What's Tony Thinking

More on Biden


After last week’s piece in which I suggested the Democrats may be barking up the wrong tree, a friend wrote with a caution. He worries that criticism of Biden will make it that much easier for Trump to stage his second-coming.

I get his concern. The criticism I offer is intended to encourage changes that ensure Trump does not return. I want Biden to succeed.

But . . . there’s an old saw in pastoral ministry that goes, “Don’t get too far out in front of the people or they will think you are the enemy and shoot you.”

It is a mistake I made more than once. It is an easy mistake to make. You confuse the eagerness of the most change-oriented faction in a congregation with where everyone is at.

In accepting a new pastoral call your interface is with the congregation’s “search committee.” Typically those selected for a search committee are among the best and the brightest. They are most likely to see the need for change, even “transformation,” to use a word that was bandied about in the Biden administration’s first year, but now . . .  not so much.

So for the first couple go-rounds I took the Search Committee at their word. In the face of a crisis (mainline decline) I had big ideas and big agendas. “Yes, yes, yes,” said the starry-eyed members of the Search Committee. Alas, congregations tend to be less ready, willing and able for big change. They may not perceive any need for major change at all.

Painfully, I discovered that I needed to spend more time getting the lay of the land as the broader congregation saw and experienced it — not just through the lens of those invested in big and exciting change.

Something similar has happened with Biden and his Presidency. He got persuaded by the most change/ transformation oriented cadre of his party that the nation was with them or at least should be if they knew what was good for them. Thus seduced, Biden stepped out front with illusions of FDR-like grandeur. Meanwhile, what voters thought they had heard candidate Biden promise was “a return to decency, normality and unity.” They hadn’t signed on for dramatic upheaval.

In The Financial Times, Janan Ganesh writes “The Post-Pandemic Revolution Isn’t Coming.” Here’s the money line: “The most beguiling offer in today’s politics is a restoration of and an improvement on normal life, not a rupture. What taste the public had for dramatic upheaval was more than satiated over the past 24 months.”

Underline and bold print that line. “What taste the public had for dramatic upheaval was more than satiated over the past 24 months.” Everyone is dragging, exhausted, stressed and staggering.

Just yesterday I spoke with a seminary President who said his message for many years to faculty, staff and students was “do more.” He has realized that for now his message needs to be completely different, “do less.” “People,” he said, “are depleted, just hanging on. Now is not the time to ask people to ‘do more.'”

For now, the revolution will not only not be televised, it will not even be happening. Revolutionary change agendas were spawned in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, when it was all about the 1% and the 99%. But that’s not the over-riding factor, not the crucial context, today. It’s the pandemic and its constant strain. Say it again, “What taste the public had for dramatic upheaval” has been sated. At least for now.

In my own course correction moments, I tried to identify what are the most important things we needed as a church and church staff to do and do well. I called those “the vital few.” In church world that meant cutting back on new initiatives here and dramatic changes there, and making sure we got Sunday morning right.

The thing is that if people see you focusing on the vital few and getting those right, then, you might — just might — have a chance of making one or two of the big changes you imagined everyone to be clamoring for.


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