefit from a broader perspective.
The generalists see the world as a series of complex and interconnected systems that require a functional understanding in a broad range of skills and topics. They highly value knowledge, but are constantly seeking to stretch and challenge their assumptions. They may take an interest in seemingly unrelated fields or attempt to grasp two seemingly opposing viewpoints. Generalists are better at navigating uncertainty, seeing and identifying opportunity, and identifying risk in a complex and ever changing world.
When seeking accuracy of predictions, it is better to turn to “those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.”
A Generalist Isn’t the Same as a “Jack of all Trades”
Being a generalist does not mean that one fails to master a trade or gain knowledge related to their role. Instead, it means that as they take a broader perspective, building upon and stretching their knowledge within their field or role by simultaneously seeking to understand other roles, models, and perspectives. This skill allows them to pull from a broad range of knowledge when interacting with a team or making decisions.
Promoting a Generalist Mindset in Ministry
- Understand your role – Start by understanding your role and how it fits into a broader fabric of your team, ministry, and community
- Zoom out – Take a step back, and ask yourself what factors outside of your expertise factor into the big picture outcomes? Where have your predictions and recommendations gone wrong in the past? What external factors attributed to them? Seek to gain a better understanding of these forces.
- Study other ministry models - Pastors of large churches might want to study the organic church, a senior pastor might want to catch up on the world of youth ministry in today’s culture, an outreach pastor might want to study ministries techniques used in India, etc.
- Cross-train – Learn what is involved in successfully carrying out other roles within your team. This will helping you become a more understanding and effective communicator and team member.