The Problem with the Room

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 19, 2014

The Problem with the Room

I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase, “The problem is never in the room.”

Here’s the context:  You are talking with someone about a problem.  A ministry that isn’t growing, a child that isn’t behaving, a wife that isn’t feeling cherished, a pattern where they keep getting fired;

…and the problem is never in the room.

Meaning, they are never the ones to blame.  They are never the cause, never the source, never the solution.  It’s always something else, or someone else.  It’s never “them.”

When applied to ministry, few things can be more deadly, particularly when it’s coupled (as it often is) with its kissing cousin.  Which is that the solution is never outside the room.  Meaning any idea, any suggestion, any new way of thinking, is immediately shot down.

Put these two together.

If you are completely opposed to doing things differently than you are now, but would never even consider that the way you are doing things now is the reason you are doing poorly...

…then you will forever be exactly where you are now.  If plateaued, you will stay plateaued (and we all know that ongoing plateau leads to decline).  If declining, you will continue to decline.  If by some lucky chance you are currently growing, it won’t last long, because strategy always needs to be updated.

I’ve interacted with people like this.  It’s maddening, to be honest.  Whatever you suggest about new ideas, different approaches, it’s shot down with a thousand ready-made reasons why it won’t/can’t work.  Then, when you probe why things aren’t going well, they point to a thousand things – all circumstantial – that excuse the current state away.

So they are closed to anything outside of the room, and closed to any causes of decline that might be inside the room.

But here are two truths I’ve learned over the years:

The place to start looking for causes is inside the room, and the place to start looking for answers is outside the room.

And if someone on your team can’t get to that point, maybe you need to realize the real issue is…

…a rooming situation.

James Emery White

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.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Problem with the Room