Never Let the Guy with the Broom Decide How Many Elephants Can Be in the Parade

By Derek Penwell

“Who authorized that decision? Nobody knows what’s going on around here anymore.”

How many times have you heard that one?

What’s the quick response when that complaint makes its way into the life of a congregation?

“Well, it has been a while since we talked about the organizational structure. Maybe we should look at the constitution and by-laws again, make sure we’re doing it right.”

It occurs to me that what’s at the heart of grousing about congregational organization is fear over who gets to say “yes.”

“Who authorized that decision?” is usually an expression of fear about where power is located. So, congregations spend much of their time in organizational thinking concentrating on this issue—who gets to say “yes.”

By-laws, organizational charts, endless meetings all exist—at least in part—to rehearse the relationship between an idea and its authorization.

“I’ve been in recovery for 3 years now, and I’d like to start an AA meeting in the adult Sunday School classroom on Tuesday nights. Who do I have to talk to get permission to do that?”

“Well, you’ll need to check with the secretary to see if the room’s available. You’ll probably have to get board approval for that. Is there going to be smoking on the grounds?”

“I’d like to offer a middle-school class. What’s my next step?”

“You need to talk to Angie, she’s the Education chairperson. She’ll bring it to the committee. Then, they can pass a recommendation to the board, which will vote on it.”

“We’ve got a group that wants to use the church fellowship hall for a drag show. Is that all right?”

“You’re going to have to bring that one straight to the board.”

We have amazingly complex systems of authorization in place. Layers of bureaucracy that ensure no one gets away with anything.

Believe me, I understand. You can’t have just anyone doing who-knows-what in the name of the church. Eventually, that will come back to bite you.

But for all the time churches spend figuring out who gets to say “yes,” it’s amazing to note that they’ll let just about anybody say “no.”

“Now, see, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

Is it really? How many truly interesting ideas have been shot down in church because one person pulled the trigger?

“That sounds like a great idea, but I’m afraid that if we let those people use the building, something’s going to get broken.”


“Of course we love young people, but I don’t think that kind of thing is appropriate for Christians.”


“I think you’ll find that nobody will mind … except, Norman. Yeah, he won’t go for it.”

Brooms, Elephants, and Blocking

Merlin Mann has famously said: “Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants can be in the parade.”

What does that mean?

It means, according to Mann, that to the guy with the broom, an elephant isn’t an elephant, it’s a source of inconvenience. If you ask that guy, he’ll say there shouldn’t be any elephants, and you should spend your time and money hiring more broom guys.


Because elephants, no matter how wonderful they might make the parade, threaten to make that guy’s life miserable.

“What is the purpose of a parade?”

To entertain people.

“Do elephants entertain people?”


“Then let’s have more elephants.”


The guy with the broom answers the question about elephants by saying that elephants upset the balance. As if the purpose of a parade was not to entertain people, but to make one guy’s struggle with life a bit more manageable.

Of course, people say “no” for reasons other than just that a proposed action produces more headaches. There are any number reasons people give for blocking:

  • We don’t have the money to do x.
  • We’ve tried x before, and it didn’t work.
  • We’ve never done x before, and we shouldn’t start doing it now.
  • “People” will get upset if we move forward with x.
  • “People” might leave if we follow through with x.
  • My aunt Gladys would roll over in her grave if she knew we were doing x.
  • X is just not something a place like this should be involved in.

Or, there’s the all-purpose blocking tactic:

  • I’m not comfortable with us doing x.

Any idea, no matter how good, reasonable, or promising that runs up against one of these phrases in a meeting is almost surely doomed in most churches. In unhealthy systems, blocking tactics are virtually fool-proof.

And the beauty of it is almost anyone can successfully execute them!

  • People who haven’t been to church since the Nixon administration
  • People who’ve never given an hour or a dime
  • People who’re resentful about the prospect of having to give another hour or another dime
  • Even proxies for people dead, absent, or non-existent (i.e., “People are saying …”)
  • (I’ve even heard of denominations that are set up to allow people to be bused in for the express purpose of keeping change at bay.)

Bonus: The louder and more obnoxious you can be the better chance you’ll have at succeeding!

The Problem

Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes blocking is necessary. Prophets are often blockers—loud obnoxious people who are famous for standing up and saying “No!” We need people with the courage to stand in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way of the oncoming tank convoys.

The question I’m raising is not whether blocking should occur sometimes, but whether or not a congregation or a denomination should be prevented from ever even attempting great and interesting things because of the threat (real or imagined) of the broom pushers, who if asked, will invariably say “no.”

