For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Fly in the Ointment

Posted on: March 4, 2015

The Fly in the Ointment: Why Denominations Aren’t Helping Their Congregations… And How They Can by J. Russell Crabtree, Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, 2008, 178 pp.

Fly in the OintmentThis book was chosen by our clergy reading group at the suggestion of our regional staff member. I enjoy this group and our conversations, but I must admit that at first I found this a boring choice. Crabtree’s writing was a bit dry, and it doesn’t help that I’m not especially called to (or excited about) ministry at the judicatory level. However, boring is not unhelpful. While the book was a bit dull for my interests, it was well worth reading and offered a wealth of insight into the future of regional ministries at the denominational level. The second half was much better than the first. It also prompted an excellent conversation in my clergy group, which does not include any conference or association staff.

The Fly in the Ointment is based on Crabtree’s many years of consulting work, not just in churches and judicatories, but in other non-profit and public sector organizations. He draws on massive reservoirs of data from surveys, and from his own experience working with these organizations. While I trust his experiences in the generalized way he shares them (“church leaders want…”), I would have preferred to read more actual stories and examples of the things he describes and how they would work, rather than just speaking in generalizations.

We all recognize that denominational funding is shrinking, along with capacity, staff and ministry. Crabtree argues that regional associations should shift their focus to developing and strengthening local churches to be vital and thriving in their communities. However, he recognizes that judicatory ministers may not have the knowledge, calling or desire for that task. Many want to engage parish-like ministries in a new setting, which is not what is needed. Others do not have any experience or expertise to offer.

When an entire organization is depleted of knowledge and insight, brainstorming is ineffective. As one consultant put it, brainstorming in a church where people are admittedly lost as to what to do merely results in a pooling of ignorance. (32)

I think Crabtree is right-on with this point, and I would welcome it if our regional association was to prioritize coaching for clergy and churches in its ministries.

The second half of the book got far more interesting, as Crabtree began to grow more insistent that the regional associations exist to serve the churches, not the other way around. He was critical of the ways regional bodies expect churches to continue their giving to the denomination as though there were no competition for funds, and re-orients the relationship so that church leaders and clergy are the customers of the regional body, who provides them a meaningful service that they are willing to pay (or give) to receive.

One of the most interesting ideas he offered, that is useful at the local church level as well as the regional one, is analyzing what an organization rewards and punishes as a path toward understanding its culture. He asks,

What behaviors does this organization regularly recognize/notice; affirm/praise; celebrate; resource with money, power, prestige; promote; devote time to; routinize/ritualize; bestow titles upon; photograph/paint; publish; measure? In this culture, what behaviors cause persons to regularly move physically toward the person; want to get to know someone; disclose information about themselves?

What behaviors does the organization regularly confront; criticize; stigmatize; vote against; withhold resources from? What behaviors cause persons in the organization to regularly withdraw; avoid; engage in sarcasm?  (117-118)

I began to ponder immediately this question for my own church, and identified some interesting new dimensions of what binds us together.

Another helpful insight is the analysis he offers of the roles regional associations can play. They can be regulatory role, making sure that policies are followed and leaders are vetted properly. They can play a consultant role, offering expertise to support the work of local churches, and they can organize collective action, bringing churches together to do things they could not do alone. Crabtree argues that the regulatory function is a must, and should be handled with the utmost effectiveness and efficiency. Collective action and consultant services should be “on competitive footing with other providers,”(151) so that churches can choose to opt in or out, with a fee-for-service model. That would push regional associations to offer quality consultation and collective action, or cease to do it at all. I found this a compelling way to go. Right now, it seems like our regional bodies are trying to engage in collective action most of all, and they are not as good at it as other local associations to which we belong. We need them to excel at regulatory activities, and I would welcome their assistance in consulting jobs, but that seems the least likely possibility anytime soon.

I recommend this book to judicatory staff and boards engaged in the work of reimagining the role of denominational staff and programs. Crabtree offers a great deal of insight, but it may be controversial and even threatening to existing programs, staff and commitments. It’s time to step back from preserving what we have and start imagining and building what we need for the future. I think Crabtree points in the right direction.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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