Getting Things Done: Plodding through the Valley of Abstraction


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By Derek Penwell

“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”

That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.

One person said, “Play the piano.”

Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”

Still another said, “Be published.”

All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.

So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.

But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”

Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.

Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”

So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”

More hesitation. People find abstraction much more comfortable to live with, since it doesn’t really cost anything to think big thoughts. “Well, I guess, I’d have to … um … well … “

Simple. Just keep it simple. Practical. What’s the first physical thing you’d have to do to start following through on your goal?1 If you’re going to learn to play the piano, what’s the first thing you’d need to do?

“Find a piano teacher?”

How? You need to be specific. Ask a friend? Call the local music shop?

“Call the local music shop.”

How?

“On the phone.”

You’ve got the number of the local music shop on speed dial?

“Oh, I’d have to look it up.”

How? In the Yellow Pages? Google it?

“Google it.”

There you go. If you’re going to learn to play the piano, the first step is to Google the phone number of the local music shop.

Now, you think I’m a pedantic twit. You’re not alone. Believe me.

But until people get that specific, they’ll never learn to play the piano. Because playing the piano is hard. You learn step-by-step, day after day. Most people know that, which is why they either put it off, or they keep the idea of learning to play the piano conceptual (which might just be the same thing).

Congregations are really good at abstraction. What would your congregation like to accomplish?

“We’d like to grow.”

Without getting too deeply into what you mean by “grow,” how are you going to accomplish that? (What congregations mean by “grow” will generally be evident in their answer about how they intend to grow. Usually, they mean something having to do with bodies and cash.)

“Um … well … we could get some young families.”

How do you propose to “get” these young families?

“We could hire a young minister.”

What do you suppose your “old” minister would say to that?

“Good point. We could have more programs that appeal to young families.”

Ok. What kinds of programs? Vacation Bible School? Upward Bound Soccer League? Day care?

“A family movie night. And we could invite people from the neighborhood.”

Now we’re cooking with gas. What would you have to do first?

“Get permission.”

To show a family movie?

“Fine. We’d need to decide on a movie.”

Who’s “we?”

“The fellowship committee.”

I would think choosing a movie wouldn’t need a motion in a committee meeting, but it’s your church. How are you going to get the committee to decide on the movie?

“I guess I could just email them and ask.”

So, at least in this person’s mind, the first physical act necessary to help your church grow would be writing an email.

I know that sounds overly fussy, but ideas (even good ones) will remain ideas until somebody bothers to pick up the phone, or send out an email, or shop on the Internet. Worthy aspirations are even worthier if you actually pursue them. And to pursue them you need to break down a big idea into manageable actions.

The larger point, though, is that congregations are notorious for keeping things vague. There’s safety in vagueness, in never starting. It’s difficult to fail at something you never actually try.

The secret: If you’re ever going to do anything interesting, personally or corporately, you’re going to have to plod through the valley of abstraction and set up camp in the world of actual work, where practical things like attending to details actually matters.

________________

  1. Just so we’re clear, I’m not an organizational genius. I get this “first step” thing from David Allen’s, Getting Things Done. Do yourself a favor, and read it. It’ll change your game. ↩

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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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