Why Fixing the Chicago Cubs and Declining Congregations Isn't That Different

“If you try and serve perception as well as reality, you’re going to wind up hurting yourself long term.”

Theo Epstein

It’s December, which means it’s a great time to be a Cubs fan. Like my father and my father’s father, I’m a fan of the woebegone Chicago Cubs. Before there was cable, I got to watch 162 games a year via an antenna that ran up the side of our house, somewhere near the midpoint of the troposphere.

My parents went to a double-header at Wrigley Field on their honeymoon. My wife and I went to Wrigley Field to see Greg Maddux pitch in his first full season in the majors on our honeymoon. My first visit to Clark and Addison came when I was still an infant. I’ve taken my kids to the Friendly Confines to sit in hundred degree weather and buy foam Cub’s Claws.

All this and the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. In the sage words of Peter Cetera, it’s “a hard habit to break.”

And so many years December is the best time to be a Cubs fan. As I write, the winter meetings have just completed in Dallas. The Hot Stove League rides the winter like a fresh April breeze. The Cubs have a new President of Baseball Operations (Theo Epstein, boy genius), a new General Manager (Jed Hoyer), and a new manager (Dale Sveum, pronounced swayme).

I love this time of the year for baseball. For Cubs fans, generally speaking, it’s a much better time than August. We have no holes to dig out of in the divisional race, no protracted losing streaks to undo, no blow-ups by Carlos Zambrano to explain away. Most of the injuries have the benefit of time to heal before they become a threat to the season.

I’m a huge Hot Stove junkie–that time when rumors and speculation about big trades and blockbuster free-agent signings fill the tiny baseball section of the winter sports page.

It rarely gets better than December for Cubs fans.

This year, new VP of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, in talking about how to rebuild the forlorn Chicago Cubs, made in interesting comment. He said, “If you try and serve perception as well as reality, you’re going to wind up hurting yourself long term.”

That makes sense to me.

I remember demographer, Ron Crouch, once saying, “The difference between reality and perception is that reality changes.” This phenomenon is, of course, true in congregations (especially declining ones).

Even after a congregation in decline begins to turn the corner and some positive things start happening, it’s easy to live with a perception that’s no longer true. Negative perceptions are particularly difficult to shed.

In a church where I used to minister things had gotten pretty dire at one point. There were only a couple of kids left in the church. We did a lot of work: praying, painting, making connections, offering ministry. After a long time things turned around. When I left we had forty-five children in the children and youth program.[1]

But even after things started to change, the stubborn perception that there weren’t any kids lingered for a long time.

Shriek! “We’re going to die. We have no kids!”

“We just had a youth outing on which we took 18 young people.”

It happens.

“Nothing ever gets done and nobody knows who’s in charge since we got rid of the committees!”

“Actually, there are all kinds of things getting done. We started a soup kitchen, began a literacy program, took two mission trips, and founded a grief support group.”

“How come I didn’t hear about it?”

"I can’t answer that."

What I can say, though, is that if you continue to plan and program to address the perceptions, reality’s going to pass you by.

Heck, the Cubs might even win in October (instead of December) before you start living the life to which Jesus called you.

  1. I’d love to claim credit for what happened; but I didn’t have much to do with it. It had much more to do with some really smart, really dedicated people who believed they had a responsibility for their kids. In fact, the children’s program got considerably larger after I left.