Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It’s about Everything Else

Finding Excuses to Die

“It was great to see all those people there for Easter yesterday.”

“Pretty great.”

“Of course, and I hate to say it, there’s a part me that dreads Easter.”

“Well, there’s a lot to dread about Easter. It’s busy, and all those extra services. Easter’s tough on ministers.”

“No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Well, all that stuff is hard, but I mean something else.”


“Monday. I hate the Monday after Easter. Because as soon as Easter’s over, I start thinking about next week, and how most of those people won’t becoming back. Then that reminds me about how it feels like our congregation’s dying.”

“I know. That’s rough. So, what are you doing to make things different?”

“We want to change.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that?”

“More complicated than what?”

“We want to change, but in order to change we need some things to be different.”

“But if things were different, that would be change already, right?”

“Has anybody ever told you how obnoxious you are to talk to?”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But what is it that you need changed that—if you got it—would finally provide the right environment for transformation?”

“For one thing, we need more people to get involved.”

“How are you going to get them involved?”

“We’ve tried everything we know to try: begging, chiding, wheedling, shaming.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“It’s not, actually, smart guy.”

“So, you can’t change until somebody else does something?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t sound very good when you say it like that.”

“Why else can’t you change?”

“We need more resources.”

“Like what?”

“It’s been tough, what with the recession and all. The budget’s been a train wreck. Money’s just hard to come by. If we had more money, things would be way easier.”

“What would money buy you that—if you finally had it—would allow you to change?”

“I’m not sure. Wait. I could get a new computer.”

“What would you do with a new computer?”

“I could get more done.”

“What kinds of things could you do with a new computer that you can’t do now?”

“I could write more, organize my time better. Digitally. You know.”

“You don’t have a computer?”

“Yeah, but a new one would be more efficient.”

“I’m just going to take shot in the dark: Have you ever considered the possibility that the quality of your tools isn’t your most pressing problem?”

So, here’s what I think: Most congregations don’t want to change. I’ve said this before, but I’m still convinced it’s true. Most congregations would rather die than change.

Believing that something external has to change before anything internally has a crack at transformation is a recipe for death. Whether you admit it or not, when you say, “Just as soon as _____, then we can start thinking about changing,” you’ve started making preparations to die.

And the convenient part about it is that you’ll have ready made excuses for why it’s dead.

Waiting for the conditions to be just right, focusing on external stuff is like saying:

  • I could be a better preacher if I had a nicer pulpit.
  • We could have more baptisms if we just had a nicer baptistry.
  • We would have bigger budget if we had better accounting software.

It’s fiddling. Plain and simple.

You can’t lose weight by buying a cooler treadmill. If you’re not using the heck out of the one you’ve got, buying a new one is only going to succeed in making two things you don’t want to be: fat and broke.

In fact, you don’t even need a treadmill at all, we have these wonderfully free analog devices called “roads” and “sidewalks” that, with a little effort should suit your purposes.

If you’re not changing with the people and resources you’ve got, then even if all those Christmas and Easter folks came the next week, nothing would be different. In fact, things might get considerably worse.

Most ministers are afraid in the deepest part of their souls of getting everything they’ve always said they needed.

Because if your wish list is completed, and you finally get everything you think you need to change (more volunteers, a better web site, an associate, the right associate, great leadership, a bigger parking lot, an oversubscribed budget, shade grown coffee and Barcaloungers in the narthex), what happens if things don’t change then?

If you think what’s at stake can be fixed by newer and better Barcaloungers, then this is the best I can do for you.

If you’re worried about equipping disciples for the reign of God, then get back to work. You’ve got all you need to do that right now.

You want to change? Then change.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

No. Well, it may be easy for me to say. But it’s not any easier for me to do than anyone else. I fight my own battles with resistance.

The question isn’t whether I’m perfect at it. The question is whether I’m right about it.

The fact still remains that if you think the culture of your church is going to change for the better if you wait long enough for everything to fall into place before you do the difficult work of transformation, you’re always going to find an excuse to die.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Congregational Transformation and tagged , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

13 thoughts on “Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It’s about Everything Else

  1. Pingback: Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It’s about Everything Else | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. So . . . you’re actually saying more that “ministers don’t want to change” than “churches don’t want to change.” Which I think is correct. It’s a problem of co-dependence, of course, but still it comes to roost on the pastor’s desk and poops on our sermon drafts. Which is what big ugly birds do when you let them roost near you.

  3. I agree that reluctance to change applies equally where clergy and laity are concerned — except that the laity are usually in the majority. And “a dynamic new minister” is sometimes that outside change that a congregation depends on to make things different & better, while they remain as they were.

  4. Jeff, I agree that it’s often the minister that doesn’t want to change. But there are also numerous churches that, on their own, don’t want to change. When I was in the search and call process, I met a number of churches claiming they wanted to change but the only change they really wanted was for the year to be 1962 and the church pews to be full again, but only with the “right” kind of people. They wanted, not a minister, but a savior. And we all know what people do to their messiahs.

  5. Just what do they think “change” means?

    What they really want is attendance and giving to go up.
    …and – of course – those new people that are increasing attendance are people just like the members already there: people who know how to smile, be polite, and don’t ask disturbing questions about minorities, women, gays and biblical interpretation.

    …and that “dynamic young minister” is suppose to be a 40-year old white male with a wife (who is a concert pianist and teaches Sunday School) and has 2.5 children. Funny thing is – as many congregations have discovered – he doesn’t exist. When he does exist, he has funny ideas about mission and outreach and membership and the exact nature of the Good News. Many times, “he” is “she” – and in either case, the spouse has a full-time job and declines many of the congregation’s expectations. Then there are the negotiations for vacation, family leave, Sabattical, insurance and retirement.

    Again, just what do they think “change”means?

  6. If he was 47 would he still be considered a Dynamic Young Minister? I can think of a married pastor with a PHD, who has Tattoos and pony tails. Whos sense of irony and humor is only eclipsed by his compassion and appreciation for a good dark Belgium Bock. But sadly he is over 46. So he wouldn’t fit the “young hipster pastor” category, he is just an old fart.
    I hear Rob Bell is looking for a job..

  7. In all serious you are spot on Pastor. I have done quite a bit of study, and professional consulting on this subject. I would boil down the resistance to change down to three factors to “Fear, Comfort, or Denial”. Regardless of how you view change, it seems to occur without my consent. Just as TWA, Pan Am, or the thousand other Blue Chip companies that have been drummed out of business because they couldn’t move with change.
    In the world of the 1%’ers riding the change, to be ahead of the curve, or even instigate the change with disruptive technologies is the goal. To anticipate the changes and position yourself for maximum benefit is the plan.
    However, in the church world we are still trying to figure out if our kids can watch Justin Bieber, or if Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. So while we are stuck arguing over the how many angles can fit on the head of a pin or wither British empiricists successfully argued for God’s omnipresence. The prisons are filling up with young men without a hope for redemption, others suffer with no one to care for them or point to the true hope. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said “The harvest is great, but the workers they are few.”

    • Thanks, Pierre! It is you who are spot on, sir! You name the gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live when you talk about the problem of the hopelessness of the overpopulation of the prison system, when all we seem to be able to focus on is issues that seem more matters of opinion than essentials of the faith.

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