On Building a Better Bike Shed

Last night the deacons and elders of our church did some dreaming and talking about next year's priorities. We were facilitated by members of the presbytery as part of the Committee on Ministry's "Great Expectations" process for new clergy. It's been a year, so we spent some time getting expectations out on the table, sifting through them, and determining which ones are helpful and realistic for the coming year---both expectations of me and of the lay leadership of the church. It was a very fruitful discussion But coming up with a direction for the church isn't easy. There are so many possibilities and things that need to be done. Many of these are adaptive changes, which means they require deep thinking and a shift of culture, as opposed to technical changes, which are more tactical and easier to accomplish. All of this got me thinking about an article I wrote several years ago for the presbytery newsletter. Submitted here, unedited:

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The color of the carpet in the parlor… the look of a brand new logo… the use of video in worship… When it comes to conflict around these issues, the conventional wisdom I always heard was, “It’s never really about the carpet (or logo, or PowerPoint).” In other words, the impassioned and at times exhaustive (and exhausting) discussions around such matters usually point to something else, something much deeper. Our job as pastors, I have been told, is to get to the bottom of the issue, the conflict-underneath-the-conflict.

Conflicts can certainly lurk in unlikely places. But I’m not sure the conventional wisdom tells the whole story.

My husband is a self-described computer geek who recently shared something called the “bike shed problem,” which is a concept that comes up from time to time when large numbers of people are collaborating on software. The bike shed problem originated in a management book from the 1950s and goes something like this:

A board of directors is presented with plans for building a nuclear power plant. The plans are obviously quite complex, but there is little discussion, and the project is approved. Some time later, the developers decide that the workers might want to ride their bikes to work, so they bring to the board a proposal for a shed to store the bikes. The board spends the entire meeting debating the merits and specifics of the proposal. Each person must provide his or her opinions, and the meeting ends without taking any action on the bike shed proposal. Sound like any organizations you know?

The idea, of course, is that people are reluctant to dive into issues of complexity, especially those in which they feel they have limited expertise. However, anyone can build a bike shed! When it comes to the “little things,” people will pour out whatever energy and expertise they have, even if the original proposal was perfectly fine.

And why? As one software developer put it in explaining the bike shed problem, “No matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, people will seize the chance to show that they are doing their jobs, that they are paying attention, that they are here. It is about personal pride and prestige; it is about being able to point somewhere and say ‘There! I did that.’ This trait is present in most people. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.”

I was thinking about the bike shed problem some time ago when an elder shared a concern with the church's session. There are a number of children who have been coming to our church recently who have a tangle of deep and complicated needs—emotional, spiritual, physical, financial. The heaviness in the room at this report was palpable, the concern sincere, but the silence before moving on to the next item, all too fleeting. This is a group of folks who have built a bike shed or two. I myself have provided overly meticulous (and usually unnecessary) input into quite a few bike sheds. Haven’t we all?

The need to be acknowledged, to feel that one has really contributed, really mattered—is universal. The challenges we face in our ministry contexts can seem so lumbering and complex that we simply don’t know where to begin. And so, we build bike sheds. How can we as church leaders provide people with opportunities to contribute to something truly deep and meaningful? How can we take people’s desire to “make a difference” and channel it toward those activities that will make a lasting impact in God’s reign here on earth?