Why “No Need to Reinvent the Wheel” Is the Wrong Metaphor

squarewheelsA congregation faces a challenge. Someone at the table suggests that others have probably faced the same challenge. The questions go flying. What have they done? What has worked? What is available to us? And someone will probably say nearly these exact words, Let’s contact them. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

The metaphor of reinventing the wheel is a misleading image to rely on for moving forward on the challenges of congregational ministry. The wheel is a great gift. I am a bicyclist. I love what I can do and where I can go on two wheels. And I’m thankful nearly every day that the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented on a regular basis. I’m thankful that I can use the technology of the wheel and let the creativity of the technicians be spent on making my bicycle lighter, more durable, and more comfortable.

But all of those things are technical problems. If a wheel is not durable, then the experts can apply current technology to make it more durable. If the wheel is too small, make it larger. If the hard metal of a wheel makes for a rough ride on the stone of city streets, then find technology that will make it softer.

The problem is that those of us who are working in the church (or any other social institution, for that matter) are not working in a setting where our greatest challenges can be solved by technology. To use the metaphor, it’s not a matter of making the wheel more durable or larger or more comfortable for riding.

We work in places with history. With people. With local and institutional cultures. With present anxieties and past dysfunctions. We work in places that are nothing if not unique. So, technical answers to our deep challenges will not work.

To invoke the no need to reinvent the wheel implies that what worked somewhere else will work here. Maybe. But more likely not. What worked somewhere else worked as a function of the unique people involved, the unique gifts and skills, the unique moment in time, and a whole host of other factors. When it comes to trying to answer the challenges of congregational ministry in our time and our place, the truth is we probably do need to reinvent the wheel in each setting. Meeting the challenges of ministry is so deeply and so profoundly contextual. In each case we do ourselves a disservice to begin by asking the question of what has worked somewhere else.

When I suggest that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel I perpetuate the myth so prominent in North American culture that here are experts and they have the knowledge and I don’t.

I disagree. While I covet the knowledge of experts when it comes to technical problems — like the weight of my bicycle — there is no one who is more expert in your setting than the people who are in that setting. What’s real is that no one knows your context better than you do. You know the people, you know the community, you know the challenges, you know the culture. No one, not even the so called experts know what you know.

And you have people who know your context just as clearly as you do. They are the committed leaders of your congregation. They are the folks who volunteer their time and offer their talents to make sure the congregation is true to its mission. If you’re in the plains of Nebraska, these people are far wiser about the culture and the community of the plains of Nebraska than the experts at the seminary in California. The seminary folks are likely experts at what works in a seminary community. Or in the congregation they served before they landed at the seminary. But you are expert where you are. What’s more, if you consistently invoke the wisdom of the so-called expert, it’s likely to shut down the conversation of the folks who know the context better than any of the academics in the hallowed seminary hallways.

Here might be the most significant down side of invoking the no need to reinvent the wheel mantra. It short circuits, even shuts down, the creativity and imaginations of the folks who know the context best. When leaders can bring people together and challenge them to take responsibility for the ministry and to be accountable to one another for what happens here, people rise to the occasion. When their gifts and their expertise are acknowledged, the solutions emerge. When people are asked what are the possibilities and what they want to create together, avenues and opportunities and even strategies emerge that will be far more effective than some program that worked in a church light years away.

Let me offer one caveat: I’m not suggesting that we don’t tell the stories of our own successes. I think its important for me to know what worked somewhere else and for me to tell others what worked here. But we don’t tell the stories as packaged products that we have any illusions can be imported or exported wholesale. We tell the stories as the ground of hope. When I hear that someone else somewhere else took their challenges head on, imagined a future, and walked successfully into the future, then it gives me hope that we can do the same thing.

So, here’s to hope. Here’s to creativity. Here’s to engaging the people who have the wisdom. Here’s to facing our challenges head on, believing that the gifts of the Spirit are in the people.

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