The letter was crystal clear: “You have precipitously dismissed the most valuable member of the church staff. And now you will pay the price.”
So it seemed. After 40 years of employment, the choir director at Sunnyvale Church was being let go. When the pastor and the personnel committee chair asked her to retire, she left the meeting in a huff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reaction was swift. One-third of the choir left for another church. The organist resigned in solidarity with the director. Word got around town that after years of faithful service, Sunnyvale was cutting Louise loose. What a shame. And what a surprise!
Well, not so great a surprise as one might think. Investigation disclosed that a sizable group of church members had had serious reservations about Louise for years—her choice of music, her manner of dealing with people, even her musical ability. Those people had repeatedly registered complaints to the liturgy and personnel committees, but no action was taken.
The committees themselves often discussed Louise’s job performance, going so far as to warn her, “Things have got to change.” For more than 20 years, it seemed, the committees were constantly preoccupied with changing Louise and the music program.
Nothing changed. Louise continued to do as she had always done. She bullied the pastor, ignored the critics, and verbally abused the choir. Her manner became more brusque. Finally, when the pastor and personnel committee could stand it no longer, they acted. But the reaction hurt the church. Members blamed one another for the debacle, even changing sides in the debate. Before the dust settled, the pastor had left; the personnel chair had resigned; the church was divided.
Why hadn’t things changed? Why didn’t the people do what they wanted to do 30 years earlier? The answer is easy. The “Abilene Paradox” had come to church.
The Abilene Paradox is a management concept introduced more than 25 years ago by Jerry B. Harvey.1 Harvey asks why organizations don’t do what their members agree should be done. His concept is based on an ill-fated outing he and his family made from Coleman to Abilene, Texas, on a hot summer night to eat mediocre cafeteria food. No one really wanted to go, but each agreed to make the trip, thinking everyone else favored the idea. Harvey contends that had family members disclosed their true desire to stay at home, no conflict would have surfaced later about having gone.
Old First Church had weathered many storms in its downtown location, including attempts to move the congregation to the suburbs. In recent years, however, a new generation had become active, and plans were under way to build a new sanctuary and office complex at the present site. The board appointed a building committee, and the committee hired an architect. After extensive listening sessions, the architect took what he had learned and produced a preliminary plan.
When the architectural model was shown to members, nothing seemed right. The bell tower was the wrong size. The sanctuary was not oriented properly. The traffic pattern in the office complex was unsatisfactory. The architect countered every complaint with survey results: “When we asked you about this, you said, . . .”
During this phase, First Church called a new senior pastor. In the first meeting after his arrival, he summed up what committee members already knew. The church did not need new buildings. Redecorating and minor remodeling would suffice. The committee paid the architect and thanked him for his time. The plans disappeared into a file cabinet, never to be seen again.
What had happened? The committee—and by extension, the whole congregation—had taken action contrary to the data it had for dealing with problems. As a result, problems were compounded rather than solved.2 That, in a nutshell, is the Abilene Paradox. No one wanted to be the odd one out who disagreed with the other committee members. Although countless “parking-lot discussions” may have centered on the idea’s wrong-headedness, individual members could not bring themselves to do what they privately agreed must be done. No one wanted to be exposed to humiliation, ostracism, or criticism, so each person concealed his or her feelings from the group. I am reminded of Adam, who said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:12).
Resisting a Firm Decision
Some years ago, when I served a congregation in southwestern Oklahoma, we decided we needed an associate pastor. We asked the judicatory for names of prospective ministers and began the search. Oddly, no potential candidate seemed to have the right qualifications. As we winnowed the portfolios, we discovered that every one had some deficiency; some were unqualified for any position. Finding no candidate who met our expectations, we asked the judicatory for more names. Even with two subsequent lists, we couldn’t agree on anyone. Finally, someone in the judicatory office said, “I’m not sure this person is available, but you might try her.”
We were elated. Here was a live one. We telephoned her; she was interested. We did a phone interview and liked what we heard. She agreed to visit us.
