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The Death of Common Sense

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, February 2, 2015

The Death of Common Sense

In the winter of 1988, nuns of the Missionaries of Charity were walking through the snow in the South Bronx in their saris and sandals looking for an abandoned building that they might convert into a homeless shelter. Mother Teresa, the Nobel Prize winner and head of the order, had agreed on a plan with Mayor Ed Koch after visiting him in the hospital several years earlier.

The nuns found two fire-gutted buildings on 148th Street, and the city of New York offered the buildings to the mission at one dollar each. The Missionaries of Charity set aside $500,000 for reconstruction. The plan was to create a facility that would provide temporary care for sixty-four homeless men. The buildings would provide a communal setting that included a dining room and kitchen on the first floor, a lounge on the second floor, and small dormitory rooms on the third and fourth floors.

The members of the order, in addition to taking a vow of poverty, avoid the routine use of modern conveniences. As a result, the facility would have no dishwashers or other appliances, and laundry would be done by hand. For New York City, the proposed homeless facility was a godsend.

Then Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity encountered the bewildering world of bureaucracy. For a year and a half, the nuns, wanting only to live lives of service, found themselves traveling from hearing room to hearing room, presenting the details of the project. In September 1989, the city finally approved the plan and the Missionaries of Charity began repairing the fire-damaged buildings.

Then, after almost two years, the nuns were told that according to New York’s building code every new or renovated multistory building must have an elevator. The Missionaries of Charity explained that because of their beliefs they would never use the elevator, which would also add $100,000 to the cost of the project. The nuns were told the law could not be waived even if the elevator would not be used.

Mother Teresa gave up. She did not want to devote that much extra money to something that would not really help the poor. According to her representative, “The Sisters felt they could use the money much more usefully for soup and sandwiches.” In a polite letter to the city expressing their regrets, the Missionaries of Charity noted that the episode “served to educate us about the law and its many complexities.”

As Philip K. Howard observes, no person decided to spite Mother Teresa. It was just the law. Yet he argues that the story of the Missionaries of Charity in New York reflects how rules can replace thinking. The result? What Howard calls “the death of common sense.”

The story involving Mother Teresa demonstrates how important the process of decision making is to ministry, and how inhibiting bureaucracy can become. To make matters worse, a church’s structure is often wedded to some of the most deeply rooted customs within the life of a church.

Yet a church’s structure is crucial when it comes to rethinking the church because it is a church’s structure that supports and facilitates the purposes and mission of a church. Think of it functioning the way a skeleton serves a human body—it holds together and supports the working parts of the body in order to enable them to function as a body.

Consequently, a church’s structure can either serve the church or bring it to a standstill. It can energize a community of faith or lead it toward ever deepening levels of discouragement. It can enable men and women to use their gifts and abilities for the kingdom of God or tie the hands and frustrate the most dedicated efforts of God’s people.

Here are three principles to consider for good church structure:

First, have the people doing the ministry make the majority of decisions about the ministry. In other words, do not separate authority from responsibility.

Second, don’t have “how” things are done become more important than “what” is done. A few years ago the federal government bought hammers with a specification that was thirty-three pages long. Why not just trust the person to go out and buy hammers? As Plato argued, good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will always find a way around the law.

Third, rethink majority rule. The more biblical idea is that of “family” (see Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 2:10-12; 1 Peter 4:17). In most family structures, the immature members (children) outnumber or at least equal the mature members (parents). A church is a family and, as a result, contains members who are at different levels of spiritual maturity. If every decision is made by the majority instead of the most spiritually mature, then there is a very strong chance that the majority could mislead a church.

This is precisely what happened with the Israelites. Moses sent twelve spies into the Promised Land to report back to the people if it was everything God had promised. All twelve agreed that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but the majority said that the land could not be taken. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, were convinced that God wanted them to possess the land. The majority were allowed to rule, however, which left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for another forty years.

When we think of entering the “Promised Land,” we think of church growth strategies, dynamic messages, contemporary music, children’s ministry…

...we don’t often think of church structure.

Maybe that’s the problem.

James Emery White



Adapted and updated from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Revised Edition (Baker).

See also:

Philip K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense.

Michael Hammer, Beyond Reengineering: How the Process-Centered Organization is Changing Our Work and Our Lives.

Geoffrey James, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Death of Common Sense