Guest Viewpoint: When Is the Hill Worth Dying On?

We’ve all heard the question: Is this a hill worth dying on?

Great question. Simple answer: There are fewer hills worth dying on than you think. More complicated answer: There is a two-part answer.

W. Clay Smith

The first part: What hill should you not die on?

— Don’t die on hills of tactics. When and where are rarely issues to sacrifice yourself on.

— Don’t die on a hill of strategy. There are always multiple paths to achieve goals. Yes, your way may be faster and less expensive. Maybe your organization needs to do it the hard way first to learn something. It can be such a little thing to be right.

— Don’t die on a hill when you are feeling anxious or rushed. Anxiety distorts reality. Does the decision need to be made now, or can it wait? People in anxious states become defensive and want to battle because they want to relieve the tension instead of winning the battle. Often they lose the battle and get more tension.

— Don’t die on a hill when the hill is irrelevant. The island-hopping strategy of Admiral Chester Nimitz in World War II was to avoid Japanese strongholds and let them wither on their own. Instead, he located strategic islands to advance his mission to threaten the Japanese homeland. There are programs you did not need to battle. You need to wait for natural deaths.

— Don’t die on a hill when time is your ally. In every organization, there will be visionaries, early adopters, middle adopters, late adopters and resisters. If every hill is a battle, you will alienate the late adopters first, and then the middle adopters. If you can be patient, the early adopters will convince the middle and late adopters that it is okay to get on board.

The second part: What hill should you die on?

— Die on the hill of your mission, once you have buy-in. It takes a church about three years to buy into an understanding of its unique reason for being. Once that is known, fight for it. Protect your mission from those who want to add one more thing. Encourage people who want to do other things to find other churches or organizations to do their thing.

— Die on the hill of your core beliefs. There should be a few core beliefs that serve as anchors for your organization. Fight for these. For example, our church has four core values: People matter to God, church is a place of grace, people need to be like Jesus, and everyone has a purpose. Are there other beliefs that are important? Sure. But these four are what we die for.

— Die on the hill of organizational health. It shames me that business leaders often feel more protective of their businesses than pastors do of their churches. As a pastor, I answer to Jesus about the health of my flock. When un-health exists, it must be addressed and treated. Cancers need to be understood and treated. Some cancers can be eliminated. For example, if your church has the cancer of poor communication, that can be treated over time. Fight for that health. Some cancers must be killed. For example, if your core leadership says, “We just need to take care of the people we have, not go after new people,” then that cancer needs to be killed by teaching it to death. Some cancers are incurable. Jesus himself told us what to do: “If a town will not receive you, shake the dust of that town off your sandals and move on.” If you are in a church or organization that is toxic, shake the dust off your shoes and leave. As you leave, someone needs to know the truth about the cancer: a key lay leader, the body of elders, or the body of deacons.

Rules of thumb

— If you are in a moderately healthy church, you should face no more than two hills on which to die each year.

— If you are in a dysfunctional church, you will face a battle to the death that will result in someone leaving. Decide in advance if it will be you or them. Don’t fight the battle until you are sure you know the outcome God desires.

— If you are new in a position in a church, try to put off battles to the death for at least two to three years.

— If you are constantly fighting on hills worth dying for, you have a major spiritual issue you need to address. You probably need the spiritual fruit of patience. You may be expressing anger stored inside you in an unhealthy way. Find a mentor, see a counselor, but don’t take it out on your church.

— W. Clay Smith is lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. This essay was adapted from his blog at