After the visit, at which we had met her and her family, we sat down to see if we wanted to negotiate with her. Here was the moment of truth. As the discussion went back and forth, I first thought we were ready to call her. Then reservations began to surface about her family. I pointed out that we were calling her, not hiring her family. More discussion followed. People wondered if she would stay with us only long enough to get a church of her own. I countered that two or three years were better than none.
Finally, it became clear that no one wanted to call an associate. Each had held this opinion for some time, but no one had expressed reservations in the committee. I understood then why it had been so difficult to reach this stage. We didn’t want to get there. We were desperately looking for a reason not to call an associate. It was too painful to admit that we had neither the money nor the size to support another full-time pastor.
With difficulty, the committee chair confessed our predicament to the candidate. She graciously accepted our decision, but did point out that we had strung her along for quite a while. A few months later, we hired a part-time youth director through a local employment agency. We all agreed that we had done the right thing.
Why did we focus on the candidate’s family or her career plans while hiding our agreement not to hire anyone at all? Harvey calls this behavior “phony conflict.”
Phony conflict occurs in the Abilene Paradox because people agree on the actions they want to take and then do the opposite. The resulting anger, frustration, and scapegoating—generally termed conflict—are not based on real differences. Rather they stem from the protective reactions that occur when a decision that no one believed in or was committed to in the first place goes sour. In fact, as a paradox within a paradox, such conflict is symptomatic of agreement.3
I believe that my own strong advocacy for calling an associate made the committee’s job harder. Since no one wanted to disagree with the pastor, each person assumed everyone else was on board. In fact, my response to questions about the candidate’s family or motivations could be seen as bullying. Had the committee failed to discover that the congregation could not afford another professional staff person, we might have continued on the road to Abilene, blaming each other when things did not turn out well.
That, in fact, did happen in a church s
erved by one of my old classmates. The senior pastor lobbied for an associate; the committee found one and recommended him to the congregation. All sorts of reservations were evident, but no one spoke up. Finally, after two or three years of difficulty, in which the associate was judged a “wrong fit” and the senior pastor was characterized as a martinet, members resorted to expressing their frustration and anger in the offering plate. Both senior and associate pastors had to leave. Both were damaged, spiritually and professionally.
What is the alternative to “going to Abilene”? What can leaders and pastors do to avoid this potential disaster? Harvey thinks organizations can do many things; by extension, so can congregations. People must break the cycle of silence and blame that accompany the Abilene Paradox.
Speaking Truth in Love
The best way is open confrontation—preferably in a group setting.4 The accuser must tell the truth—speak the truth in love, as we church people are disposed to say. The accuser must own up to his or her position and prepare to take the consequences. This approach lets the group know that the accuser fears the committee is about to make a decision contrary to the church’s best interests. One might say something like this:
I know I may have said things before that made you think I was supportive of what we are about to do, but I have had other thoughts. I don’t think we will succeed in doing this. In fact, I believe we will be acting against the church’s interests if we do it. I wonder if anyone else thinks as I do. Actually, I’m pretty sure most of you do. If we don’t do something now, we will recommend a project to the church that is bound to fail, and hurt us in the process. I need to know where you stand.
The accuser can expect two kinds of results—technical and existential. For the accuser, the existential experience seems more important.
At my Oklahoma church, we experienced a technical result. We stopped negotiations with our candidate, regrouped, and hired a part-time youth director. Everyone agreed that our change of direction was warranted, and the passage of time confirmed that.
On the other hand, Sunnyvale Church suffered existentially. Many people felt hurt by the forced retirement of the music director. A sense of failure pervaded the congregation, and people looked for a scapegoat. The church did not resolve anything until members admitted their own complicity.
How does the Abilene Paradox come to church? It comes just as it comes to any other organization. All organizations are made up of human beings, and, as prophets have told us, humanity is prone to act against its own best interests. How is the Abilene Paradox prevented? One does that by recognizing the symptoms, confronting them, and being forthright with each other. Or, as we say in church, by speaking the truth in love.
1. Jerry B. Harvey, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement,” Organizational Dynamics (summer, 1974). Harvey is professor of management science at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
2. Ibid., 20.
3. Ibid., 28f.
4. Ibid., 32f.