“Adam, where are you?”

Before you start, you have to see what there is to fix. So how do you know what needs doing? When you go see the doctor, the first thing they do is take some measurements. They check your weight, your blood pressure, your temperature and your contact information. All this before they ask why I’m there. Then the nurse will ask more questions she already knows the answers to, because they’re right there in my computerized records on the screen. But she needs to make sure nothing has changed. For the doctor to make an accurate diagnosis, he has to know what the starting point was to be able to know what’s changed.

The military calls that “ground truth.” The pilot may think he knows where the bomb fell, and maybe we can get a pretty good satellite picture of the scene, but to be absolutely certain takes someone on the ground at the point of impact checking it out. One Air Force General I know talks about when he was a fighter pilot Captain dropping a bomb so precisely on a building, with a delayed fuse, that it fell through the roof without making a very big hole, and then exploded in the basement. From the outside, it didn’t look like anything had happened, but if you opened the front door, you’d quickly see the insides of the building were gone, and it was useless to the enemy.
In managing programs for the Government, we were taught to set a baseline, a clear understanding of the situation that needs changing, because without a baseline, you won’t know if you’re doing any good. “How much more effective are we for the $40Million that was spent?” is a question Congress asks all the time. If I can’t prove I’m adding anything to the mission at hand, I’ll have a hard time holding on to my budgeted funds.

God says a curious thing in one of the first recorded conversations with both Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:9, Adam and Eve had just committed the first sin, and were hiding from God the way a guilty child hides from the disappointed parent. God asks, “Adam, where are you?” You might think that God was unable to find them, and was looking around, finally calling “All ye outs, in free” to have them come out of hiding. But that denies that God is all-seeing, all-knowing, which is against His nature. So it’s curious that he would ask where they are. I didn’t fully understand it until I was a parent, catching my children doing something they weren’t supposed to, them not knowing that I knew and them trying to hide it from me. So here’s God, knowing where Adam is, but wanting Adam to acknowledge both where he is physically, but also to own up to where he is spiritually. He wants Adam to see what is true in relation to absolute truth, rather than hiding behind a relative truth.

I find that this is perhaps one of the hardest problems in solving the problems at hand. Police tell us that eye witnesses are valuable, but not always accurate. A coworker of mine was driving home one afternoon when he suddenly found himself in an accident with the car in front, even though he had been following at a safe distance and saw no brake lights. He stopped suddenly but the car in front kept going, and ended up in the median strip, with the front end under the truck in front of it. My coworker couldn’t explain it, and the police couldn’t figure it out either. Not until the roadside service station attendant came over to help it make sense: the driver he had hit had actually run his car into the truck, becoming temporarily stuck under it, and then tried to back up to get unstuck, backing into my co-worker’s front end. The impact pushed him back under the truck, and when the driver tried to swerve, it knocked him into the ditch. Ground truth contradicted and disproved even the participants’ opinions.

To begin the process of restoring a church to health, start with a checkup. Some problems are hidden, like the roots of a tree. But like a tree, problems in the roots often show up in the condition of the leaves. It’s similar to evaluating old houses: if the roof doesn’t maintain a straight ridgeline but instead dips in a spot, that may be an indication of a problem in the foundation. There are indicators you can use to suggest where to look.
There is a sample baseline review in Appendix 1, with suggestions on how to start evaluating the organization. You may think you know, but does everyone else agree? In one church, they had a “future building fund” from 20 years previous, back when the church was growing and was planning to build on. But problems arose and attendance declined by 90%. The money sat in the bank, forgotten. One new pastor, a trained accountant, was on the job 4 months before he knew of its existence, only learning of it when he tried to balance the year-end bank statements. By then the building was in serious need of repairs and upgrades, but the old-timers wouldn’t let him touch the money. Some threatened to sue the church if their contribution was used for anything except to build a new addition to the structure (the original intended purpose), although neither the complainers nor the church records could identify who had given how much back when the fund was set up. So there it sat, a year’s budget amount, untouched because no one could agree where it came from or how much could be used.
Don’t be like the old curmudgeon who operates on opinions and stories of how they did things “in the old days” rather than any semblance of actual fact. There is a story of a General in World War II who said he wasn’t so much worried about what his people didn’t know as he was those who thought they knew, but the situations had changed.

