Penwell’s Law of Travel and Why Churches Need to Plan for Failure


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Dominic on the beach

By Derek Penwell

Boy, howdy, do I get cranky on the first day of vacation!

For months I look forward to the time off. I do all that pre-vacation planning, thinking about how long we’ll drive each day, where we’ll stop to eat, the kind of hotel that can accommodate five people. I like the planning.

The packing, though? I don’t like the packing. In particular, I don’t like the “getting-out-of-the-house” part. It always takes exactly two hours longer to leave than I planned. There invariably seems to be one more thing that, if it gets left behind, will mean certain calamity—medicine, power cords, the five year-old’s nebulizer.

And I tend to take out my frustrations on my family. For the first hour in the car I’m a sullen jerk. I don’t want to be a jerk.Nobody wants me to be a jerk. But there I am privately (or if you ask my family, not so privately) seething about the fact that now we’re two hours behind my meticulously thought out schedule.

Except it’s not that meticulously thought out, is it? I never seem to factor in the two extra hours that, no matter how much we’ve packed and prepared the night before, it takes to get on the road. So, either because of my poor planning or my bad memory (or more likely, some combination of the two) my family has to start its time together with a Dad who blames everybody but himself for the late start and the bad mood he’s in.

It strikes me that often churches also start new journeys with much of the same kind of crankiness. Churches plan. The good ones plan some more. And the really good ones try to anticipate in advance the problems they’re sure to encounter along the way.

The problem, though, is that you can never anticipate all the wrinkles that will inevitably throw off your scrupulous preparations. No matter how methodical you are, you’re still going to leave your contact case behind.

Call it Penwell’s Law of Travel: No matter how hard you plan, you’re still going to leave something important behind, still going to wind up with a bad radiator thirty miles outside of Des Moines, still going to find yourself in a smoking room at the Holiday Inn Express (when you very clearly told the reservations manager that you have kids with asthma, and so cannot possibly take a smoking room).

A version of the same law applies to churches: No matter how hard you plan, you’re still going to have someone forget to remind the AA group that they can’t have the fellowship hall on Friday night when you launch your soup kitchen, still going to wind up forgetting to make sure that the heat gets turned up in plenty of time before the attendees show up for the new adult day care center and start complaining about how “it feels like a meat-locker in here,” still going to find yourself playing host to a surly group of young adults who are pretty sure somebody promised there’d be beer at the Bible study kick-off.

So, the question isn’t “Will something go wrong?” The question is “How are you going to respond when something goes wrong?”

Churches in decline tend to obsess over the accidents, the mistakes, the unforeseen misadventures. In fact, so afraid are they of mistakes, so undone are they by accidents that they will use the memories of those things as an excuse for never launching out into the unknown again.

Mistakes, to struggling churches, are viewed as an enemy and accidents as a moral failure of planning. The problem with undertaking a journey with these prejudices is that it fails to take into account Penwell’s law: something is going to go wrong, be forgotten, get busted, remain unappreciated. If you keep living as though it won’t, you set your self up for frustration and crankiness.

Make peace with the fact that on any new journey, any new initiative someone or something will screw up in ways you failed to anticipate. Figure that into your planning—or at least your mental preparations—so that when it does happen you’re not thrown by it. Or worse, you’re scared out of packing up and taking the family someplace next time.

Indeed, you’ll never know success unless you learn to understand mistakes as a necessary part of the information gathering process. If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared for failure. It’s the law.

Look, nobody wants to travel with a sullen jerk. Even sullen jerks don’t like it that much. I know.

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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, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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