The well-known story of the elephant and the blind men has several versions. One version goes like this: a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one, though, touches a different part of the animal, and, based on that part, infer a larger truth about what the entire elephant must be like. In one account, the elephant is like a wicker basket to the one who touched the ear, a pot to the blind man who touched the head, and a brush to the one who touched the tip of the tail. When they compare their experiences, they discover their disagreement. Each one has his own view of reality, depending upon where he touched the elephant. Someone once said that truth is like an elephant surrounded by blind men.
Picking up on this story, Edwin Friedman states, “I touch the elephant wherever the elephant appears.” His remark is based on the idea that the enormity of the elephant precludes anyone comprehending the whole. One can only observe what is there in front of him or her. In life, Friedman is suggesting, prodigious complexity can be understood only from the perspective of what is at hand. The elephant is too monstrous to handle in its entirety.
Let’s probe the elephant-touch dilemma as it affects the life of today’s church: If we think of the elephant as representing the congregation’s mission, do all touches have the same value? Is there a place we all must touch? Finally, can we touch the mission in different places, disagree, and still work together?
Applying the elephant rule to life, one cannot deal with everything; therefore, one must work with what is at hand or known. The same rule applies to the church. Touch whatever aspect of mission is within reach. No congregation has to cover every part of the elephant. Even a congregation that has created and sustained a deep sense of mission has to work within a limited scope. Leaders and members need to humbly recognize they are not God’s only agent of renewal in the neighborhood. Every congregation in town is on the contributors’ list. Alongside churches are other donors. Resources are not evenly distributed among congregations; some congregations have more “outputs” than others. If a congregation thinks its outputs are secondary or paltry compared to others, it needs to remember the widow’s mite. Her contribution affirms that proportion can be as important as total amount. Besides, the immense, widespread human needs that summon our attention and gifts can overwhelm us. A small church may feel that their personal and financial offerings are inconsequential. Some people may conclude that the part of mission they have touched is the responsibility of another institution. A congregation may limit itself to its own kind. Worse yet, people may indicate that mission is none of their concern: There is no elephant in the room.
Yet all congregations need to touch tikkun olam, a Jewish concept that means “to mend the world.” It epitomizes God’s work. Theologian and poet Howard Thurman set the mending motif into a memorable frame, with the birth of Jesus as background:
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins,
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
All the movements of angels, kings, and shepherds foreshadow the “work of Christmas,” the mending of the world.
N. T. Wright elaborates: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.” Whatever we do to mend the world has lasting value. Everyone contributes. God blesses each and every gift.
1. Edwin Friedman (lecture, postgraduate seminar on family emotional process, Bethesda, Maryland, 1993).
2. Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1985), 23. Used by permission of the publisher.
3. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 193.
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A Door Set Open:
Grounding Change in Mission and Hope
by Peter L. Steinke
We resist change less when we associate it with mission and fortify it with hope. So argues longtime congregational consultant Peter Steinke in his fourth book, A Door Set Open, as he explores the relationship between the challenges of change and our own responses to new ideas and experiences.
A Systems Approach
by Peter L. Steinke
In this follow-up to How Your Church Family Works, Steinke takes readers into a deeper exploration of the congregation as an emotional system. Learn ten principles of health, how congregations can adopt new ways of dealing with stress and anxiety, how spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders influence the emotional system, factors that could put your congregation at risk, and more.
How Your Church Family Works:
Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems
by Peter L. Steinke
Drawing on the work of Bowen, Friedman, and his own many years’ counseling experience, Steinke shows how to recognize and deal with the emotional roots of such issues as church conflict, leadership roles, congregational change, irresponsible behavior, and the effects of family of origin on current relationships. Psychologically sound, theologically grounded, and practically illustrated with case studies.
Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:
Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What
by Peter L. Steinke
With anxiety intensifying and penetrating more and more areas of our lives, leaders cannot be as anxious as the people they serve. Steinke inspires courage in leaders to maintain the course, unearth secrets, resist sabotage, withstand fury, and overcome timidity or doubts. His insights, illustrations, and provocations will carry leaders through rough times, provide clarity during confusing times, and uplift them in joyous times.
Alban Weekly, September 23, 2013 – Inside the Large Congregation – Registration Closing
Large congregations are not just bigger, they require a different type of leadership.
If you are in, headed for, or thinking about leading a congregation with an average weekly attendance of 450 or more, don’t miss this event!
Registration closes October 25.
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban Senior Consultant and Author
October 29-13, 2013, Franciscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale, AZ
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