In my 35+ years of consultation work (as well as the dozen+ years in parish ministry) I have witnessed one consistent and undermining practice again and again. Examples: “Our Conference is currently working on these six top priorities,” and “we determined that every aspect of disciple making is our top priority,” or “mission is our main focus, but growth is our top priority, though we are driven by our budget.” The common denominator in each of these examples is a fundamental misunderstanding of priorities. Traditionally, “a priority” is a contradiction in terms; “the priority” is accurate because priority means “first and foremost.” “A” priority must, and I underscore MUST, be “the” priority or it simply isn’t “a priority.” We shoot ourselves in the foot when we allow anything other than our priority to be our priority – and this comes back to my continuous rant on addressing complex situations in simplistic terms.
If you have three or six or ten priorities, you have zero priorities because everything you are doing is in competition with everything else you are doing. And I don’t mean this as condemnation or indictment, it is simply unreflective and superficial thinking. There are many critically important things we must deal with and what may be the most important or demanding thing today may be something completely different tomorrow. This is actually why it is so essential to identify the absolute, without question, non-negotiable, most important thing that must be done so that none of the other demands and distractions pull us away. And this also challenges the second most frequent undermining practice in our churches today – trial and error. Examples: “we try a lot of things, some work and some don’t,” and “we aren’t afraid of failing,” or “for every new ministry that is successful, we have tried a dozen that were not.” This sounds great on the surface, but what it generally indicates is that we have no clear idea what we are supposed to be doing. It also indicates that the church has no “R&D,” we don’t research well before we launch, greatly raising the probability that what we try won’t actually be successful. Most of the truly effective churches I worked with did excellent pre-work to determine 1) what was most needed, 2) the best ways to approach, 3) the best way to roll out, and 4) the best way to evaluate and improve, before anything was actually offered. Also, if something didn’t work well the first time, it wasn’t abandoned to try something else; it was assessed and fine-tuned until it succeeded. The reality for the vast majority of our congregations and conferences is that we have limited resources to address almost unlimited needs and possibilities. We must, as good stewards, leverage our resources to offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the greatest number of settings. Trial and error is one of the least faithful approaches we have come up with – we waste much more than we accomplish.
And when “trying” becomes a priority (triorities?), we are in desperate straits. Trying many things becomes an excuse for not succeeding at anything. Again, this is an analytical assessment, not meant to be judgmental. It has become our default setting to try many things, attend to many things (does anyone still believe multi-tasking is productive?), care for many things, and work desperately to keep as many people happy as possible — all with the very best intentions. But we sacrifice integrity when we do so.
I am as guilty as anyone. I worked in a Conference leadership that made new church starts, congregational revitalization, and ministry with the poor and marginalized its “top” priority, then saw the addition of eliminating racism, cross cultural appointments, and full inclusion and support of LGBTQIA+ people to this list. Internally, money was the true driver, setting the limits and bounds on everything else. When we made “radical inclusion and racial justice” our initiative for the coming quadrennium, I made myself incredibly unpopular by stating that this must become a “true” priority, guiding and directing all decisions made by the Conference, otherwise is was just lip service and destined to be just one more “theme.” While there is a widespread and well-meant support of racial justice in Wisconsin, it is abstract and ill-defined for too many people, especially those of the dominant culture. We pride ourselves on our number of cross-racial/cross-cultural appointments, but have never given equal attention to the quality of support and preparation for successful inter-cultural ministry. I finally gave up trying when it became clear that racial justice would remain just one of many (important, but not equal) priorities.
One of my colleagues got very upset with me when I made the observation that in Wisconsin most pastoral leaders don’t trust the Conference to stay the course and focus on just one thing for the long haul. Wisconsin tries many things, but it tries them for short spans of time, never allowing enough space to see what impact is being made. Pastors and laity leaders sometimes find value in many of these offerings, but they don’t have confidence that we won’t set off in a different direction in a few months. I have heard this sentiment even more often since leaving the Conference staff. There is no clearly shared sense of why we are doing what we are doing, and therefore very little trust or buy-in.
Before I came on staff for the Wisconsin Conference in 2009, I was the consultant from the General Board of Discipleship in 2006-2007 who worked with Bishop Linda Lee and the staff and elected leadership to create a comprehensive strategic plan. At that time I discovered eleven priorities identified by cabinet, bishop, and other leaders — all named of equal importance and value. I told Bishop Lee that “when you have eleven priorities, you have no priorities,” and that “priorities need to be listed vertically rather than horizontally.” Without a clear consensus (consensus, not agreement) of the true top, driving, essential #1 priority, the Conference could not move forward and rebuild necessary trust and unity. The metaphor I used was that of the Promised Land – one compelling, over-arching vision that pulled all else into alignment and demanded the contribution of every part in order to be successful. “Without a Promised Land, any movement, any activity – no matter how good or valuable – is simply wandering in the wilderness.” Wisconsin was trying many things, and doing many of them very well, but they were not aligned to a clear, concrete, measurable, and vital goal.
I want to be clear – I believe that “radical inclusion and racial justice” is the right and best priority for Wisconsin right now, and I worked hard to make it a true priority. If we could immerse this Conference in radical inclusion, racial justice would benefit. But this would require us to allow our racial-ethnic, culturally diverse, and immigrant leadership to truly lead and create for us the engagement, training, learning, equipping processes to saturate every aspect of our Conference life. It would make cultural competency, inter-cultural awareness and education, and multiculturalism mandatory standards for clergy and laity leadership. It would require coaching, consultation, and collaboration with members of other demographics and ethnographics. It would require us to restructure, re-budget, reframe, and reeducate our Conference system. One of my favorite Yogi Berraisms is “when you do what you’ve done, you get what you’ve got.” If we want to see a different church and world, we need to become a different Conference, and that means making a priority the priority. I truly believe that Wisconsin Conference could lead our denomination in full inclusion and become a model and witness in a deeply divided and divisive age. It’s possible if we will just stay focused on the Promised Land.
Enough picking on my own Conference. It is simply an example of what happens over and over again – without a clear, single identified priority, all the other myriad important and essential demands will hold us stuck in place. Attempting to do too much with too little will undermine even our best efforts. Trial and error is antithetical to clear vision and focus. Ideally, we are a connectional church – each community of faith uniquely gifted to pursue and achieve God’s will – where together we are greater than the sum of our parts. With each faith community excelling at one thing, collectively we could excel at all things, modeling the true body of Christ for the world. Perhaps we could make this our priority?