Hard Questions, Hard Answers

the-riddlerA colleague took me aside recently and said, “You know, you’re upsetting a lot of people.”  I looked at him and immediately asked, “Who?”  Furtively, my friend said, “Well, you know, leaders in the church.”  “Like who?” I asked, then added, “A lot?”  He went on to name two people who have been unhappy with something I have said on the blog.  We talked for awhile, and my friend said something that stuck with me: “You’re asking questions that they don’t have answers for.  You’re making them look bad.”

Since when do Christians need to be afraid of tough questions?  Yes, I know our history is replete with incident after incident of religious authority oppressing those who dared to question authority or challenge orthodoxy, but if we’re so all fired sure we have the answers, what is the threat of a few hard questions?  Most of the great advances of humankind found their genesis in those who questioned “reality.”

I pushed my friend to identify the questions I am asking for which there are no answers.  He hesitated.  “You keep questioning motivation… and common sense.”  I brightened.  “That’s what I’m trying to do!”

“Yeah, but people don’t like that.”

Once again, I have to ask why.  Being clear on why we do something is never a bad thing.  Nor is using common sense in our decision making.  I can see how people might get offended when their common sense and motivations are questioned, but the only problem occurs when people aren’t clear on their motivations or fear they have used poor judgement.  Asking questions should be the safest, most valued practice in our church that we can imagine.  There is no hope for us as a denomination if open, free exchange of ideas isn’t safe.

I have some serious concerns about why we want more churches.  I have serious concerns about clergy leadership who are indifferent to a disciplined spiritual life.  I question the viability of a denomination obsessed with numbers.  I question how serious we are about acting on anything we “rethink.”  I question none of these things to be adversarial, but to push the conversation to deeper levels.  We should be launching new faith communities — that equip disciples to transform the world.  We should be supporting clergy and laity leadership — to model the disciplined practice of the means of grace.  We should care about numbers — the number of people we can serve.  And we should “rethink” — but constantly, with integrity, and with the intention to change and improve.  Questioning conventional wisdom and the status quo is essential for continuous improvement.  But there are those who do not want to hear the questions.

I came across a great quote in Tim Hamilton’s graphic re-interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451 — “You ask why to a lot of things and you end up very unhappy indeed.”  This is the motto of every totalitarian organization in history.  “Why” is the question no one wants to hear, when the only answer they have is “because.”

What are the questions I think The United Methodist Church should wrestle with and strive to answer?

  • why do we need to make disciples?
  • why do we need to transform the world?
  • why is marketing more important than missions?
  • why do we believe that new churches will make us better than the churches we already have?
  • why do we think the next million new members will be better than the last million we lost?
  • why aren’t we more concerned about sustainability than short term results?
  • why are we so enamored with size?
  • why do we continue to produce so many resources and programs that fail to yield positive results?
  • why do we keep shifting focus every few years instead of focusing on our core and staying the course?
  • why are we so committed to preserving the institution instead of transforming the world?

I could go on and on.  These questions barely scratch the surface.  But these questions — and the time and energy it will take to answer them — don’t help us today.  Hard questions require hard work to produce hard answers.  We want help NOW.  We are driven by a toxic blend of time and money — both in short supply.  We ignored all the signs of decay until we have no time for long-term solutions.  We are in a financial crisis that motivates us to cut costs and operate from a scarcity mentality.  Forget what God’s will  might be.  Don’t talk vision.  Count up the pennies instead, and frame our ministry in terms of what we can afford.

We are caught in a spiral of negative energy.  What we aren’t takes more of our attention than what we can be.  What we have lost obscures what we have left.  Where we have been limits where we think we can go next.  Who we’re not dictates who we think we can be…  Why?

It has taken us decades to get where we are.  It will take more than a few months to get someplace better.  We must live with all of our past decisions — both good and bad — but that doesn’t mean we can’t make better decisions in the future.  We are the body of Christ for our world.  We are only limited by our vision, our imagination, and our leadership.  If we aren’t where we need to be, we need to change those three things.

No good leader shies away from questions.  No competent decision-maker is afraid of criticism.  No visionary is defensive about his or her direction.  Those who have confidence that what they are doing ‘”is good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2) welcome every opportunity to share their understanding of God’s will.  When asking hard questions isn’t okay, watch out.  It means the answer is that we’re in big, big trouble.

18 replies

  1. When will our generational elders figure this out. How many of us have to leave?

    Eric, it sounds like there is alot of stuff behind these questions.

    Do you notice that you say the boomers are wrong because they will not adjust their values while at the same time saying young people are justified in leaving when their values are not embraced?

    Sounds like both generations are doing the same thing – insisting on what they value (whatever that means) being given a place of honor.

    Maybe we should ask one of Dan’s why questions: Why do we think our “values” should be honored?

