By Eddie Pipkin
I was reading last week about the inventor, Thomas Midgley, Jr. His name was unfamiliar to me, but his inventions. He was responsible for two of the developments that made the Twentieth Century as we lived it possible: the CFCs that made air conditioning affordable and the leaded gasoline formulation that, likewise, made the automobile accessible and useful for all. Of course, each of those two technological advancements led to notorious planetary-wide environmental disasters. It’s hard to look into the future and see the way a seemingly sound idea might morph into an unanticipated disaster. It’s hard, but we have to have the guts and foresight to fearlessly anticipate what might go wrong if we want to be the best leaders we can be.
Thomas Midgley, Jr. was a mechanical engineer, self-taught chemist, and inventor who had a frenzied burst of creativity, particularly in the decade of the 1920s, that had impacts around the world. His idea of adulterating the gasoline of that era with lead additives made car engines more powerful and dependable, expanding the market of cars to the middle class and beyond and making them the workhorse of the American dream. And while that would have been enough for most polymaths, he also was behind the discovery that would finally make commercial and residential refrigeration safe and reliable. He was a brilliant hero.
Or was he?
He died tragically early at 55, and though lauded at the time of his death, the decades that followed revealed the hidden downsides to the great ideas for which he had been celebrated (you can read more about him here):
While The Times praised him as “one of the nation’s outstanding chemists” in its obituary, today Midgley is best known for the terrible consequences of that chemistry, thanks to the stretch of his career from 1922 to 1928, during which he managed to invent leaded gasoline and also develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer.
Yikes! The very inventions that made it possible for two major American lifestyle innovations to take place had disastrous unintended consequences for future generations. It would take billions of dollars to remediate the environmental damage and health impacts caused by just these two innovations. Now we know that lead is toxic, even in small quantities—at peak worldwide usage, leaded gasoline was estimated to have contributed to more than a million deaths a year. Lead in gas has thankfully been banned since the 1970s. Meanwhile, aerosol CFCs were banned in 1994 as the world realized their danger, and miraculously the ozone layer has slowly begun to repair itself.
If Midgley and his co-workers had been able to peer into a crystal ball back in the 20s, they might have charted a different course.
Or maybe not. The stories of leaded gasoline and CFCs are different in terms of how many reasonable expectations of problems down the road may have been in play. In the case of chlorofluorocarbons, there was no technological means at the time to anticipate the catastrophic effect they would have on the upper atmosphere. That interaction wasn’t even theoretically considered. There just wasn’t any way to predict it, test it, or see it in action until much farther down the technological road, so Midgley and company might be forgiven for that unintended snafu.
Leaded gas on the other hand is a different, more dubious story. Scientists and medical professionals already knew that lead was dangerous. They had plenty of evidence, including the illnesses and deaths of people working to create the kind of leaded gasoline that would go on to be the main product used in cars: Ethyl. There were even alternatives available, like ethanol. But those alternatives were not as lucrative for the companies that made gasoline and cars, so the concerns about potential lead poisoning were pushed aside for decades, until the real-world impacts became undeniable.
There’s a contemporary class of scientists and futurists who specialize in wondering if some current human technological advance may have similar catastrophic effects a century down the road (nanobots, artificial intelligence, genetically modified crops, for instance). How do we predict future impacts? One thing is clear: there was a big difference between assessing the impact of CFCs versus leaded gasoline back in the Roaring Twenties:
As the scenario planners put it, the question of leaded gasoline’s health risks to the general public was a known unknown. We knew there was a legitimate question that needed answering, but big industry just steamrollered over the whole investigation for almost half a century. The health risk posed by Freon was a more mercurial beast: an unknown unknown.
The same formulation of “known unknowns” versus “unknown unknowns” is useful in a ministry context. We make decisions that have lasting impacts, and those impacts can ultimately be for good or ill.
