In the long run

“In the long run we are all dead.”

So said economist John Maynard Keynes in “A Tract on Monetary Reform” (1923). That’s a delightful statement in and of itself, taken completely out of context. It’s even better in context. Keynes is making an argument reductio ad absurdum, pointing out that it’s rather too easy to take the very long view. If you really want to take a long view as an economist, you can simply say that in the end everyone’s going to be dead, which means it’s really easy to make economic predictions, e.g., in a hundred years the current economic crisis won’t seem so bad, because we’ll all be dead.

It’s easy to make this kind of mistake in your local congregation. In a hundred years, it won’t matter if the roof is leaking. Compared to the infinitudes of Transcendentalist theology, it doesn’t matter if the grass is all dead on the children’s play area at church. Both these are true but pointless statements. This kind of attitude doesn’t get you very far.

It’s also easy to make the opposite mistake: only paying attention to the problems that are staring you in the face right here and now. Don’t fix the roof until it leaks, and then wait a couple of year until we have enough money in the operating budget. Don’t worry about the lack of grass in the children’s play area until the rainy season begins, until the children’s favorite game becomes mud wrestling. As with the previous attitude, this kind of attitude doesn’t get you very far.

In my sixteen years of working in local congregations, I have found one of the hardest tasks is finding a good balance between these two extremes. It’s easy and ultimately useless to take the very long view that we’ll all be dead. It is equally easy, and in the end equally useless, only to pay attention to problems that hit you in the face. It’s really hard to try to predict problems far enough in advance to deal with them in a timely manner, but not so far in advance that you’re wasting your time solving them now.