“Never mistake motion for action” – Ernest Hemingway

One of the most popular proverbs attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway is, “never mistake motion for action.”  When I first heard this I immediately thought about how it applied to church and ministry.  Ministers, churches and denominational administrators can easily become consumed by busy work and activity and not actually move towards a planned outcome.

A minister’s diary in a given week is commonly filled with several committee meetings,  sermon preparation time, visiting the sick, filling out forms for the diocese, and church services.  By the end of the week they are exhausted and they have their day off, and start it all over again.  They are moving at a frenetic pace, but to where?  Perhaps they believe the important thing is to exist in the mode of ministry?  In contrast, let’s not forget that breed of church worker who are more like some of the staff of Ricky Gervais’ The Office: professionals at shuffling around stationary and walking back and forth to the photocopier (with the occasional sneaky Facebook scan) projecting the illusion that they are working on an important task.

The Office – The boss loved to move without achieving anything

Similarly, a church that has a healthy sized membership, often finds that its calendar is filled with lots of programs, small group meetings, playgroups, youth group, fundraisers, camps, and church services for every occasion (not to mention all the planning meetings).  In these churches, hundreds of people cross paths each week, fulfilling their roles and responsibilities on the rosters.  Lay people in these churches can work a full week and then find themselves at church all weekend.  But after all those tasks are done, what has been achieved?  I’m not suggesting that it has all been a waste of time –  youth group has helped high-schoolers grow as disciples, the missionary supporters dinner raised some good money, and the church services were fine.  But can anyone stand up and name the ultimate purpose?  Surely it’s not to create a community of churds (church nerds)?  And no one would openly admit it’s simply a way to improve the church’s attractiveness to “sheep steal” Christians from churches who can’t offer the smorgasbord of programs?

If congregations can move without knowing why, imagine this amplified at the level of the denominational head office!  Sometimes it seems  denomination offices are like Jim Hacker’s Ministry of Administrative Affairs in Yes Minister.  One of my favourite episodes is called The Compassionate Society where it is revealed to Hacker that his department has set up St Edward’s Hospital, with 500 staff and no patients.

This is hilarious, but a tad embarrassing when one considers, as in the case of my Anglican denomination, some diocese, who have depressingly declining church attendance, and yet maintains a large and robust bureaucracy administrating over it.  Will we ever get to the stage of having 500 denominational administrators (funded by the proceeds from nineteenth century trusts) and no practicing Anglicans?

The solution for the minister, the congregation and the denomination is to work out what it’s trying to ultimately do.  I don’t simply mean to come up with a vision statement.  But to ask the question, “at the end of all of this, what do we want to see happen?”

high speed sausage machine

If we were trying to build a sausage machine, for example, our final desired outcome might be to produce the village’s tastiest and healthiest sausage?  Or it might be an even broader goal than that – it could be that we want to provide the most affordable and yet nourishing meat good for the village?  In the case of a sausage machine you might think it’s easy to work out your success matrix.  But it is possible for the sausage company to get distracted.  For example, they might find that they start attracting employees whose passion is high speed sausage machines, and they are committed to pumping out thousands of sausages per hour!  For them success is speed of throughput.  At the end of the year, the sausage company might have multiplied the number of sausages produced by ten, but to what cost?  The CEO of the sausage company, has to go back to the plans, and remind their team of what they are ultimately trying to do.  If they are off track, perhaps the high speed machine needs to go?  Perhaps the ingredients need changing?  Perhaps staff need to be cut or be given a new job description?  And so on….

Once a minister, church or denominational office can name their intended ‘throughput’ they can reverse engineer how they use their week, how they do staffing, how they budget and so on.  St Edward’s Hospital should have had a ‘throughput’ that was something like ‘a healed person’ – to achieve this they need sick people to heal, not just hospital staff.  Perhaps a church’s throughput could be ‘a faithful and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ’? (see below)  If this was the case, then they could reverse engineer their activities.  What do we need to do to make faithful and obedient disciples?  Let’s do that.  Then the minister can know their place in that disciple ‘sausage machine.’  Their role might be to coach leaders of discipleship group, or it could be to teach people how to be disciples, maybe they should model what it means to be a faithful disciple?  Or all of the above.  After this process of resetting the ministry machine, it will be less likely that the minister and the church will be simply expending energy for the wrong reason (or shuffling paper.)

Of course, the same can be applied at the denominational level.  Denominational leaders should be asking, at the end of all of this, what do we want to see?  A healthy and faithful Church?  If so, then the denominational head office should reverse engineer their processes, budgeting and staffing until they know how to move and actually have action.

A universal throughput for the Church?

The question begs of whether there is, in fact, a throughput that the Bible points to.  A good place to start is Revelation 2-3 where Jesus give his criteria for a “success” matrix.  Here Jesus goes through each of the seven churches in Asia Minor and gives them a score card for (1) faithfulness to the gospel (2) obedience to God.  You can think of their report card as like a truth table:

YES              NO

Faithfulness to the gospel         

Obedience to God                         

Some of the churches were faithful but not obedient, some were obedient but let the false teachers have influence, Laodicea failed at both but Sardis and Philadelphia seemed to succeeded at both albeit under great trials and persecution.  Perhaps, then all that a ministry or a church needs to aim for are disciples who are faithful to the gospel and obedient to God?

It might be that once the throughput is defined you still find yourself doing lots of activities, but hopefully you will have more purpose and drive, and will know the difference between simple motion and purposeful action.

Two good books that explore the concept of ministry throughput are:


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