October 22, 2012

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Congregations die for lots of reasons. The most insidious cause, perhaps, and the most common is death by a thousand cuts.

I love how Wikipedia defines the phrase: “Creeping normalcy, the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable.”

We probably all have experience in this form of torture: A job that keeps getting duties added to it until you feel crushed under the weight or a relationship defined by snark with each comment eating away at trust and confidence.

In the congregation, the instrument of torture too often is nitpicking negativity.

A common inclination (maybe even part of our human condition) is to dwell on what’s not working. The typo in an otherwise perfect bulletin. A Facebook post that not everyone thought was appropriate. A sermon that didn’t hit the mark or a hymn that no one could sing. 

It’s fine to name those mistakes, but it is also critical to put them into context. Is the typographical error part of a pattern of sloppy work? Did the Facebook comment hit a nerve – or is the patter of conversation frequently off-kilter? 

Are the sermons on a downhill slide, week after week? Has the choir director gone too far beyond the congregation’s capability? 

When a mistake is part of a trend, then it merits serious discussion. When it’s just a mistake, let the person fix it but don’t give it important real estate during vestry meetings or in the handshake line after worship. 

Being hyper-critical as individuals or as a vestry or leadership team creates an environment of hesitancy and mistrust. It saps the energy and momentum and puts the kibosh on initiative. 

When building the agenda for a vestry meeting, ask whether an item deserves the time of this important group. Is the situation symptomatic of a bigger problem or is it an isolated incident that can be remedied with a quick e-mail or hallway discussion? 

I am not suggesting that vestries shouldn’t take on difficult topics. But I am asking that they consider the merit and relative importance of each agenda item. Stacking one bad incident after another, without the appropriate context and perspective, creates a creeping normalcy of negativity -- and a downward spiral that becomes self-fulfilling.