Or what about this: Everybody in charge knows it’s the right thing to do, but nobody wants to clean up the inevitable mess.

Organizations devote so much time and energy to set up systems that are explicit about who gets to say “yes.”

What’s a quorum? How high up the organizational chart does it need to go to get authorization? How many votes are necessary? Who said you could do that?

I think organizations would benefit from spending a quarter of the time dealing explicitly with the question of who gets to say “no.”

What kind of investment is necessary on the part of a person who seeks to torpedo an idea? Does the person have to demonstrate any expertise in the area before being able to stymy the group, or is just “feeling” like it’s the wrong thing to do enough? Can one person carry the water for another person, a group of persons, a whole demographic?

Saying “no” is just as much an exercise of power as saying “yes.” We write all kinds of rules about the latter, without ever explicitly taking up the issue of the former.

The problem isn’t just that good ideas are always in danger of being shot down. In an unhealthy system good ideas often don’t see the light of day because everybody knows up front that bringing them up is a waste of time. I would wager that serial blockers have killed ten times more ideas in people’s heads than they’ve killed on the floor of meetings—just because everybody is convinced that bringing up an idea would be a waste of time, or because it would cause World War III.

The reality of the situation is that you’ll never do great things, exciting things, things that change the world if every idea is stillborn for fear that somebody will object.

Spend some time considering to whom you give the power of veto.

Make sure you know why the guy with broom doesn’t like elephants in the parade.

Or don’t do great things. The choice is ultimately up to you.

Here’s an idea for a cheap bracelet: WWJASN

Who would Jesus allow to say no?

(From the archive.)

Being the Last "Buggy Whip Salesman of the Month"

By Derek Penwell

One time Merlin Mann said “Being the last ‘buggy whip salesman of the month’ is great in the short run, but then what?” The point, of course, is that if you haven’t been paying attention all along to the changes taking place in the world and making adjustments, what looks stable and safe today will eventually be only a historical footnote. I get the impression that many congregations are heavily invested in selling buggy whips. At this point I could give the obvious screed against “traditional churches” that haven’t given up hymnals for more “modern” music delivery systems, or who’ve failed to give in and hire a tattooed minister who drinks only micro-brewed beers and shade grown coffee.

I could do that, but as I’ve said before, I think that misses the point in so many ways .

Instead, I prefer to focus on the issue philosophically.

“Oh great. Here comes another completely unreadable bit of ‘musing.’ Why don’t you say something useful?”

Ok. I hear that, but I think this is useful—perhaps not in the sense of telling you whether to sell your church building and rent space at the local Cinemark, but in the sense of telling you why you should constantly revisit the question of why you should or shouldn’t.

“Clarity, sir.”

Let me try this: I’m speaking on a strategic, rather than a tactical level—meaning, I’m talking not about the decisions a congregation makes, which will vary according to context, but about the way a congregation makes those decisions. To put a finer point on it, I’m not even speaking about the process for making decisions. Instead, I’m speaking about the philosophy congregations use when making decisions, the context in which decisions get made.

Now, you may say that most congregations don’t have “a philosophy” about decision making. I would argue that they do, but that it’s rarely explicit, and therefore rarely subject to interrogation and revision. That is to say, most congregations don’t take time to think on a meta-level about decision making.

What do I mean?

Most young people—that elusive demographic that churches constantly seem to be seeking, consisting of Gen-Xers (1965–1980) and Millennials (1980–1999), who appear to have taken a pass on the church—think about decision making in a completely different way from their elders.[1]

“Hmmm …”

People from the Silent Generation (people born 1925–1945) and the Baby Boomer Generation (people born 1946–1964) grew up in a changing world. But much of that change came on a macro level over a sufficiently extended period of time. Technology changed. The work performed by the labor market changed. Political ideologies changed. However, those things all changed at a rate slow and steady enough for people to adjust.

The watchword for these generations (especially as it relates to vocation) is stability.

Though the world was beginning to change more rapidly by the time Baby Boomers showed up, they had a close enough relationship to stability through the world their parents had built, that they had a view of the world that assumed stability as a backdrop.

For the most part, Baby Boomers were free to leave a nest that was culturally and economically anchored. Low divorce and unemployment rates made for a world in which it was safe to explore.

“Yeah, but what about the 1960s? Wasn’t that all about change?”

Of course. But the 1960s were the apotheosis of cultural adolescence. Experiment. Drop out. Fight the system. Question authority.

