Failure of Nerve

About a decade ago, our church leadership team read Simple Church together. In principle, we all bought into the book’s premise: Identify the few things that matter most; do those things; do only those things.

As we read and worked, our team got excited about the great change that was coming. We could see how this kind of simplicity and focus was going to improve everything. So we identified the few things that mattered most for us––worship, growth in small groups, and service.[note]When I see the hundreds (thousands?) of churches with similar banners, I wonder if they all read Simple Church.[/note] We resolved to focus all of our energy and publicity and resources on those things.

People would get tired of hearing an invitation into our small groups because that invitation would be so constant. Our bulletin would change––rather than thirty announcements to get lost in, there would be only three. Our budget would change––rather than hundreds of line items fracturing our resources, we would focus all of our resources on these few things. We were all excited about it, in principle.

And then we had to start talking about all the other things.

Those items that would no longer be in the announcements. (Remember? We’re simplifying the announcements to talk about small groups ad nauseam.)

Those line items that would no longer be in the budget. (Remember? We’re reallocating our resources to focus them all on worship, grow, and serve. So much extra money for the most important things!)

This was when it all began to fall apart. “But the softball team…!” “But that fellowship dinner…!” As we went down the list of items we would no longer fund in the budget or advertise in the bulletin, it turned out each of them was important to someone. We were supposed to identify the few things that mattered most and do only those things. But everything we were doing mattered.

So what about our exciting new simple church? We decided we could at least organize the announcements according to our new slogan. And we could organize the budget the same way. If it didn’t fit under “worship,” “grow,” or “serve,” it would be an indication that we shouldn’t be doing it.

You know what happened then. We discovered that everything we were doing could be shoehorned into one of those categories. The bulletin announcements remained the same, but they had new headings. Same for the budget line items. We resolved to tweak some of those items––ask how the softball team could be a bit more of a spiritual growth opportunity, etc.––though I’m not sure how long that resolve lasted.

After several months of reading and planning and excitement, we had a new, Simple Church-approved slogan. And the same church.

Why real change fails

Why did our change effort result in a few months of dreaming, a new slogan, and no real change? For the same reason that most real change fails. Change inherently involves loss. And loss involves pain. And once we finally realize the changes we’re planning will involve pain, we have a failure of nerve and try to minimize the pain.

The best way to minimize the pain:
1 – Tweak the old system (to avoid the pain of real change)
2 – Tell yourselves you’re following the new plan (to avoid the pain of wasted time planning)

A more detailed version of that failure of nerve pattern:


In his book on the same subject[note]My diagram and definition of failure of nerve are my own. I’m not sure whether Edwin Friedman would approve or not.[/note] Edwin Friedman says it like this:

“[W]hat is clear about pain universally is this: To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down.”[note]in A Failure of Nerve, p. 93[/note]

Unless we’re motivated enough, we will not make fundamental change.[note]Ironically, Friedman talks about being unmotivated to get out of our chair while much of the United Methodist Church is relying on a process that requires us to make our most important decisions while we sit in the same chair for 8 hours.[/note] We’ll make tweaks and call it change. And sadly, stagnant and declining organizations usually don’t get motivated enough until crisis. And they don’t usually realize they’re in crisis until too late.

The first post I ever wrote here was about an experience like this. The Bishop had called for a task force to reconsider how we were funding our campus ministries. They consumed 8% of the Conference budget at the time. They were under fire for producing too little return on the Conference’s significant investment. Not that they were all failing. There were many good stories and important ministries happening. But there were others that couldn’t name more than ten students involved in their ministries. Since those ministries were receiving $70,000 from the Conference, they were good candidates for the “most expensive small group” award.[note]Thanks to Adam Sparks for this excellent award title.[/note]

Nevertheless, many leaders were unprepared to face our realities and endure the pain of fundamental change. Instead, our Conference passed a tweak to the system. I didn’t yet have the language for this, but now I can name it as a failure of nerve. We knew we needed to make a change (lots of talk around the Conference about under-performance and major investment; the Bishop had called for a task force!) But we weren’t willing to do it. Those leaders didn’t yet realize their crisis.

A few years later, the campus ministries lost their Conference funding. That task force had been the last chance at preserving their funding.

(A point of celebration: that new funding crisis forced our campus ministries to “get out of their chairs.” Some that were struggling before are thriving now.)

Who will hold the line?

Is fundamental change needed where you are? If so, are you willing to pay the price? There will be loss––and pain.

For any group to pay that price, it will require a bold leader who is prepared to hold the line when others start saying, “But what about [insert pain point]??”

What does that bold leader look like? Especially in church world, they often look like a jerk. I wonder if this is why we so rarely do it. Edwin Friedman describes them this way: “Anyone who wishes to advance our species or an institution must possess those qualities which those who have little sense of self will perceive as narcissistic. All this besides the fact that ‘arrogant,’ ‘headstrong,’ ‘narcissistic,’ and ‘cold’ will be the terms used against any person who tries to be more himself or herself.”[note]p. 190[/note]

Arrogant, headstrong, narcissistic, and cold… Church world rejects these (perceived) characteristics perhaps more than any other world. Do we have room for leaders who are willing to hold the line? Or will we reject them as cold, arrogant, and lacking compassion?

I wonder if the church’s penchant for compassion may lead us to a more regular failure of nerve than most others. Of course, this is often only a perceived compassion, more properly called a desire to keep everyone happy, which is often at its heart narcissistic.