Saturday, July 14, 2012

Taking a Trip to Abilene: Why Churches Do What Nobody Wanted to Do In the First Place

By Tom King

Management guru, Jerry Harvey, tells a story to illustrate how organizations often wind up doing things no one in the organization actually want to do.  The story appears in his book, The Abilene Paradox and goes like this.
Jerry and his wife go to visit his parents in Coleman, Texas one weekend.  It’s a dusty West Texas town of 5000 plus souls.  The temperature is 104 degrees and the furnace like wind is blowing fine bits of sand into every crack and crevice of houses, people and property.  The folks don’t have air-conditioning, but there’s a box fan in the window, ice cold lemonade on the table and they’re playing Dominoes which doesn’t require the expenditure of very much energy at all. Everyone is pretty content.
Then Dad up and says, “How would ya’ll like to go to the Luby’s in Abilene for a piece of lemon pie?”  Mrs. Jerry says, “That sounds like a wonderful idea. How about you Jerry?” 
Jerry, not wanting to be a party pooper answered, “Sounds fine to me. How ‘bout you Mom?”
Taken by surprise, Mom twitters, “Of course I want to go if everyone else does. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”  So the whole bunch pile into his folks’ 1958 Buick, no AC and drive the 53 miles to Abilene for supper and pie in deathly heat and blowing sand.
When they get home after a dinner that could have been featured in a Pepto Bismol commercial and drive 106 miles round trip, they all collapse in front of the fan.  “Well, that was fun,” Jerry offers hesitantly.
Mom shakes her head and says, “To tell you the truth I’d have rather stayed at home, but ya’ll seemed so set on it…”
In seconds everyone was arguing over whose fault it was that everybody had been put to such misery.
“Sheeeeeooooot,” Dad says when they all finally remembered that he’d made the original suggestion and ganged up on him. “Ya’ll don’t come very often. I just wanted to make sure you were having a good time.  I didn’t think you’d be fool enough to take me up on it!”
I sat in a church service recently in which our pastor preached his last sermon with us. I’m a new member, so I didn’t know what was going on, though I’d heard some rumblings – nothing definite. Nobody was talking about the mysterious problem when suddenly we all heard the announcement that our pastor was being moved the next week.  During his last sermon, a lady from our sister church with whom we shared the pastor, stood up and called us all to task for having got him moved. 
She got a surprising number of vigorous “Amens” from the group. She kept looking straight at me (I think she thought I was someone else and somehow responsible). I shrugged and shook my head.  It wasn’t me I whispered.  The pastor tried to smooth things over, but it was obvious the move wasn’t his idea either.
Even the elders were squirming a bit. I heard a lot of talk among the members after the service about how whatever was done had been done without the knowledge or approval of most of the congregation.
“Shouldn’t someone have told the whole congregation if there was a problem BEFORE they moved the pastor?” someone asked me.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you,” I muttered.
I felt like we’d all just got back from Abilene and needed to pick the sand and grit out of our hair and teeth and maybe sit in front of a box fan to recuperate.
How is it that stuff like this happens?  I sincerely doubt you could have got a majority of members of that church to vote to remove the pastor.  I’m not even sure the people responsible had wanted it to happen like it did.  Somehow things got carried away and the conference took the issue out of their hands.
Did most of us want this to happen?  My sense is, no.  So how’d we get there?
There is an insidious trick Satan uses against the people of God.  We are taught to be obedient to God and to our leaders. We are taught that it is unseemly to disagree and argue among ourselves. At the first sign of trouble the appeals to church unity begin and most of us obediently quiet down. Next thing you know something awkward, uncomfortable and unwanted has happened and we’re not quite sure how it all came about.  We’ve driven to Abilene and we really didn’t want to.
The last school where I worked as a teacher was just that sort of experience for me so I can sympathize with the plight of pastors.  When I left, my kids had achieved grade level in their annual achievement tests, having the previous year scored three grade levels behind. The parents of my kids were holding prayer bands in their homes praying I would decide to stay another year. The local elder and school board (who once fired 5 teachers in one year I later found out) were busily destroying my reputation and ensuring that I’d never get another school.  The majority in the three churches that supported the school seemed genuinely disappointed that I was leaving but couldn’t do anything because the decision had already been made.  I walked away from teaching after that and almost from the church.
The last church I was at once got rid of multiple pastors in one year and couldn’t figure out why no one wanted to accept a call there.   And yet, most of the people in that church were good, decent people who wanted no part in the politics that was going on.
Jesus said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”  He had much harsher words for the church’s leaders who would later decide that it would be better for Israel if they got rid of this upstart young preacher that was causing all the trouble.
So what are the meek in the church to do?  How do we avoid being bullied into supporting or at least not opposing church actions that we disagree with?
Ellen White once said what the church needed was “…men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.   We need women like that too for that matter. 
Church business must be done in the open and brave men and women need to speak up. The subjects that are discussed at such meetings need to be clearly spelled out in advance so that all who want to have a say can show up and at least register their opinion one way or another. We are a praying people. God does not speak to the elders alone. He gives His wisdom to all of us and sometimes it is the most humble among us that we should listen to – the David’s and Samuels and Gideons. 
One pastor we had back home in Keene had the support of 99% of the congregation and yet he was constantly being hounded and harassed by a small contingent of church members and the meek remained largely quiet about it and allowed it to go on when we should have risen to his defense and pitched out the self-proclaimed “leaders” who were causing the trouble.
Our church board back home once entertained a motion to discontinue the young people’s five o’clock praise service. When we found out about it, some of us began calling the parents of the young people to tell them what was happening and they began calling the pastor and church board members. The board had wanted to have the meeting in secret without announcing the subject of the meeting lest it cause “trouble in the church”. Had they stopped the service, I can promise you there’d have been trouble. The phone calls convinced the board to quietly vote down the proposal.  They might have anyway, but I find it troubling that church leaders would take such a serious decision to a vote without discussing it with the church body first.  They told me later, “See you didn’t have to get everybody so upset over this. We handled it.”
I’m not so sure. I took the attack on our young people as an effort by the devil to undo all the good work that we’d done to bring our kids back into the church. Shouldn’t the church know when the forces of evil are up to that kind of thing so they can resist such things in the future?  You don’t want to wake up one Sabbath and find all the kids headed out the back door because your church board didn't think the members could handle a little controversy.
Like the family in Dr. Harvey’s story, our churches often get driven off to Abilene against their will because in our desire to protect “church unity”, we do not involve our members in decision-making where people might be uncomfortable with the discussion.

