By Charles Chandler
Jerry Harvey, author of The Abilene Paradox*, tells an interesting story that took place years ago on a sweltering July Sunday afternoon in the small town of Coleman, Texas. Harvey and his wife were sitting with her parents on their back porch. The temperature was 104 degrees. A hot wind was blowing fine Texas soil through the house.
An electric fan helped to stir the air and cold lemonade helped quench the thirst. Entertainment consisted of dominoes. Harvey’s father-in-law suggested the family drive over to Abilene for dinner. Though the thought of riding fifty-three miles in the sweltering heat in a 1958 un-air-conditioned Buick repulsed him, Harvey embraced the idea. So did his wife and mother-in-law.
The trip was a disaster. The heat was brutal and the perspiration glued a noticeable layer of dust to their skin by the time they arrived. To top it off, the food was terrible.
Four hours and 106 miles later, Harvey says the family returned to Coleman, exhausted and sitting on the back porch with the electric fan, sipping cold lemonade.
Eventually, Harvey’s mother-in-law pointed out that she had not enjoyed the trip and would not have gone had she not felt pressured. Harvey’s wife chimed in, saying she only went along to make the rest of them happy. Then Harvey’s father-in-law said that he had not wanted to go to Abilene, but thought they might be bored. He wanted his daughter and son-in-law to enjoy their visit to Coleman.
Harvey points out how four reasonably sensible people had taken a 106 mile trip under terrible conditions to eat terrible food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, something none of them really wanted to do.
Embarking on excursions that no one really wants to take is what Harvey, an organizational consultant, calls an Abilene Paradox. He concludes that the inability of organizations to manage their agreements can be a major source of organizational dysfunction.
Many churches mimic the Abilene Paradox in their decision-making processes. A congregation may decide to do something that no member really wants to do – or very few want to do. A congregation’s intentions may be good, however, their decision-making process is flawed and the church pays an enormous price.
A few years ago, I observed similar dynamics result in a pastor being forced out of his pulpit. The effects were tragic for the church, the pastor and his family.
Bill (not his real name) had served this church for nearly six years. Upon returning home from a week of vacation, the deacon chairperson informed Bill that a meeting was set for that same night to ask for his resignation. The deacons had made this decision while Bill and his family were away. He was promised six weeks severance pay if he resigned quietly. If he refused, they would withdraw the severance offer and call a church meeting to recommend his termination.
The deacons, including some of Bill’s closest friends, said they loved him and hated to take such drastic action. They believed they were doing what was best for the church. Blindsided and in a state of shock, Bill managed to get the severance package expanded to three months. He also agreed to resign rather than chance putting his family at risk.
The congregation was stunned when Bill read his resignation the following Sunday. During the next few days the telephone lines were buzzing. People were asking many questions. Answers were inadequate. Many members of the congregation grew extremely angry at the deacons, who asked Bill to help remove some of the pressure they were feeling.
As the facts emerged, it was discovered that the personnel committee chair had convinced other members that numerous members of the congregation were going to leave the church if changes were not made immediately. The personnel committee chair’s husband and son were both deacons. These three convinced the deacons that removing the pastor was the only way to prevent the loss of members and revenue. When the chaos settled, the hardcore opposition to the pastor was limited to three people – the personnel committee chairperson, her husband, and her son. And though the pastor’s resignation likely could have been rescinded, he and his family were too wounded to do anything other than leave. Pointing the “fingers of blame” at the deacons and their efforts to justify their actions had left the congregation deeply divided. After several years passed, the effects of the Abilene Paradox are still observable in the pastor, his family, and in the church.
According to a survey by Leadership magazine (Winter 1996), 43 percent of ministers who experienced forced termination said a small but vocal minority forced them out. In 71 percent of these cases, the opposition numbered ten or less.
The church’s mission and message are too important to be rendered ineffective by the members taking a “trip to Abilene” that none – or only a few – desire to take.
It’s time for churches to better learn how to manage their agreements and prevent destruction caused by a small but vocal minority rule.
Charles H. Chandler founded Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1994 after experiencing a forced termination. He spent the next 23 years caring for ministers in all faith groups who also experienced conflict and/or forced termination. We owe a debt a gratitude for Charles’ devotion to ministers and their spouses.
* The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, pp. 13-36, Jerry D. Harvey (Josey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1988).