People or Problems

Well, there’s a title for you.  But, hopefully, by the time you are finished reading this posting it will make more sense to you.  I have to say that this has to be one of the strangest postings I’ve made in awhile, so enjoy.

This posting is an attempt to shine a light on a very dark area of ministry.  As anyone who has been in the ministry any length of time will tell you, people can be a very big problem.  But, interestingly, if you focus on the ‘people problems’ you will find you cannot solve anything, and by the time you are done trying to fix it most everyone is upset.  It can drain you of energy, optimism, hope, and joy.  It can derail your plans, cause bitterness, and sleepless nights.

In our modern society we have forgotten something very basic.  While it is easy to think that people are the problem, we have completely lost focus that people are not the problem, the problem is the problem.  Sounds a bit like double-talk, doesn’t it?  Let me try and explain.

Years ago I received some good management advice – focus on solving the problem, not on the people involved.  But, you may argue people ARE the problem.  No, and with that thinking you will solve little.  It sounds a bit confusing so let’s use an example.

Years ago (don’t ask me how many) I was managing a group of software engineers.  These engineers were developing applications that were deployed into handheld computers, and deployed into the field for meter readers to use to read water, electric, and gas meters.  It seems that one of my engineers was having problems getting the software to work correctly.  Obviously, a ‘people problem’ for which I was in charge of fixing.  As I was getting ready to go out to lunch I cornered the engineer and with my most formal tone said, “Listen, you obviously are having trouble solving this problem.  So, I need you to print out the source code for me and put it on my desk because I want to take a look at it when I get back from lunch.”  It was clear to me that the problem was not the software it was the engineer, and I could take care of that as soon as I got back from lunch.  After all, how complicated could the source code be?

When I got back from lunch the source code printout was on my desk.  Back in those days they used something called fanfold paper with a dot-matrix style printer.  The stack of paper on my desk was several reams thick, somewhere around 1,000 printed pages.  I picked up the stack, and marched into the engineer’s office.  “Look, I think the best course is for me to give you whatever support you need in this.  Keep at it, you are doing fine.  Let me know if you need anything”, and gently left the stack of paper on his desk.

The problem was not the engineer.  The problem is in the code.  My job was to give him whatever support he needed in order to solve the problem.

When problems arise it is only natural to play the ‘blame game.’  Who is responsible?  How was this allowed to happen?  Who dropped the ball?  But, playing the blame game hardly ever makes things better, only worse.  Instead of focusing on ‘who’ maybe it would be better to focus on ‘what’?  What happened?  What do we need to do to fix this?  How can we make sure it never happens again?

If you need confirmation of this, one only has to look at how Jesus handled ‘people problems.’  The focus is always on the problem, not on the people.  Jesus didn’t play the blame game with His disciples.  Let’s look at an example.  Someone asks Peter if Jesus pays taxes.  He doesn’t know, but he will ask.  When Peter confronts Jesus with this, Jesus doesn’t say, “Peter, that’s a stupid question.  Don’t let them badger you with such stupid things.  Next time send them to me!”  If Jesus would have handled it this way, Peter would have felt about two feet tall, and the problem still wouldn’t be solved.  We also know from the scriptures that Judas took care of the group’s money supply.  There should have been sufficient funds to take care of this issue, but there wasn’t.  Why?  Because the scriptures say Judas was a thief.  So, Jesus sends Peter on a fishing expedition with explicit instructions so this problem could be resolved, all without belittling Peter or Judas.

By focusing on the problem versus focusing on the people you will avoid doing unnecessary damage.  Is this easy?  No, it is not.  Why?  Because sometimes people do stupid things.  But, why is that?  Are they stupid?  No.  But, even smart people do stupid things at times.  But, there is a difference between doing stupid things and being stupid.  And if some are offended by the term ‘stupid’, let’s use something else – how about dumb things?

What do people need in order to avoid making mistakes:

  1. They need to be instructed in what they should do
  2. They need guidance in their work
  3. They need to be able to ask questions
  4. They need the proper tools and equipment for the job
  5. They need the training in using those tools and equipment
  6. They need encouragement when doing right, and proper correction when not
  7. They need to be properly matched with the task at hand – training, skills, aptitude, experience, etc…

What do all these have in common?  Most of these things come from management.  That’s right – most failures can be traced back to management.  This not to say all human failures are management’s fault, but there is more than fair amount of responsibility for everyone.

So, what should happen when people fail?  Well, it depends on the failure, but what we do with children is not far off the mark.  You assess the immediate damage, and put in place whatever is required to restore things to their proper place.  What next?  You discuss what went wrong, and what do we need to do to keep that from happening again.  If there was a lack of instruction or training, now is the time for that to kick in.  Now there is something very important in this paragraph.  Notice how the focus is on the problem, and not on the individual.  Yes, of course, the individual is involved, but the focus is on fixing the problem and engaging the individual in the process.

We’ve run out of time and space, once again.  I’d like to talk about Jesus decision to hand over the group’s money bag to a thief, but that will have to wait for a future posting.  It actually may have not been Jesus’ decision, but He did not correct it or change it.

One Response to “People or Problems”

  1. Barbara McGuire Says:

    I LOVED this blog!! Great words…great truth! Unfortunately, it took me many years to focus on the “problem” and not the people! Thankfully I’ve finally learned! Great words of wisdom here! Thanks!

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