Sometimes all it takes is but a single voice to stop a trip to Abilene.  When I heard about the board vote to stop the youth service I called both the pastor and head elder and promised to bring a large contingent of parents to the meeting if need be to show our support for our young people.  Both promised me the program would not be closed by a board vote that was not ratified by the congregation and said I could bring my platoon of parents to that meeting.  The motion failed and our kids kept their service. I’m certain none of them wanted to face a squadron of angry parents. Whether that influenced their vote or not, I don’t know. I do know the people who put forward the proposal were influenced by the reaction of the church to what they thought was a perfectly reasonable idea.
It is time we as church members got over being shy and showed up when things like the fate of teachers, pastors and programs are considered. Disagreements NEVER tear up churches where they are managed in the open. Some may get mad and leave if things don’t go their way, but that is their own choice. If, in the name of misguided church unity, we consent to government by tantrum and threats, we fail to heed Christ’s example.
The disciples were by no means always in agreement, no matter that they were supposed to be "of one accord".  Peter once sided with the conservative Jews in their discrimination against the Gentiles.  Paul called him on it publicly and Peter was properly ashamed of himself and then did the right thing.  David sinned with Bathsheba and God sent a prophet to reprimand him.  David took the rebuke like a man.  Paul and James were on opposite sides on the faith versus works thing, but were able to find common ground and both their opinions were recorded in Scripture.  There were lots of things to be worked out in the early church as well as in ancient Israel, but God's example is to work them out in the open – an example as well to the modern church.  We have no place for secret initiatives and closed door meetings in churches.
We all seek a relationship with Christ and to place ourselves in the hands of the Master Potter.  That is our common purpose. Everything else is management details.  We MUST learn to manage the fact that, given a clear understanding of any issue of church operations, there will always be a clear agreement among most people as to how it should be addressed. We can reliably go with the majority in a community of believers. That’s what Jesus meant when He said that what we bind here, will be bound in heaven. Jesus left us our churches to manage. The essential thing He said was to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.  The color we paint the lobby or who we have for a pastor is left up to us.
As we paint the church and staff the front office, let’s remember what’s important. Let’s remember we can trust the church body to do what’s right.  We don’t have to protect them from knowing what’s going on. We must never treat them like children. We must allow everyone to say what they really think and talk out our differences in Christian love.
Whatever happens, we must never suddenly, and without warning, load everyone into the 58 Buick and head off to Abilene in the stifling heat like we did last week.

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