Delay is the deadliest form of denial.
~ C. Northcote Parkinson
Have you ever talked to someone and wondered… is this person living on the same planet that I am? This is a bizarre cultural phenomenon all too common among church leaders. Their day-to-day life, ministry, and sadly ministry aspirations are not based on reality but a fantasy version of reality that they have created for themselves.
This disconnection often manifests itself to me when false assumptions have driven decision-making and engagement with their local community.
- Building a ministry around an assumption of the nuclear family. (In denial of the reality of their own extended family and in the face that the community they are trying to reach has no cultural reference to this ideal.)
- Shrugging off the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in their organization. (In denial of statistical fact that all of America, not just urban centers, have experienced a major shift in statistical balance over the past 10 years.)
- Redefining ministry measurables to fit the make-up of what happens naturally versus what ought to happen. (In denial of the role of organizational entropy, the reality that if you measure your impact based purely on who comes, eventually this will lead you to a crushing vortex of inward thinking.)
Sometimes, almost never intentionally and certainly by apathy, I see organizations struggling not merely because they have the wrong people in leadership or because they are bad people or because they have bad values. But they are struggling because they aren’t living in their own present reality. They are trying to win a game no one else is playing.
They may be perfectly positioned to take community-changing action but work extremely hard on the wrong things.
Surrounded by people who think just like them (known as groupthink) they organization sales the seas of their community on the S.S. Fantasia.
3 practical steps to help you anchor your assumptions in reality
Let’s get grounded in putting our academic study to work for us!
- Regularly review census and other statistical data in your immediate area. If once per quarter your leadership team reviewed the latest statistical data publicly available for free via the census and the myriad of government organizations in your community, you could regularly make small decisions based on what you learn. For instance, if the school district releases a profile of new students which shows a spike in a demographic you could ask the most obvious question, “What can we do to serve this new group of people?” Don’t understand this or does this seem too hard? Make an appointment with a school administrator or local college sociologist who will gladly share this data and help you understand it.
- Regularly ask for cultural observations during team meetings. You don’t need to be a trained ethnographer to do basic ethnography. Your team is already spending time outside of the office in the community you are trying to reach… add a new question to your weekly meetings asking for one thing you observed. Maybe its that women outnumber men at a coffee shop during the day? Maybe its about what people are wearing or driving or reading. We all gather this data but until we share it with our teams we can’t make adjustments. Don’t think your team can handle this? We asked groups to do this in our Good News in the Neighborhood curriculum, middle schoolers can handle it!
- Define your geographical target and make decisions to benefit those within that area. Face the reality that there are lots and lots of organizations/churches/ministries just like yours. Don’t be a purveyor of the rule of affinity, that’s a short-term strategy built on a false assumption that people will always like what you are doing. Instead, define your target area… be it by a mile radius or specific streets or even a zip code. And then, when you make decisions, ask yourself what’s best based on what you know from regular statistical data and cultural observations from within that target area. If you really want to go crazy– reward your staff for moving into that area and only nominate unpaid leaders like elders who come from that target area. That will begin to send the message that your organization is about that geographical area.
What are S.S. Fantasia things you see in your area/context/ministry? What’s driving you crazy?