by Eddie Pipkin

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I was at a wedding in Tennessee last weekend, in the Great Smoky Mountains to be precise, and if you’ve been blessed to visit that glorious part of the world, you will know that not only is the natural landscape beautiful, but the local culture has its own distinctive flavor.  Among other things, those people really, really like their black bears.  Seemingly every rental cabin on every mountain lane features a design motif that in some way highlights bears.  In our weekend rental cabin, bears were everywhere.  I am not exaggerating. They were in every room in multiple iterations.  It caused a conundrum.  Can there be such a thing as too many bears?

To solve the mystery for you, YES.  There can be too many bears.

There were so many black bears in the cabin we had rented that the effect became comical.  It became the running joke all weekend.  Every piece of art on every wall included bears, sometimes as the central motif, sometimes lurking in the background.  Every paper towel holder, coffee mug, coaster, couch throw, decorative pillow, rug, book end, table lamp, trash can, coat hook, and fireplace screen highlighted . . . one or multiple bears!  I am not making this up.  And for good measure, the whole place was embellished with randomly placed stuffed black bears; there were bears in the rafters, bears peeking from behind chairs, and bears sitting in the corner in decorative bear chairs.  God help any visitors with arkoudaphobia.

We developed working theories as to the prevalence of our ursine companions: 1) The town mayor’s wife owned a bear decorating store and a law had been passed mandating bear decorations in all cabins; 2) The bear decorations emporium over on Hwy 441 had a going-out-of-business sale, and for $100 the cabin’s owner had cleaned out the remaining inventory; 3) Somebody read a social media post that bear decorations led to higher ratings on VRBO.  The possibilities were endless and entertaining.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog, however, this episode of overabundant ursus americanus got me thinking about the dangers of too much of X, Y, or Z in our ministry settings.

It is possible to have too much of even a good thing at our local churches – and in our lives.

From one angle, this statement diverges from our usual advice about having a strong statement of vision and marketing a catchy short version of that vision to the community.  One of my favorite examples of this is the branding phrase / vision statement of my home church, College Park UMC, which is “Love Big.”  It looks great on a shirt, and it truly captures the community-facing mission statement of this local faith community.  It’s solid (biblical) branding, so it’s good for it to be everywhere on campus: on banners, on social media, on printed material, and everywhere else it can be employed. This kind of immersive messaging is good for an institution because it builds a fun, flexible, common identity for people.  It’s broad enough to be adapted to variations in focus and specific events and projects, and it makes a good ‘proof text’ for leaders (“Does this event carry forward our commitment to love big?” “Is what we’re doing right now in this moment fulfilling our call to love big?” Etc.)  When a vision statement / branding tag line are vague and unfocused, this type of omnipresent messaging just confuses people and can even lend itself to ridicule and parody, becoming a punchline like a cabin with too many bears.

Beyond marketing, however, the question of when too much of a good thing becomes problematic extends to all sorts of institutional applications:

  • Too much of the same people.

Local churches often suffer from this overexposure.  When a few people have all the power or are known as the local superstars, they dominate every conversation and every event.  It is good that God has blessed us with people with talent and ideas, but we need to avoid “cult of personality” scenarios or the establishment of personal fiefdoms.  The more voices in the conversation, the more accessible that conversation (event, activity, program, or process) becomes to other people.

This principle holds true for leadership meetings, and it holds true for worship leadership.

  • Too much of the same kinds of activities.

When we do something well, we tend to want to replicate it again and again, and while it’s great that our local church has a reputation for hosting a great potluck or music night, if all we ever do is the thing for which we are famous, we’ll never connect fully with the people who are not into that thing.  Another great example is a standardized Bible study class or small group format.  These groups are fantastic, but if we only offer access to small groups or Bible studies in a certain, specific way, we’ll limit their appeal.

  • Too much resource focus.

This is an issue when we get the resource pie tilted too far in any one given direction.  For instance, a church may have a stellar reputation for resourcing its youth ministry with staff and big budget numbers, and that’s a great thing to resource.  But if the youth ministry funding is $100,000 for the year, and the budget for senior ministry is $5,000, things are out of balance.  Likewise, we’ve written in this space a few times about how worship ministry still dominates the budgeting process for most local churches (by the time we pay preaching staff, musicians, tech support, etc.), even as congregational engagement moves away from worship as the primary scene of interaction and engagement.  It’s easy to keep funding traditional priorities without doing the analysis of anticipating future trends.  We need both.

  • Too much rigidity in schedules and formats.

The structure of worship services and programming formats can become fossilized, and while familiarity is comforting for people, a hard, inflexible line in adjusting time frames and formats can become a burden that hinders innovation.  It’s good to mix things up on a regular basis just to keep the ol’ arteries from hardening.  Even in a small group setting, a rigidity of format can make things feel stale.  If you have prayer at the end of every session (when people are looking at their watches and mentally checking out), move that portion of the gathering to the beginning and see how things change.

This freshening and shake-things-up principle is one I apply to my own daily routines.  Whenever I feel myself settling into patters of doing things exactly the same way at exactly the same time, I intentionally try to disrupt those patterns.  This builds resilience – I can run even if my favorite shoes can’t be found, for instance – but it also clarifies what I love about my favorite routines.

  • Too many of the same references.

In sermons and classes, do we cite the same authors and informational sources again and again and again?  This is one of the factors in making gatherings feel like the same-old-same-old to people.  It gives them a pretext for skipping out, since they feel like they’ve heard that tune played before.  It’s an indication that we are not keeping our own ideas fresh and deepening our own spiritual growth (even as we are encouraging those we lead to do so).  Sure, we love St. Francis of Assisi, but there is a whole encyclopedia of saints out there.  One of the things we can do, when we have favorite authors and theologians, is to dig deeper into their influences and learn more about how they got to their formulations of faith.

Variety is the spice of life.  Such diversity in approach does not mean we are losing our focus; on the contrary, it means we are expanding it.  The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously defined beauty as “unity in variety,” and this is well demonstrated in the infinite variety of expressions of God’s mercy and grace.  If we are using the same illustrations, same stories, same narratives, and same references to illuminate the Gospel, we are doing the Gospel a disservice.

A diversity of influences and examples, approaches and perspectives, engaged leaders and revisited priorities brings our core values to life more explicitly.

When you’re thinking about your own ministry focus, do you have “too much” of any one thing?  How did you get to this point, and what would we be some steps towards diversifying?  How might you challenge the status quo, shed a few bears, and shake things up for the stimulation of the community you lead (or your own personal routine)?