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Culture of Nice


Church work is mired in a culture of nice, and that culture keeps bad programs and unnecessary efforts from being eliminated; it also uses up resources that could be and should be used to help good work work better. We’re just too nice to call a bad project a bad project. If we criticize, we do so in abstractions or through back channels (gossip). No one has any problem identifying bad products as bad – the Yugo for example. (If you don’t remember the Yugo, there’s a reason for that; it was bad, and now it’s gone.) Maybe the problem is that in the church, we’re addicted to nice.

It boils down to human decency. When good people are making a good faith effort to do work that matters, you feel like the worst kind of jerk calling them out for waste or incompetence. And every program benefits one or two people. Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people weren’t worth the effort.

But there are a couple of people who liked Yugos, too. Artist Kevin O’Callaghan, for instance, saw something of beauty in the car that the public rejected. He bought 39 rusty Yugos and asked his students to make objects of functional art from them. That doesn’t keep the rest of us from being able to explain exactly what’s wrong with the car. A Time Magazine review judged the vehicle — constructed in Soviet-bloc Yugoslavia — as feeling like something “assembled at gunpoint.” The car had “carpet” listed as a standard feature, and several former owners admitted that the rear-window defrost was a nice touch as it kept your hands warm while you pushed it.

Another problem in identifying and eliminating bad programs is social self-interest. Every program and project is initiated and managed by people I like, people I work with, people with whom I worship, people who own the house in which I live, people who are responsible for contributing toward my monthly paycheck. I’m not about to criticize a friend, let alone an employer (at least not directly). But if we all shut up, then sinkholes of mismanagement and despair keep swallowing up our limited resources.

I don’t really know how to fix this. And I’m not ready to tell you exactly which programs suck. (I like my job.)

Still, it’s worth thinking about.

Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people weren’t worth the effort.

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