When Faced With Two Options Choose the Third

I have been writing recently about reframing our current conversation about the church from one of doom, gloom, decay, and demise to one of faith, hope, vision and relevancy.  My central thesis is that we are unlikely to attract new people with the message, “Our ship is sinking and we don’t know what to do about it, but we’re rethinking it — come join us!”  Concepts like “death Tsunami” are statements of fear, not faith, and solemnly stating that we are “just being realistic” is a clear indicator that we walk by sight rather than faith.  Some call my desire to move toward a Promised Land instead of merely escaping Egypt naive.  I can see their pessimism if the only two choices they can imagine are short-sighted fatalism or insipid simplification.  I don’t believe we are limited to just these two options.  Let me share a story that I can use to illustrate my point.

A colleague of mine has been living and working in Japan for the past eighteen months.  He told me this story of the March earthquake.  He was in a busy business center on the Friday afternoon of the quake.  As the world was turned upside down, hundreds of people ran from a corporate office in a panic.  Three men, all leaders in the companies occupying the building, began shouting.  (Forgive my spelling errors, but I don’t know Japanese and am not sure I will get this right…) The first man bellowed, “Jishin! shinsai!” two words meaning “earthquake;” the second was shouting “Hashire!” or “run.”  The third man was shouting “kariya!” which means shelter, and he was leading people to a reinforced  safety bunker.  Who do you think people responded best to?

In our current church situation, we have people screaming “earthquake” (or Death Tsunami).  They are focusing on the problem.  They hope to scare people into action.  They are employing “the sky is falling” school of management.  Actually demotivational, because as anxiety and despair increase, people’s horizon’s shrink and they are crippled from doing any kind of critical or lateral thinking.  I don’t think anyone is unaware that we have problems.  People who lack solutions have no other option but to dwell on the brokenness.  Unfortunately, this is not leadership no matter how you dress it up.

Neither is the “run” option.  The “don’t just stand there, DO something,” school of management results in analysis paralysis where we confuse activity with progress.  But if you aren’t moving TOWARD a solution (Promised Land) you are simply wandering in the wilderness.  Evidence of this is a call to action rather than a call to effectiveness or mission.  It leads us to identify the same problems we identified 20, 30, 40 years ago and say, “well, this time, we’re really serious!”  Get busy, work harder, do more, rearrange deck chairs faster, hold more meetings, spend more money, hurry-up-and-produce-paper-the-boss-is-watching!!  But the measure of effective activity is outcomes.  We still don’t have clear outcomes in mind, and where there is no vision, the people perish.

We need people who have laser-focus on solutions — who don’t keep saying “we’re in crisis and we’d better do something quick.”  The somethings need to be defined and they need to be designed to produce specific outcomes.  Preserving the institutional United Methodist Church isn’t good enough.  We are not an end, but a means to an end.  We have defined our end, our purpose (for good or ill) as making disciples for the transformation of the world.”  The problem is, the system we have isn’t designed to do this — which leaves us a choice to make: 1) change our mission to fit our system (bad idea), 2) change our system to fit our mission (great idea, but painful and costly), 3) go back to square one and figure out who we want to be when we grow up (an admission that we really haven’t know what we’re doing — which is why we keep hiring outsiders to tell us who we are…), or 4) enter a period of serious prayerful discernment where we honestly put everything on the table and refuse to protect our sacred cows (gutsy, risky, exciting, scary, and requiring visionary, decisive leadership).  There may be many more options, but I merely wanted to clarify that we are not stuck in a simple “either/or” situation.

I believe we are too constrained by fear, self-interest, and survival to step out in true faith to become a new thing.  We will rethink ourselves to death before we will make deep change.  We are exploring some significant cosmetic changes, but the analogy that comes to mind is liposuction as a solution to obesity — getting rid of the fat changes appearances, but it does not necessarily bring health.  Until a proper diet, regimen of exercise and rest, and a fundamental shift of values occurs, all you have is the same old sick organism in a slightly different sack.  I think we can make the necessary changes to become the church we need to be, but don’t really want to.  If we make the leap, we will be smaller (numerically), disposing of a large number of inappropriate facilities, training leadership differently with significantly different structures of accountability and evaluation.  We will deconstruct the monolithic super-structure and help conferences develop indigenous leadership to do what the “experts” do for/to us presently.  We will collaborate more, legislate less; engage more, spending much less time and money on meetings.  We can make these, and other truly transformational changes, but only if we set the self-interested, survivalist institutional preservation mindset aside.

23 replies

  1. The problem, as this layperson sees it, is that the “institutional” church is directed by a leadership that has a vested interest in maintaining as much of the status quo as possible. I find it very difficult for laity to effect meaningful change, even on a local level. We literally have no say is who is assigned to us, or how long they will stay – the needs of the conference will supercede any “pastor profile” that a congregation may offer. A large church will never get a young lead pastor, and is used by the conference to support a very senior pastor, a pastor who is clearly on the rise, or one returning to the pulpit after serving in an administrative office. Sorry, that’s the way I see it – and I have talked with my pastor about this

    • Tim, I’ve watched some of what you’ve described occurring in some of our conferences, but I’ve also watched the opposite. I’ve served a number of laity that say they want growth, but not at the cost of their comfort. They receive a pastor who is able to lead them in effective growth but will fight tooth and nail for the changes being proposed. I see that “vested interest” on both sides of the spectrum – so my question is when will we stop looking at things as clergy vs. laity (or laity vs. clergy) and see the church as both together? When do we begin to take mutual responsibility for the system and the outcomes we’re receiving? Is it too late for that?

  2. Before we start throwing rocks at specific church leaders in this church-wide conversation it might be good for us to remember the “marathon effect” (William Bridges).

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