Is your church or club on the road to Abilene?

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What if our worst problems at workplaces, homes and organizations stem from not from conflict but from agreement?

Everywhere you go, you hear you need to learn to manage conflict. What are you doing to manage agreement?

Are there parts of your workplace, school, church, club or home that you do because, hey, everyone agrees they are what you are supposed to do. But, in reality, they might be your biggest problems.

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You think the boss wants you to do it. Your boss thinks it is something you want to do. Or perhaps it is a situation of “that’s the way it has always been done.”

Some of you might have seen the first or second editions of the instructional video, “The Abilene Paradox,” available from CRM Learning.

The Abilene Paradox stems from the mind of George Washington University professor Jerry Harvey, who as a young man spent vacation time with his wife and in-laws at the in-laws’ home in west Texas. The discussion turned to visiting a new cafe in Abilene. They all went 50-some miles to Abilene even though none of them wanted to go, and even though the Buick’s air conditioning was broken. They were just being agreeable. It resulted in a horrible ride in a hotbox just to eat some greasy food.

The video — which is quite humorous — goes on to show how the Abilene Paradox applies to other organizations.

I had the opportunity to view this video at Blandin Foundation’s Editor and Publisher Leadership Program. (Remember, Charles K. Blandin was a newspaper man, so this training is tooled just for newspapers.) The three-day training took place at Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge near Deerwood on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week.

We had a great group of newspaper folks, from the Paynesville Press to the Jackson County Pilot. And the food at Ruttger’s is outstanding.

As I watched the video about the Abilene Paradox, I thought about my industry, but I also couldn’t help but think of local churches and service clubs.

Many of the churches in Albert Lea and just about everywhere you go these days are worried about the financial implications of shrinking memberships. They have lost members to churches with more contemporary services. Some churches losing members now offer two services — traditional and contemporary. But such efforts seem meager in comparison with the even more contemporary services at the growing churches.

Yet on the committees where decisions about the direction of the church are made, there sure is a lot of agreement. This is the way it always has been done. No one wants to rock the boat.

So what do they do? Put a young person on a key committee. And what happens when that young person has an idea? The longtime members explain the reasons why the fresh idea cannot be achieved. Hurdles are up. Nothing changes.

But really, the only reason usually the fresh idea can’t be done is that the committee members already are on the road to Abilene. They have agreed on many old ideas and can’t see other ways around them.

In truth, the churches losing membership need to open the doors wide to new ideas and, more importantly, be open to ways to achieve them.

If change at church sounds scary, think about the early church. Think about how many leaps and bounds have happened at churches since the time of Jesus. Changes happen. Embrace change.

I suppose this, too, could create another Abilene Paradox of everyone doing the wrong fresh ideas, but doing little to nothing won’t turn the membership problem around.

The same Abilene Paradox grips service clubs. Some excel with new members seemingly because they are open to variety, optimism and new ideas. Others continue to lose members because they are unwilling to try new ways.

At Ruttger’s, I iterated and reiterated that the notion of “young people aren’t joiners” is simply not true. I founded and run a disc golf club that is in its second year and presently has 50 members, mostly young people. Newspapers have witnessed a downward-trending subscriber base for 40 years now, but newspaper websites are skyrocketing in joiners, most of whom are young or middle-aged.

Young people will join things that interest them. Period.

Singer Curt Kobain warned everyone: “Here we are now. Entertain us.”

Service clubs in America have to ask themselves if young folks are interested in paying hard-earned money for causes they don’t so clearly see firsthand, so they can eat (sometimes bland) food, say the Pledge of Alliance, pray (sometimes to a God they don’t worship), sing a song like “Darling Clementine” and hear a speaker talk about (sometimes uninteresting) stuff.

I don’t know the answers, but perhaps some churches and clubs need to put everything they do on the table and be willing to rethink everything they do.

That is, if they want new members.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears from time to time on Tuesday.