Never Let the Guy with the Broom Decide How Many Elephants Can Be in the Parade

By Derek Penwell
 

“Who authorized that decision? Nobody knows what’s going on around here anymore.”

How many times have you heard that one?

What’s the quick response when that complaint makes its way into the life of a congregation?

“Well, it has been a while since we talked about the organizational structure. Maybe we should look at the constitution and by-laws again, make sure we’re doing it right.”

It occurs to me that what’s at the heart of grousing about congregational organization is fear over who gets to say “yes.”

“Who authorized that decision?” is usually an expression of fear about where power is located. So, congregations spend much of their time in organizational thinking concentrating on this issue—who gets to say “yes.”

By-laws, organizational charts, endless meetings all exist—at least in part—to rehearse the relationship between an idea and its authorization.

“I’ve been in recovery for 3 years now, and I’d like to start an AA meeting in the adult Sunday School classroom on Tuesday nights. Who do I have to talk to get permission to do that?”

“Well, you’ll need to check with the secretary to see if the room’s available. You’ll probably have to get board approval for that. Is there going to be smoking on the grounds?”

“I’d like to offer a middle-school class. What’s my next step?”

“You need to talk to Angie, she’s the Education chairperson. She’ll bring it to the committee. Then, they can pass a recommendation to the board, which will vote on it.”

“We’ve got a group that wants to use the church fellowship hall for a drag show. Is that all right?”

“You’re going to have to bring that one straight to the board.”

We have amazingly complex systems of authorization in place. Layers of bureaucracy that ensure no one gets away with anything.

Believe me, I understand. You can’t have just anyone doing who-knows-what in the name of the church. Eventually, that will come back to bite you.

But for all the time churches spend figuring out who gets to say “yes,” it’s amazing to note that they’ll let just about anybody say “no.”

“Now, see, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

Is it really? How many truly interesting ideas have been shot down in church because one person pulled the trigger?

“That sounds like a great idea, but I’m afraid that if we let those people use the building, something’s going to get broken.”

 

“Of course we love young people, but I don’t think that kind of thing is appropriate for Christians.”

 

“I think you’ll find that nobody will mind … except, Norman. Yeah, he won’t go for it.”

Brooms, Elephants, and Blocking

Merlin Mann has famously said: “Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants can be in the parade.”

What does that mean?

It means, according to Mann, that to the guy with the broom, an elephant isn’t an elephant, it’s a source of inconvenience. If you ask that guy, he’ll say there shouldn’t be any elephants, and you should spend your time and money hiring more broom guys.

Why?

Because elephants, no matter how wonderful they might make the parade, threaten to make that guy’s life miserable.

“What is the purpose of a parade?”

To entertain people.

“Do elephants entertain people?”

Yes.

“Then let’s have more elephants.”

No.

The guy with the broom answers the question about elephants by saying that elephants upset the balance. As if the purpose of a parade was not to entertain people, but to make one guy’s struggle with life a bit more manageable.

Of course, people say “no” for reasons other than just that a proposed action produces more headaches. There are any number reasons people give for blocking:

  • We don’t have the money to do x.
  • We’ve tried x before, and it didn’t work.
  • We’ve never done x before, and we shouldn’t start doing it now.
  • “People” will get upset if we move forward with x.
  • “People” might leave if we follow through with x.
  • My aunt Gladys would roll over in her grave if she knew we were doing x.
  • X is just not something a place like this should be involved in.

Or, there’s the all-purpose blocking tactic:

  • I’m not comfortable with us doing x.

Any idea, no matter how good, reasonable, or promising that runs up against one of these phrases in a meeting is almost surely doomed in most churches. In unhealthy systems, blocking tactics are virtually fool-proof.

And the beauty of it is almost anyone can successfully execute them!

  • People who haven’t been to church since the Nixon administration
  • People who’ve never given an hour or a dime
  • People who’re resentful about the prospect of having to give another hour or another dime
  • Even proxies for people dead, absent, or non-existent (i.e., “People are saying …”)
  • (I’ve even heard of denominations that are set up to allow people to be bused in for the express purpose of keeping change at bay.)

Bonus: The louder and more obnoxious you can be the better chance you’ll have at succeeding!

The Problem

Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes blocking is necessary. Prophets are often blockers—loud obnoxious people who are famous for standing up and saying “No!” We need people with the courage to stand in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way of the oncoming tank convoys.

The question I’m raising is not whether blocking should occur sometimes, but whether or not a congregation or a denomination should be prevented from ever even attempting great and interesting things because of the threat (real or imagined) of the broom pushers, who if asked, will invariably say “no.”

Or what about this: Everybody in charge knows it’s the right thing to do, but nobody wants to clean up the inevitable mess.

Organizations devote so much time and energy to set up systems that are explicit about who gets to say “yes.”

What’s a quorum? How high up the organizational chart does it need to go to get authorization? How many votes are necessary? Who said you could do that?

I think organizations would benefit from spending a quarter of the time dealing explicitly with the question of who gets to say “no.”

What kind of investment is necessary on the part of a person who seeks to torpedo an idea? Does the person have to demonstrate any expertise in the area before being able to stymy the group, or is just “feeling” like it’s the wrong thing to do enough? Can one person carry the water for another person, a group of persons, a whole demographic?

Saying “no” is just as much an exercise of power as saying “yes.” We write all kinds of rules about the latter, without ever explicitly taking up the issue of the former.

The problem isn’t just that good ideas are always in danger of being shot down. In an unhealthy system good ideas often don’t see the light of day because everybody knows up front that bringing them up is a waste of time. I would wager that serial blockers have killed ten times more ideas in people’s heads than they’ve killed on the floor of meetings—just because everybody is convinced that bringing up an idea would be a waste of time, or because it would cause World War III.

The reality of the situation is that you’ll never do great things, exciting things, things that change the world if every idea is stillborn for fear that somebody will object.

Spend some time considering to whom you give the power of veto.

Make sure you know why the guy with broom doesn’t like elephants in the parade.

Or don’t do great things. The choice is ultimately up to you.

Here’s an idea for a cheap bracelet: WWJASN

Who would Jesus allow to say no?

(From the archive.)