By Eddie Pipkin

As I sit here in my Central Florida home, gazing out the window at my yard full of gorgeous live oaks, awaiting the imminent arrival of hurricane Ian, there’s nothing to do now but wait and try not to spiral into negative thinking about things we might have done differently in prepping for storm season.  Suffice it to say, mistakes will have been made (like maybe we should have stocked more emergency food than M&Ms and 2-liter Diet Mountain Dews—and maybe we really should have cut down that gorgeous Chinaberry tree that overhangs the house).  I thought it would be a good time to share some links to recently read articles and interesting posts that deal with the idea of mistakes made, mistakes imminent, and mistakes healed.  Stay safe and enjoy!

First up, on the heels of our couple of weeks of writing about the value of accountability and the importance of doing accountability well, I was blown away to read an in-depth article in Wired magazine, called “The Ungodly Surveillance of Anti-porn ‘Shameware’ Apps.”  It’s all about using technology to power Christian discipleship in ways that, frankly, I think are the opposite of the ways we talked about in our recent blog on healthy accountability between Christian disciples.

The writers at Wired have detailed a new series of apps that are designed to log the failures of people of faith, largely by tracking what they are looking at on their connected devices.  Here’s the sub-headline: “Churches are using invasive phone-monitoring tech to discourage ‘sinful’ behavior. Some software is seeing more than congregants realize.”  It explains the rise and role of apps such as Covenant Eyes:

Covenant Eyes is part of a multimillion-dollar ecosystem of so-called accountability apps that are marketed to both churches and parents as tools to police online activity. For a monthly fee, some of these apps monitor everything their users see and do on their devices, even taking screenshots (at least one per minute, in the case of Covenant Eyes) and eavesdropping on web traffic, WIRED found. The apps then report a feed of all of the users’ online activity directly to a chaperone—an “accountability partner,” in the apps’ parlance.

If your church is promoting or using such software, and you want to make a case in its favor, go for it in the comments, but I think the ‘ick’ factor is off the charts, and the invasion of privacy is a gigantic red flag.  A portion of the article deals with whether people are being coerced into using such software, and there is a agreement among the software’s creators and many of its users that an accountability partner who sees intimate reports from a ‘volunteer’ participant should not be a clergy member or local church staff member—and yet that is exactly who has mostly been on the receiving end of these reports.  This not only seems to me like a disaster waiting to happen, but an embrace of the kind of legalism and gotcha accountability that throws out our best practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, rehabilitation and holding one another accountable with love as our primary motivation.  It’s a powerful read that raises many, many questions.

Next up is a blog from Planet Money (one of my favorite websites and podcasts), called “How to Roll Out Big Ideas and Avoid the Museum of Failure,” which details the McDonald’s corporation’s colossal miscalculation on its attempted mid-90s reinvention based on the introduction of the Arch Deluxe burger.  It was one of the celebrated flops of modern business history, and all because (as noted by Chicago economist John List in his book The Voltage Effect) they focus-grouped it with the wrong group:

“The people who participated in the focus groups weren’t a faithful reflection of McDonald’s customers as a whole,” List writes. Economists call this selection bias. The people who volunteered — or self-selected — to take part in the focus groups were McDonald’s diehards who were willing to spend their spare time testing and getting asked questions about burgers. They were not representative of customers at large. Before spending hundreds of millions of dollars rolling out the Arch Deluxe, the company should have vetted whether the burger would actually be popular with their coveted adult demographic on a smaller scale. Maybe by, for example, trying it out in select markets for a while.

Oh my golly, how many local church initiatives have done a faceplant because leadership vetted the idea with an insular group of insiders instead of seeking the guidance of people on the user-end of ministry?

By the way, the Museum of Failure, is indeed an actual place.  Please visit there and send me a postcard.

Here’s an interesting article from the Harvard Business Review on “The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a Family.”  I submit it as a cautionary tale of a leadership practice employed in almost all local churches everywhere.  Granted, as a family of believers, steeped in the value of connectedness and deeply rooted relationships, a family is exactly what we (biblically) strive to be.  But . . . local churches and other ministries are also—we can’t get away from it—businesses, and we leaders don’t always do a great job melding the best of the “family” parts and the “business” parts.  In fact, sometimes in almost ironically comical fashion, we keep the worst parts of the two worlds, getting all up in people’s lives in unhealthy ways while simultaneously enacting coercive and unfeeling corporate-y human resources strictures. And the research points to this side-effect of those family-like bonds:

When a family member is in need or requires significant commitment on your end, you rarely have to think twice. At least, that’s the perception among intra-family relationships. Placed into a work setting, loyalty can get misconstrued as expectations form to go above and beyond to do anything to get the job done.

In a ministry setting, freighted not only with a reinforced family commitment, but the weight of doing sacred work, those expectations can jump the rail into full blown unhealthy obsession.

Not to be too negative, though!  In celebrating those ministry heroes fighting the good fight, I would direct you to this hopeful and inspiring look at the work of Lynn Casteel Harper at Riverside Church in New York.  This article, “Minister for Seniors Confronts Ageism, the Shame It Brings,” highlights the valuable work the church can do to address a larger societal problem (in this case, the dismissal of older people as persons of worth with something to contribute).  There’s not a church in America that couldn’t do worthy ministry in this area.  She notes the many things the aged have to offer and the things we learn from engaging their full potential:

I’m so appreciative of the creativity. The honesty. And the real radical attention they pay to each other and the world around them. I’m always remarking how many of our older adults pay attention to things that I hadn’t noticed.

[And she notes their courage.] The courage to almost be countercultural. To say, even if the culture tells me I don’t have a place or I don’t really matter, I’m going to live in a way that pushes back against that. And I’m really going to see myself and others around me. So they’re not invisible, even if they’re invisible in a larger cultural sense.

Those of us who aren’t of advanced age yet, we often think we’re doing a favor by being around older people and listening to their stories. I don’t see it that way at all. It’s not charity to be around older adults. I am a better person, a better minister, our church is a better place because of our older members, not despite them.

It reflects poorly that our imagination is so stunted and limited when it comes to aging — that we can’t see all the gifts that are lost, all the creativity and the care and the relationships that are lost when we don’t interact with older adults. That’s a real spiritual deficit in our society.

Certainly it’s a mistake to discount the contributions of the people in our communities who are in the latter stages of their lives.  There is so much possibility for leveraging their wisdom and “fresh” insights into ministry and relationships.

This whole blog and its links has been a reminder that every mistake is an opportunity and that our prayerful pursuit of every opportunity should include a process that helps us thoughtfully avoid mistakes before they happen.

What are some good things you’ve read lately that involve mistakes that might have been avoided or mistakes that, once made, were converted to an opportunity to do good.  Share your own links, stories, and insights in the comments section.  And stay safe out there!