What Elephant?

photo by Haroldthebigman

A church, synagogue, cathedral, temple, mosque, or par­ish can be a dangerous place. The hazards often lurk within the religious institution itself. In fact, these perils may be so obvious that they are like "elephants" standing in the fellow­ship hall, sanctuary, pastor's study, or any room in the church. The word elephant stands for an obvious truth or issue that is ignored or unnamed, yet is allowed to occupy a large amount of space in the minds and hearts of those who tiptoe around it. The "elephant" squats in the fellowship hall, but we put the punch and cookies in the corner and carry on light conversa­tion as usual. The "elephant" lumbers around the sanctuary as we worship, yet we try to ignore it and concentrate on the sermon—which, of course, does not mention the "elephant." It is hard to stay focused in the pastor's study, because the "el­ephant" distracts us from what we really want to say. We keep denying there is a problem with the "elephant" occupying the church because it would upset the way we have all learned to cope and squeeze around it. We guard the children and elderly from being stepped on by the "elephant," all the while remem­bering how we have been hurt by its presence.

...There are many reasons for the blinders worn to avoid seeing the "elephants" or the care taken to maneuver around them. Because of this denial and avoidance, we may even come to differing perspectives on the "elephant" in the church. Let us illustrate with a story of blind men and an elephant. This par­able originated in India and eventually surfaced in Jain, Bud­dhist, Sufi, and Hindu traditions. The Jain version described six blind men examining different parts of the elephant's body. The one who touches the leg exclaims that the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one feeling the trunk likens the elephant to a tree branch; the one touching the ear compares the elephant to a hand fan; the one feeling the belly pronounces the elephant to be like a wall; the one rubbing the tusk proclaims the elephant to be like a pipe. Their "blindness" prevents the six men from acknowledging the truth before them. In 2010, the pharmaceutical firm Bayer produced an ad showing blindfolded women examining a rhinoceros and drawing different conclu­sions about the animal. In both the ancient Indian version and the more recent rendition, "the whole picture" eluded the examiners.

What are the "elephants" in your setting? 

In their book, The Elephant in the Church: What You Don't See Can Kill Your Ministry, Drs. Dell and Stevenson-Moessner help ministers and clergy remove the blindfolds that may hinder the health and safety of the church. Excerpted from the book Copyright©2013 by Abingdon Press, used with permission.

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