Prince Raney Rivers: Sixth Sense

Leaders have to have a sixth sense, like the Israelite spy Caleb in the book of Numbers.

Every leader has to have a sixth sense. I don’t always know what to call it. But it’s there.

The after school routine in my house goes like this: I ask my three year old son what he learned that day. He tells me “nothing” or “I don’t know.” One day I caught him before temporary amnesia set in, and he told me he learned about the five senses. For weeks his class studied a different sense and experienced various stimuli to become familiar with different sensations. It’s fascinating to watch this educational journey unfold because I simply take for granted the knowledge I have about simple matters like the five senses.

After he described the five senses to me, I wanted to so much to tell him that there’s another sense the teacher didn’t mention. I thought better of it. His mind is so concrete that trying to explain abstractions is an exercise in futility. But the truth is that none of us can hope to get anything done in this life merely relying on the five senses. Call it instinct, gut feelings, intuition or, if you like, find a more theological term. Life and leadership require a sixth sense.

For some unknown reason, when God prepared the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, spies were sent to explore the land and bring back a report to Moses (See Numbers 13). This has always seemed like an unnecessary step to me. It’s not like the Israelites could exchange this land for one they liked better. Why God offered a test drive, we’ll never know. But God did, so Moses sent twelve spies to investigate.

The spies were told what to look for and what to bring back. They concealed their identity, infiltrated the land, took surveys, and gathered samples. Forty days later, they returned to base camp. The question was on every Israelite’s mind, “What did you see?” While that seems like a straight-forward question, every leader knows better.

Moses asked for a report and the spies gave an account of what they had seen. “We went into the land to which you sent us and it does flow with milk and honey.” (Num. 13:27) So far, so good. But they also saw giants and as far as they were concerned, there was nothing more to say (13:28). This mission was over before it started.

Our church started a capital stewardship campaign last Easter to pay off the church’s mortgage in order to expand our mission and ministry. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Then AIG happened. Then the housing market tanked. Then unemployment skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.

I kept waiting for the day when someone was going to say, “Pastor, don’t you think we should suspend the campaign until the conditions are more favorable?” That day never came. In fact, on Easter of this year we celebrated the campaign’s one year anniversary and announced that we had received in excess of $500,000 above our regular contributions, more than one-third of our three year goal.

I don’t deny or dismiss the reality of the pain felt in so many businesses, congregations, institutions and families. Yet, over the pessimism of the talking heads I continue hear the voice of Caleb. He’s saying, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (13:30).

So, here’s a question for leaders today: what do you see? If, like the children in my son’s class, you are relying only on your five senses, you probably don’t see much. And what you do see will likely discourage you. If on the other hand, you’re listening to Caleb, there’s no telling what God might do next.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.