But what is characteristic of adolescence? Adolescence is a developmental stage in which boundaries are challenged—sometimes fiercely—so that identity can be established. In commenting on the cultural shift underway in the 1960s, we often focus all of our attention on the “challenging” done by Baby Boomers, without devoting sufficient attention to the “boundaries” that made those challenges intelligible qua “challenge.”

Stability is the ether in which challenge and exploration can take place.

I can drop out and backpack across Europe or take a year off to pursue my muse as a sitar player while working in an Alaskan fish cannery, because I know that if it all falls apart, I can go home and get a job in the family business. Or if my family doesn’t have a business, then at just about any of the other tedious endeavors I’ve tried so ceaselessly to escape. Even if I’m just a factotum or a ridiculously over-qualified vacuum cleaner salesperson, I know I have somewhere to land, because the world I’ve inherited is predictable, firm, safe.

The generations that follow behind the Baby Boomers, (Gen-X and the Millennials) don’t have that same luxury. Generationally, they don’t have the same expectations of a stable world. Two indicators that kept the world safe for their parents have shifted dramatically for young people—divorce rates and unemployment rates (especially among minorities) have risen dramatically.

The world, to Gen-Xers and Millennials, doesn’t represent stability. It’s much more uncertain.

Think about technology.

Try this one on for size.

Time elapsed to 1,000,000 users:

AOL—9 years

Facebook—9 months

Draw Something—9 days

When you add into the equation the exponential speed with which technology is reshaping the world, you get generations of younger people who have no other expectation than that what is now, most likely will not be tomorrow—whether that’s socio-religio-political institutions or iPods.

What Does This Have to Do with Congregations?

The difference in generational understanding about something as simple as what kind of world we live in means that appreciating the way people come to decision-making in congregations is crucial. That is to say, dear reader, understanding decision-making philosophy, the meta-level questions around the way decisions get made, can prove remarkably useful.

If you find that young people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring them into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be institutional timidity or stodginess, this may be why.

If you find that older people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring young people into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be casualness toward the institution or brashness, this may be why.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is largely a stable place, any change is a potential threat to that stability.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is constantly changing, then change isn’t threatening; it’s an inevitability.

So, if you want young people to begin to come behind and take up leadership roles in your congregation, you’re going to have to make peace with fact that they care much less (shockingly, scandalously less) than you do about saving the institution. They don’t have any real expectations that the institution (at least as it’s presently constituted) will be around anyway.

All of which is to say, congregations (and denominations) need to quit worrying about saving the buggy whip industry, and start thinking about the need buggy whips satisfy, and how that need can be met in an increasingly fluid world where change isn’t the enemy; it’s the air we breathe. Being the last “buggy whip salesperson of the month” is great in the short run, but that bronze plaque is going to become an anchor much sooner than you realize.

Part two next week: Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants should be in the parade.

  1. I realize that speaking in general ways about something as large as generational differences is fraught with peril. I think as a heuristic, however, it can prove enormously helpful.  ↩

Killing the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making

The Whispers

Does this sound familiar?

“I think we all believe this is an important decision. And, frankly, I’m on board with it myself. But I think we’re going to run into some resistance. I’d hate for us to lose people over this.”

If you’re in leadership in a church, you’ve inevitably been in that meeting. The church faces an exciting opportunity, the benefits of which promise to bring new energy and offer increased possibility for significant ministry. Unfortunately, it means somebody’s probably going to get upset.

I was pastor of a church one time that offered an 8:30 worship service, in addition to the more traditional 11:00 service. It was billed as an “intimate” service. It turns out that intimate didn’t mean that the congregation assembled for the service occupied a cozy space; intimate meant that we could count on about 4–6 people showing up.

The search committee told me that there had been discussions before about doing away with the service, but a couple of the regulars got really upset. So, the service stayed.

I showed up my first Sunday to eight people spread over one half of the sanctuary. The organist played. We sang. I spoke about something not particularly memorable. The whole thing felt, in a word, awkward. People cleared their throats. One guy had had oral surgery and spent the whole time looking miserable. I kept looking at my watch, thinking that, surely, 45 minutes shouldn’t feel so long.

We slogged through that routine for about eight months. Finally, I went to the team responsible for planning the ministry of the church, made up of the officers of the church and the heads of all the committees, and I said, “I think we need to talk about the 8:30 service. I’m not sure that it’s the best stewardship of our resources. I’m there. The associate minister is there. The organist is there. The janitor is there. Many Sundays we have more staff there than congregants.”

