By Eddie Pipkin

I am hanging out in the Florida Panhandle this week, and I’m doing my daily runs on unfamiliar roads, which I really enjoy.  In fact, these roads are clay/sand roads, shaded by live oaks – a real Old Florida vibe, which I also love.  Only, with all the summer rains, I’ve had the extra challenge of dodging plenty of potholes, some small, some humongous, some dry but littered with rocks, some full of muddy water.  If I were jogging along on a smooth asphalt surface, I might have spent more time gazing up into the tree canopy or taking note of the colorful cottages along the way, but as it is, my attention has been glued to the road, because ignoring potholes can lead to all sorts of trouble, not only on a morning run, but along ministry pathways, too.

Ignoring potholes will never make them go away.  They only get worse over time.  This is guaranteed.  In normal life, we tend to drive around a pothole once we realize it’s there (passive aggressively pretending it doesn’t exist), but inevitably that just means we create other potholes in other areas, and then we are trying to drive around those adjacent potholes, too, leading to a kind of pothole-dodging, obstacle course driving challenge.  Or we resolve ourselves to just stubbornly plowing right through them, sometimes slowing to a crawl to ease our way through the obstruction.  Or if the pothole is on a familiar route, we might work out exactly how fast we can plunge ahead, scoffing at it and its annoying cousins, bumping through as fast as possible, shocks be darned.

Of course, neighborhood potholes are not the kind of nuisance that requires us to personally mix up a glob of hot tar in our wheelbarrow and roll it out to the offending divot to be filled.  Neighborhood potholes are for complaining to the local government (“What are we paying taxes for anyway?”).  Holes in the road are the universal standard by which local governments are judged: Is or is not the pavement smooth and each pothole filled expeditiously?  [So infamous is the relationship of constituent commuters to dreaded potholes to local officials that it’s rare that a county or city website doesn’t feature a tab explaining the get-your-porthole-filled process clearly, empathetically, and, if possible, with a friendly video host.]

But for ministry leaders, confronting the inevitable reality of ministry potholes (or the reality of inevitable ministry potholes), we ARE the chief of the public works department.  We are the mixers of hot tar globs and the workers tasked with tamping down said globs to fill and level the low spots.

The analogy is rich:

  • Ignoring ministry potholes will not make them go away.

When there is a problem in a ministry, it often begins as a niggling, seemingly insignificant issue.  We ignore it, hoping it will resolve itself or hoping someone else will deal with it, and over time it just festers into something larger and more problematic.  Ignored potholes can do serious damage.  We should call a pothole a pothole and a problem a problem, because it is only by forthrightly identifying these issues as danger spots that we can have any hope of effectively dealing with them.

  • Potholes breed potholes.

Ignoring a ministry pothole not only means that the initial pothole gets bigger, but it also means that in our attempts to divert our course in an effort to pretend the original pothole doesn’t exist, we create new and sometimes more severe problems.  We get off the safest path and veer into areas we aren’t meant to tread, and before you know it, we have started a chain reaction of new potholes.  Now, we’re dodging a whole series of potholes.  Over time, this zigzagging can come to feel normal, this careening all directions to avoid uncomfortable situations and difficult people (since people can be potholes, too), but to an outside observer, our peregrinations can look preposterous, like a Family Circus dotted-line comics panel (little Billy runs an errand as erratically as possible).  An outside observer looks at the dysfunctionality of our ministry process and reasonably asks, “Why don’t you just fix bottleneck ‘x’?” or “Why don’t you just deal with ‘Problem Person Y’?”  It seems obvious.  Sometimes, to avoid dealing with an issue at all costs, we have built coping structures so byzantine that untangling them seems impossible.  It is far easier to deal with a pothole while it’s still a baby pothole.

  • Potholes are a result of stress in the road surface that leads to cracks, in combination with a failure of the substrate that lies below.

To the extent that potholes are preventable, their prevention lies in providing a healthy, solid substrate and dealing with cracks quickly.  The substrate part, where ministry is concerned, comes from regular, targeted training for staff, leaders, and volunteers.  Astonishingly, few churches do regular training of any significance for leaders, staff, or volunteers.  The better training staff and volunteers receive, the stronger the organization will be.  They will be reinforced against the potential of potholes.  The “dealing with the cracks” part has to do with identifying stress in leaders and volunteers and addressing that stress by working together to deal with problems when they first crop up.  Vigilance and rapid response prevents those stress fractures from developing in the first place, but if and when they do appear, deal with them quickly.

  • Have a way to report potholes and a system for dealing with them, just like municipal governments do!

Churches deal with complaints constantly, so it can feel like there is an actual process for soliciting feedback and making complaints, but for most local churches, this is an ad hoc activity without form or function.  Municipal systems for problem reporting work in two ways:

  1. There is a formal way to report a problem. Each report is followed up on through a formal process.  Someone is clearly tasked with the follow-up.  A written report is generated, and further action is defined, as necessary.  The person who reported the problem receives communication about what’s happening.
  2. A problem that is reported / referenced from multiple sources receives a higher priority. If multiple sources are noting the same pothole / issue / problem, more resources are brought to task in addressing that pothole / issue / problem.  The communication about the pothole / issue / problem is expanded as well, because if multiple sources have commented on it, it is probably a topic of general concern and conversation in the community.

Churches can emulate these time-tested processes.  They should be soliciting feedback and promoting a culture in which people know how to express concerns and expect to have someone respond in a timely manner when they do.  That doesn’t always mean they will get the answer or response they are seeking, but the process should be clear and responsive.

Get those potholes fixed so that the ministry road is once again safe to travel!  It is worth noting that, if you read much about how transportation departments deal with ubiquitous potholes, sometimes the fix is designed to be temporary.  Sometimes the repairs are only intended to keep the roadway safe until a larger repaving project is feasible (because a larger repaving project is the only true solution for dealing with a pothole-infested roadway).  Similarly, we should let people know that sometimes our pothole patches are just that – temporary repairs designed to get us through to a season in which we can more substantially rework a ministry that needs a more complex and thorough overhaul.  Transparency is the key.  Engineering can be complicated (in roadwork and ministry), and doing it right can take time, money, and special expertise.

Have you found yourself trying to live with your own ministry potholes?  Have you seen firsthand the damage that untreated potholes can cause?  Do you feel like you and your ministry have a plan in place to spot problem areas and ‘patch’ them quickly and effectively?  Do the people in your church feel they can report what they have observed or does your church have a less-than-healthy report and response process?  How do you / would you deal with the inevitable potholes in your ministry path?