By Eddie Pipkin

Resolution season is in full swing.  I know this because the neighbor lady has renewed her back-patio sunrise workout routine, accompanied by an enthusiastically amplified, dance party playlist.  God bless her in her efforts (which generally last a couple of window-shaking weeks, give or take).  I wrote about leadership resolutions last week, and I hope you give one or more of those a try (even if only a brief dalliance), but for January I thought we’d focus on resolutions gone rogue by looking at some real-life examples of common, but avoidable ministry hiccups that undermine our resolve for excellence.  Each week we’ll feature a true story and accompanying analysis: how best intentions are sometimes sabotaged and how we can be proactive in keeping those intentions on track.  And so, let us begin — with the shocking case of “The Carolers Who Refused to Carol!”

A week before Christmas, the delightful senior lady next door (who has been mostly confined at home these many months of Covid), called to tell me that some carolers were coming by that evening from her church: would we like to come over and be caroled as well?  Well, of course we would, I replied.  (You may have picked up in recent blogs how very much I love caroling as a Christmas tradition and how I thought this was the perfect year for sharing some caroling joy.)

Well, Miss Wanda (as we say down south) said she thought they would be by between 6:00 and 7:00, and she’d try to text me when their arrival was imminent.  About 6:15, as dinner at my house was winding down, I wandered outside and looked over to see the carolers mid-carol next door, so I ran back inside to gather up my crew – which took a minute, of course – and by the time we made it out to the end of the driveway, the singers were trundling back into their mini-van.

“Awww, we missed it,” my son said.

“No, we’ll just flag them down as they come by, and they can sing us a couple of carols from the van,” I said.  Our little cul-de-sac is configured so that they had no option other than driving directly by where were standing , so as they approached, I flagged them down.  The van stopped, the window rolled down, and the driver said, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, you can!” I said.  “We wanna’ be caroled!  We love carols!”

He seemed confused.  “Well, we already caroled next door.  Sorry.”

“I know,” I said.  “Miss Wanda invited us over, but I guess in all the excitement, she forgot to call and let us know that you were here.  We came out as soon as we saw you.  Can you just sing us a couple of carols from the van?  You don’t have to get out or anything.”

One lady in the back of the van was laughing and tried to get a rendition of “Joy to the World” going that quickly fizzled, the joy escaping like air from a punctured balloon.

The driver said, “Yeah, we can’t do that.  We’ve got another three houses we have to get to, and we’re on a tight schedule.  Sorry.  Merry Christmas.”  And he rolled up the window as he was putting the van into drive and rolling away.

I waved and called out a valediction, which – I will confess – was a little snarky, but frankly, I was a wee bit embarrassed on behalf of Team Christian.  I had some young adults at dinner that night who are not church folk, and I had made a big deal about how awesome Christmas caroling was, how it magically spread the joy of Christmas.  Here I was with proverbial eggnog on my face.

Now, I totally understand the point of view of the driver of this outreach excursion vehicle.  He and his crew had a noble task to accomplish – which I am sure they did well and faithfully – to minister to the needs of the lonely shut-ins who were on their list.  They had showed up on time to the church parking lot, practiced their carols, piled in the van, and brought joy to people who really needed it at the end of a challenging 2020.  They had done their job.  I am also sure that being ambushed by a wacky crew of vagabonds like us was . . . disconcerting.  So, I am not here to castigate these well-intentioned folks.  I am here instead, as always, to poke at our institutional leadership.

Because here is an excellent example of good ministry that missed an opportunity to connect with people because it couldn’t improvise; it was unable to respond outside of the borders of its defined ministry box.  This is one of the classic ways we routinely sabotage the Kingdom work.

Here’s the kicker – and I am not making this up.  My son and I were driving through the neighborhood a couple of days later and passed by the home church of the “carolers who wouldn’t carol.” There was a big banner out front with the slogan of their current worship series, which said:

Christmas outside the box:

Expect the unexpected.

We nearly drove off the road, we were laughing so hard.

You may be laughing, too, as you read that, or you may be slowly shaking your head in knowing frustration.  But here is the regular reality in many of our local churches, filled with good intentions, faithful people, and big ideas: we brainstorm great worship themes and package them in engaging worship services, but somehow there is a gap between the idea of the message and implementation of that idea — things go sideways at the very moment at which that message can become action in the real world.

Probably, the good folks in that van could have told me all about the wonderful sermons they had been hearing at church on the previous Sundays, how the Christmas story is all about God thinking outside the box, how the characters in the Christmas story are constantly being surprised by the unexpected!

They just didn’t have any sense of how those lessons applied to a dark cul-de-sac full of strange people who were interrupting a strategic ministry initiative.

I think this is a phenomenon that happens because we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the practical application of theological concepts.  We get caught up in our enthusiasm for Greek word derivations and clever, inspiring stories, and we don’t spell out what living out those concepts means for the people hearing them once they leave the building (or the YouTube gathering).  That part we leave squishy and open to interpretation.  We don’t stress accountability to take action, to respond, to be open to be put in the path of God’s grace to embrace the unexpected to love one’s neighbor (or carol to one’s neighbor).

Imagine instead ,that as leaders of our individual ministry silos, we reinforce the main ideas and accountability challenges of any given worship series.  We apply those ideas and challenges to every good work to which we send every faithful follower.

It looks like this: “Hey, thank you for being here and caroling tonight.  The names on this list are gong to be blessed by your faithfulness.  But as we’ve been talking about ‘Christmas outside the box’ and ‘Expecting the unexpected,’ I want you to be on the lookout for that tonight.  I want you to expect the Holy Spirit to throw you a curveball, and when that happens, I want you to be ready to take a swing.”  And later we have them report back and celebrate those curveballs and their responses.

Think about that conversation, repeated dozens of times, getting everybody o the same page, replicating and buttressing the message, moving that message from concept to lived-out-love in the streets.

How would that change our impact in 2021?

What examples have you seen of ministry sabotage in which we fail to “practice what we preach”?  What ideas do you have for helping congregations live into the concepts they’ve been studying together.  Share from your big brains and big hearts in the comments section.

Next week, we’ll explore a new avenue of self-sabotage.  Send your ideas for blogs in this series.  And by all means FEEL FREE to use my story, shared in this blog, in your own sermons and leadership meetings.  God bless!