A woman jumped in and said, “That’s the golfer’s service. They come early so they can have the rest of the day to do what they want.”

Another woman said, “That’s probably true. But there are a couple of people who only go to that service. And if we only serve one person, it’s worth it.”

“I’m not sure it is worth it,” I said. “The service itself doesn’t inspire much passion in anyone, until somebody mentions doing away with it. It doesn’t appear to offer anything uniquely compelling, apart from the time slot. It seems designed to offer convenience, rather than spiritual edification. And even based on that criteria alone, I’m not sure it’s a clear winner. I have really young children, for instance, and my wife works 3rd shift at the hospital. It’s always an adventure just to make it here. So, for what it's worth, I don’t find it especially convenient.”

As I spoke, I could see the anxiety descend on the group. Brows knitted themselves involuntarily. People took deep breaths and looked at the ceiling. One man kept worrying his wedding ring, moving it up and down over the first knuckle on his finger. An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Finally, a long-time member of the board said what nobody else wanted to say: “It’s stupid for us to keep having that service. Everybody knows that. But if we cancel it, people are going to leave the church.”

People nodded their heads in agreement.

Have you ever been in that meeting? You know, the meeting where a decision to do one thing seems obvious, but the decision gets bogged down by fears that someone will get mad. There’s a sense of resignation about it. A lot of shrugging. You can almost hear the whispers thrumming just beneath the threshold of public utterance:

“My mom and dad started that service.”

“What if somebody who used to come to the 8:30 service, but has quit coming to church, decides to come back and we don’t have it anymore?”

Of course, just about everybody agrees; but we don’t think it’s a good idea to do away with the service, because it might run somebody off.”

Congregations in decline, congregations fearful for their lives tend to make decisions based primarily on a trusted calculation:

The right decision is the one that makes the fewest people mad.

The whispers keep congregations from making hard decisions, because the whispers lock them into a pattern of decision-making beholden to some other reality than the one that allows them remain true to their mission.

Primum non nocere

Central to the discipline of medical ethics is the overarching maxim: Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). That is to say, don’t make the remedy worse than the cure. Medical decisions are supposed to be based on the presumption that all treatment options should be made through the filter of the overall health of the body.

In decision-making congregations often believe they are practicing something like the principle of primum non nocere. They prefer, I think, to move as though “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” This is not an inherently bad position for the church to take. In fact, I think as a principle in theory, primum non nocere is right.

Unfortunately, I think the trouble comes not in the treatment, but in the diagnosis of the problem. Congregations almost reflexively believe that the worst thing that could happen is that someone could get upset over a decision (and maybe even leave the church). Consequently, built into most church decision-making processes is a particular constant: Mad people = Bad decision. The variable in the equation is the challenge to be addressed by a decision. Decision-making in many churches, therefore, comes out looking something like this:

a (challenge) + b (mad people) = c (decision) [where a < b]

The problem, though, is that the constant in this equation operates more like a procrustean bed than a useful metric for decision-making.


Ancient Greek mythology tells of a man named, Procrustes, who offered hospitality to strangers. He invited wayfarers in to eat, with the promise of a night’s rest in his special iron bed, which he said was the perfect size for any traveler. After a good meal, Procrustes would have his guests lay down on the bed. Anyone who was too short was stretched on the rack to fit the bed. Anyone who was too long for the bed, had feet and legs chopped off.

Procrustes was right—eventually everyone fit the bed.

Making decisions by defaulting to the maxim, “The best decision is the one that makes the fewest people mad,” is a procrustean bed, inasmuch as it treats all challenges equally. In medicine decisions made on a procrustean bed can be lethal (e.g., All cancer should be treated by surgery). Decisions made that way in churches can be just as deadly (e.g., We could never ______; or We must always ______).

Diagnosing the situation correctly certainly requires that the congregation take the health of the body into consideration. But, as in medicine, It would do churches well to remember that sometimes the health of the body requires painful decisions—decisions that risk making somebody angry. But, if you’re Christianity isn’t making somebody mad, you’re probably not doing it right anyway.

Oftentimes, congregations become convinced that their primary mandate is to be nice. On this account of the church’s purpose, doing anything that might be interpreted as “not nice,” ipso facto, runs contrary to the mission of the church. However, when the church exchanges its function as the equipper of disciples for the reign of God for a customer-service oriented posture of placation, it has seriously departed the radical path of following Jesus—who never seemed to shy away from making decisions that irritated just about everyone.