  2. Dan,

    A recent study of media multitasking conducted at Stanford might have some analogous bearing on two of the questions you have asked. Information about that study can be found here:

    1. Why do we continue to produce so many resources and programs that fail to yield positive results?
    2. Why do we keep shifting focus every few years instead of focusing on our core and staying the course?

    What this study found is that people who are engaged in media multi-tasking are actually terrible at it. The researchers expected to find a practice makes perfect correlation– that people who did this more got better at it over time. They found the reverse. Folks who did it more thought they were getting better at multi-tasking, task-switching, and productivity, but they were actually getting MUCH worse on all counts. Not only that, even when they weren’t doing media-multitasking their ability to concentrate was severely impaired for other tasks, and apparently for a long term period until they quit the practice of media multitasking altogether for a period of days or weeks.

    A subsequent study will look at the brain events associated with why media multitaskers think they’re doing so well when in reality they’re not. The leading theory at this point is that there’s a kind of euphoria created in the brain while trying to process so many things at once– and that euphoria misleads people into thinking they’re performing well.

    Here’s the connection I draw. There is a real attraction for leaders of organizations to try to generate change within the organization all the time– as if change itself IS the highest value. There is also a kind of high generated in those who are working for change. However, keeping things in constant flux– which is what often happens in organizations led this way– is entirely incompatible with maintaining focus and so consistent positive results over the long term.

    We really have to have a massive intervention in the culture of “leadership=constant reorganization” at every level if we’re going to see better outcomes– i.e., the capacity for those hired to produce particular kinds of work to focus well enough on doing so, with enough institutional support to do that work over a period of say 10-12 years at least, if we’re going to see better outcomes.

    That seems contrary to the “production” model of business management where you need to keep the brand “fresh” all the time. But here’s the deal– the church in all its varieties of forms, including congregations, are not businesses. They are human communities. They operate best NOT on the speed of business, but on the reliability of trusted relationships. Trust, for communities, isn’t built on change, but on excellence and stability.

    We don’t seem to remember these things. And so we continue support a leadership culture that is primed to hype the “next big thing” as if it’s the real answer this time, unlike all the “abandonware” efforts of the previous quadrennium.

    And those leaders really do, in all likelihood, feel quite pumped about all the reorganization they are doing all the time. They do believe what they are doing is making things better.

    If the analogy with the media multitasking study holds, however, those beliefs may be found not to be compatible with the facts.

    My largest hope for the next quadrennium is that the UMC and its leaders would actually commit to staying the course with the four areas of focus for THEIR work (that is, the work of the General Agencies, which is NOT the same as the work of annual conferences or local congregations or any number of extension ministries) for at least two to three more quadrennia. It really will take at least that long actually to focus enough to generate consistent, high quality initiatives that we support well for the longer haul after so many “four-year shuffles” in the institutional history of our denomination.

  3. You do realize that the UMC isn’t in any way equipped to actually do effective ministry. An example. I recently met with the pastoral team at my home church. We were discussing the fact the conflicting values of desiring a multigenerational worship experience and the reality that many parents are more than happy to let the kids go downstairs and play. Now the staff was adament that education was for before worship and that kids should be in the sanctuary. There is a HUGE values disconnect here because most parents (like they have to go out and look around the church for kids for the childrens message…can you say awkward pastoral moment.) don’t share that value otherwise they would either

    A) Show up for education hour.

    B) Not consciously allow their kids to play. (which I always question why God would be angry that we let children run and play in his house but I digress)

    The point is when you ask why and challenge with reality it has be coupled with facts and numbers and a solution. It isn’t a zero sum game. But at the same time Baby Boomers have to grant the 50’s and 60’s are over (praise God!!) and that younger Generations while they share most values will need those values expressed differently and in different ways. When will our generational elders figure this out. How many of us have to leave?

    Why don’t baby boomer ministers not get that they are out of touch with reality of young peoples spiritual and physical lives?

    Why do pastors beat their congregations with the same tired 1970’s values system?

    Why do pastors where bad sport coats? Really…most of you guys have no fashion sense.


    Why do pastors refuse to accept male pattern balding with cheezy baseball caps,(have your grand kids buy one for you that looks cool) or the pastoral ‘comb over’?

  4. Thanks Dick for holding our feet to the fire. We have been like the ostrich with our head in the sand for too long. It is time to come together in such a way that we can hold ourselves accountable for the state of the church. Ken Callahan asked the question, “Are our best years behind us?” If they are, we might as well pack up our proverbial tents and call it a day. If we believe, as I do, that God is alive and well, then our future is full of potential to make a difference, to change lives, to help bring in the Kingdom of God. Lets spend time praying and discerning how we can move forward with God’s help. It is time to “Rethink” church from the bottom up, and begin to answer and struggle with the tough questions

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