If we are proposing major changes—to programs, personnel, funding streams, community vision, etc.—we should take time to think about the ramifications beyond our immediate goals. We should consider the possibilities of how the future of our organization might be changed in a generation (or even two generations) by the decisions we are making in the here and now.
Sometimes these decisions involve “unknown unknowns”: It’s really just a mental exercise in hypotheticals. We’re just making our best guesses (hopefully with the leading of the Holy Spirit) about what the future holds.
But sometimes those decisions involve “known unknowns,” in which it’s pretty obvious that there will be negative repercussions that stem from our decisions, but we are too hard-headed or in too big of a hurry to seriously consider the damage that may be done. Our ego can get in the way of evidence. We shut our ears to concerns and critique.
I have written before in this space about the value and importance of “legacy thinking.” This is long-term vision casting, investing in decisions today that will have a positive impact for future generations of our ministry. You can read more about that here. Here’s a quote from that long-ago blog:
As we think about the way we spend our ministry time, it’s worthwhile to think about whether we are investing ourselves in efforts that will pay dividends far down the road. Obviously, a lot of our days are consumed with logistics and details, but are these logistics and details in the service of things that fade away or things that last? Jesus showed the importance of investing in the future.
If we are leading programs or studies or preaching or teaching, all of these normal functions should be tuned to serve higher, long-lasting goals. It’s a question worth asking: is what I am doing (and how I am doing it) right now going to matter five or 10 years down the road?
Are we establishing community partnerships that are going to live on? Are we impacting the social justice issues that were so close to Jesus’ heart? Are we establishing a moral center in our community which is a place where people know they can come to find healing and serve others?
Are we leaving a lasting legacy?
Those are great questions worth asking, questions which can energize us to do things that matter. But we can also invert the framework for thinking about the future; we can flip the script in a powerful way.
Are we planting the seeds for an anti-legacy? Are we cutting corners, mixing up priorities, thinking selfishly, refusing to acknowledge the perspectives of others, or doing any other of a hundred things that might cause us to make poor, short-term, misguided decisions at this juncture in time that will do damage to people and institutions, if not in the immediate future, then potentially 10 or 20 years from now?
To rework the previously excerpted paragraph, Are we declining community partnerships because the opportunity to establish them looks too difficult? Are we saying no to engaging current social justice issues that were so close to Jesus’ heart? Are we taking a pass on establishing a moral center in our community which might have established us as a place where people know they can come to find healing and serve others, and are we doing this only because the staffing and the budget are not right to meet this obvious need at this moment in history? We may come to regret our reluctance.
Likewise, we may come to regret the ways in which we disregarded whole groups of people (whether young or old or immigrant or in some way different than us) because they weren’t part of our current “brand.” We may come to regret lost opportunities to take a stand on difficult questions. We may come to regret getting too emotionally caught up in taking stands that turn out not to matter later on.
Let’s not be people of regret. Let’s take time with our leadership teams and stakeholders and imagine the future together—not just the shiny rainbow-bordered future of our ministry dreams, but also the dystopian cul-de-sac nightmare of what can go horribly wrong if we get an obstinate case of tunnel vision.
Let me close by noting that the safeguards for not leaving an anti-legacy involve many things that we write about in this space on a regular basis:
- Honor your procedures and processes. Even though they can be a pain to stick to, they exist to help you slow down and take the long view.
- Involve as many people and voices as possible. Other people with other perspectives and experiences and different kinds of wisdom will see things you will never be able to see.
- Seek help and guidance. Other churches, other leaders, have faced whatever you find yourself facing. They would love to assist you; don’t be a “go it alone” goober.
- Be true to your vision. Be true to your foundational, biblical values. Know your core identity and honor it in all your decision making, and then it’s hard to go wrong.
Can you think of times when you made a decision (months ago or decades ago) that you wish you could take back now? Why? What would you in retrospect do differently? How would you advise other to modify their decision making approach to guard against know unknowns and unknown unknowns? Share your stories, because, after all, we’re all either an inspirational anecdote or a cautionary tale!