The whispers are those attempts to reign in decision-making, to keep choices confined to the procrustean bed.  They gain purchase in the conversations on the margins.  By the time the whispers are spoken in public, they've generally been amplified to the point that they achieve an air of inevitability.

So What’s the Answer?

  • Have a mission. I’m an Aristotelian, which means that I think the first step to anything important is to figure out the endgame. What’s the purpose? What are we trying to accomplish? Where are we headed? As my friend, Steven Johns-Boehme is fond of saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, even an ill wind will take you there.” Congregations need to determine the goal by which they will be defined. (Important: “We are the friendly church,” isn’t a mission. Jesus didn’t die so that we could be nice.)
  • Analyze decisions by referring to your mission. This sounds easy, but in practice it takes some disciplined reflection. What are we here for? Making widgets. We have an opportunity to promote boxing matches. Should we do it? If boxing matches don’t help you make widgets, don’t do it. Alternatively, if you find the best widget maker in the world, and she has tattoos and rides a Harley, you ought to seriously consider hiring her. If your mission as a congregation is to be the neighborhood center where people can find the love of Jesus in action, every decision you make—from the type of curriculum you use in church school, to the type of dinnerware you use in the kitchen, to the way you allow your building to be used by outside groups, to the kind of stationery you use—ought to be made with that mission in mind. Difficult decisions often become clearer when laid next to the mission you’ve set down.
  • Focus on integrity, not unanimity. When I worked in a church in Eastern Kentucky, I buried a man who was fond of saying, “The truth will stand when the world’s on fire.” If a decision is the right thing to do . . . do it. That’s quite a bit different from the way congregation’s often decide a course of action: “If a decision is the right thing to do . . . everyone will agree.” Sometimes everyone agrees on the right thing to do. Yay! Congratulations! Life is good. As the decisions get more difficult, as decisions threaten past patterns of behavior, as they veer off into an uncertain future, the rate of people expressing reluctance will almost certainly increase proportionally. But think about it this way: It’s 1968, and someone proposes that it’s time to admit African-Americans into membership in your congregation. Remember, if you decide to do this, people are going to get angry—not just muttering-around-the-edges angry—but church-quitting, maybe even minister-firing angry. Knowing what you know now about the arc of moral history, would you make the decision to admit them anyway? Yes. Why? It’s the right thing to do. Oftentimes, the right thing to do may cause uneasiness when you finally make a decision to do it. Do it anyway. Admittedly, most decisions a congregation makes don’t involve great moral courage. But if your congregation makes decisions on a procrustean bed when determining whether to let the youth paint the youth room purple, it’s much less likely that you’ll be guided by your sense of mission when it comes to a conversation about becoming Open and Affirming.
  • Be compassionate; but be firm. After you’ve made a decision, do the necessary work to check in with everyone. Be compassionate toward those for whom the journey is difficult. But don’t undo decisions because of anxiety. It’s probably good to be reminded that if you’d done exactly the opposite thing, people on the other side of the issue would be just as anxious.
  • Speak with one voice. After a decision has been made, the people who were a part of the process need to speak with one voice to the congregation. Good leadership can’t afford Monday-morning quarterbacking in the parking lot by those who disagreed in the meeting. This is a covenantal kind of relationship to which the church must self-consciously draw attention. Being a part of a group means that there will be times when I don’t get my way. The answer to that (as I tell my six year-old—and my wife occasionally has to tell me) is not pouting.
  • Communicate honestly with the congregation. Let the congregation know what decisions have been made in a straightforward fashion. Nothing undermines leadership more than news of a big decision trickling out without explanation. Use the proper forums to announce decisions to the congregation. If you know beforehand people will be mad, it makes more sense to work actively to manage how the conversation will unfold.
  • Find a friend in failure.Congregations need to get comfortable with failure. Any group of people who claim to follow an executed messiah shouldn’t be so squeamish about failing. The whole point of Easter is that God can tease life from the clutches of death. You should expect to make decisions that don’t pan out the way you want them to pan out. Congregations that are growing (and I’m not speaking necessarily about numbers here) aren’t congregations that get every decision right; they’re the ones that see mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Failing is part of the process of growing. Doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing is unacceptable. Making decisions based on a congregational culture that existed a generation ago is a sure path to failure. Failure in the service of moving forward toward mission is helpful. Failure in the service of placating the past is death.

The whispers are a reality in every congregation.  It's good to remember that leadership can never fully extinguish the whispers; but it need not let itself be ruled by them.

Be courageous.  The Christian life is an adventure . . . not a risk-management seminar.