To be ready for change, we sometimes have to forget what we think we know that may not necessarily be true. Do you know what you think you know? Here’s a simple quiz that was floating around the internet lately:

* How long did the Hundred Years’ War last? (112 years)
* Which country makes Panama Hats? (Ecuador)
* From which animal do we get catgut? (sheep and horses)
* In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution? (November)
* What is a camel’s hair brush made of? (squirrel fur)
* The Canary Islands in the Pacific are named after what kind of animal? (dogs)
* What was King George VI’s first name? (Albert)
* What color is the Purple Finch? (crimson)
* Where are Chinese gooseberries from? (New Zealand)
* What is the color of the “black box” flight data and voice recorders in commercial airplanes? (orange, to be easily seen in burned wreckage.)

These are common questions, but most of us get at least one wrong.

Some things you know by genuine experience, like your salvation. Others you know by observation, like the weather. But the “ground truth” about struggling churches is often buried in the records of the church. Fast Company magazine says that to “

Read a Company,” you start by finding as much documentation as you can first, using networks to find the most knowledgeable people, watching how they interact, and hearing the stories of past glories or heroes

 

Do the baseline survey in Appendix 1, but also learn as much about the church as you can from other sources. Do an internet search for news (good and bad). Look around the church’s website, if you have one. (Is it up to dated or does it have announcements from last Christmas? Can you find current schedules?) What concerns show up on the weekly prayer lists? (How many are health related, and how many are for the well-being of the community?) How many items never change?What are the demographics of the area? (average ages of the community, average income, etc.) Look also for the metrics are already available by observation. Most churches count the number of people in church on Sunday, and in Bible Study classes, and how much money comes in week to week. Other metrics might be how many parking attendants are used per number of cars in the lot or per number of entrances. How many cars in the visitor parking lot versus the number of visitor slips turned in?
 
  • Networks: There was a popular concept a few years ago about being only six degrees of separation from anyone in the world. But in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that if you can find that right person, you can actually be only one or two degrees away from almost anyone that matters. These “mavens” know everybody and are known by everybody. My mother was one of these; I’d swear she knew one quarter of the 30,000 people in my home town (which is why it was so hard to get away with anything!). Start by talking to the Sunday School teacher who’s been teaching 4-year-olds for three generations – she’ll know who knows what’s really going on. Or talk to my neighbor, who’s on none of the committees but always knows the inside scoop of the politics at church. These people are invaluable both in knowing where to fill in the paper documentation and in understanding the culture of the church.
    • Work Culture – Look at the church staff offices. Are they suit & tie on Tuesday, or casual work clothes? Are there rigid work hours or do people come and go? How often do they have staff meetings, for how long, and are they more like company sales meetings or prayer meetings?
    • Social CultureLook at how people interact on Sunday morning. Do they rush in early to claim a spot in the sanctuary, and get frustrated if someone else is sitting in “their seat”? How much conversation happens between classes and worship? How long does it take to empty the building after Sunday morning? (or do they linger?) How do they attend to visitors? How easily can visitors find their way around? How long can a visitor wander without anyone noticing?
    • Heroes – Listen to the epic stories: Preacher Hallock’s legendary sermons. The Pastor who led them to “conquer” the new land before they began to build. How Pastor C– is the recognized expert in his field.
    • And Villans. The preacher who ran off with the deacon’s wife, or the deacon who slept with the preacher’s teenaged sister. The pastor who was “let go” for poor performance and then started a rival congregation half a mile away. (Sad as they are, the repercussions may reverberate for decades.)
    • And Famous Stories – Pastor J’s “bug eating the dead frog” illustration just before pot luck luncheon. The deacon’s daughter who interrupted prayer meeting asking for a diaper change. The actor who broke his nose putting Jesus on the cross in the Easter play, or the donkey that couldn’t wait to get outside before she answered nature’s call. These are the “shared language” of the organization.

    * Home *  Chapter 3–>

    <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> In point of fact, unless the contribution given as part of a legally-constructed trust agreement, the recipient is usually only morally (but not legally) bound to honor the donor’s wish.

    <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> “4 Ways to Read a Company,” Fast Company, Issue 18 October 1998, Page 158

    Copyright 2008, All rights reserved.

    No part of this report may be reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any informational storage or retrieval system without the expressed written, dated and signed permission from the author.

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