On Getting It Right, Instead of Just Being Right





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By Derek Penwell

I’ve never actually engaged in fisticuffs over outreach giving … but I’ve had a couple of close calls.

I had a bad experience at a church one time over how much money to give to outreach. So, here’s what happened: the church I was serving had a tradition of giving 20% of the budget to outreach—a practice for which I actually have great respect. The problem was that times were lean. We were going to have to propose a deficit budget, which included a freeze on staff salaries. But some of the people in the congregation were adamant that we hold to the 20% line item for outreach, despite the freeze.

I argued that holding to tradition on this practice just because it was a tradition communicated the wrong thing. Essentially, I tried to say that what the staff (and the rest of the congregation, for that matter) couldn’t help but hear was that revering the congregation’s legacy counted for more than taking care of the people who had given so much already to keep the congregation running as smoothly as possible under difficult conditions. I argued that congregations need the flexibility to revise traditions when those traditions wind up inadvertently causing harm.

I was indignant.

The group of people with whom I was in conflict represented the old guard. Now, when I say “old guard,” I don’t necessarily mean they were old—though all of them were a generation older than me. They were the old guard in the sense that they were the folks who had helped give birth to the congregation some years before. They shared, as you might imagine, great pride in what they’d been able to accomplish. They loved the church they’d had a hand, first in shaping and then supporting for thirty years.

It was completely understandable that they wanted to make certain the legacy they were proud to pass on would be cherished by those to whom they wanted to leave it. Conflict arose when I, who represented the younger generation, proceeded to call into question some of those traditions in the name of change.

You see where this is headed? This is a common plot line in parish ministry—perhaps one of the most common. I’ve written about how difficult this kind of intergenerational struggle can be (e.g., here andhere), and how damaging it is to ministry.

And while I think my desire to see the church navigate a bit more deftly its circumstances was a good thing, what eventually happened in many ways wasn’t. Suffice it to say that as things deteriorated, both sides dug in.

Now, all of the recriminations and fallout are well plowed ground for anyone who’s been in this kind of congregational psychodrama before. What I want to focus on, however, is not how right or wrong I was in wanting to bring change, but on what my conviction about my rightness spawned.

I was convinced I was right. The old guard was convinced it was right.

But that’s not the problem—people in congregations disagree all the time. No big deal. People can even disagree over intergenerational issues without any real lasting harm.

The problem was where our convictions about being right pushed us. I thought the old guard was obscurantist, backward looking, and vindictive. In short, I thought they were everything wrong with the institutional mainline church.

They, on the other hand, thought I was stubborn, insensitive, and self-righteous. In fact, one woman publicly reminded everyone that Jim Jones (yeah, that Jim Jones, the “Jonestown-drink-the-kool-aid-and-massacre-900-people” guy)1 also started out among the Disciples of Christ. So, yeah, we better watch this young minister, because, you know, Jim Jones.

Unfortunately, the conflict got so bad that I had a foolproof way of telling if an idea was right or wrong—just by determining who came up with it. If someone from the other side of the conflict had an idea, that automatically made it bad. I know they felt the same way about any ideas I had.

In a conflict what happens if a good idea is put forward by the wrong person? It gets kicked to the curb.

Here’s the thing: I’m actually in favor of increasing outreach giving. In fact, I think having a goal of giving 20% of your budget to somebody else is pretty dang awesome. I think there needs to be some flexibility about having goals like that; but if you’re going to do something radical like follow Jesus, being determined to give 20% off the top is a pretty amazing place to start.

But at the time, the conflict got so bad that I couldn’t admit that giving 20% was ever a good idea. It came from the wrong people. I felt like I had an obligation to oppose those people no matter what, because they represented everything I believed to be wrong with the church. If they were right about anything, then the whole plot line to my story would get goofed up. I mean, what if they were the “good guys” sometimes?

I couldn’t have that.

And they felt like they had an obligation to oppose me. I could never be the “good guy” in the story they were telling themselves about the congregation.

That’s the problem with carving the church up into factions—it forecloses on the possibility of following an idea to where it leads, based on its ownmerits. Instead, in conflicted churches (also a symptom of dying churches) ideas only have credibility by association with the “right” people.

Unfortunately, the adversarial nature of conflict in a congregation renders as enemies those who—in their better moments—would say they’re simply trying their best to follow Jesus.

Conflict that gets entrenched diminishes flexibility and tends to preempt creativity. It’s too easy to focus on “winning the war,” and too easy to dismiss ideas because they come from the “wrong” side in the struggle.

I’ve changed my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think my adversaries were sending the wrong message in that instance; but I no longer consider their idea wrong ipso facto.

And that’s just the problem, isn’t it? I could only think of them asadversaries, and not as brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, I realized that I wanted to be right much more than I wanted to get it right.

And that’s a surefire recipe for disaster—fisticuffs or not.


  1. Yes, I know it was Flavor-aid. Please don’t email me. ↩
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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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