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The Enthusiasm Cycle

October 22, 2012

Let’s say you’ve just had a great idea. At least, you think it’s great. It will make the company more money, or maybe make your little operation into a big player, or draw in crowds, or be beloved by all, or make your name in the history books, or whatever. You have a goal shared by many in your area of expertise and this idea, you think, will let you achieve that goal.

Some people don’t agree. They think your idea is stupid. Perhaps they’ve seen something like it and it didn’t work, or they don’t buy into the theory that your idea is based on, maybe they’re got an emotional attachment to the old way, or they have sound intellectual reasons not to jump on board a new fad to quickly. What’s important is that there’s you and there’s the naysayers.

So, what do you do? Well, as you start to build up your operation you are very likely to want to bring on board only people who are on your side. Why start things off with a crew that includes some people who are opposed to your goals? Now, not everyone will do this. Some people will choose to win over their opponents. Some people will choose to take on board anyone who will follow instructions. But when a person has faced a lot of opposition against doing things their way the odds are good that they will want the people around them to be firmly on their side in what they see as the great ideological war. That’s where the enthusiasm cycle starts.

The enthusiasm cycle is simple: you start promoting people in your organization based on whether they are enthusiastic about what you are doing. If you have two candidates and one always talks about how much they like your goals and methods and the other likes them fine but also has some concerns you promote the one who really loves what you do. Now, there’s some good to that, but what if the people who are all enthusiastic about what you are doing are enthusiastic because, like you, they have particular personalities that overlook certain sorts of problems in your current plans? Maybe some of the unenthusiastic people also want to see you succeed but they have seen some problems that need fixing first. It would be great to have these people in your upper echelons but you won’t promote them there because they aren’t enthusiastic enough. Even if you go completely weird and start failing you’ll still be staffing your upper ranks with people who are very enthusiastic about your weird, failing ideas because you selected them for that trait. Moreover, you’re likely to have come to believe that the problem isn’t your ideas, it’s that someone somewhere in your organization isn’t enthusiastic enough about what you’re doing. If they were only 110% behind you it would all work.

The upshot of all this is that organizations that do this tend to go off the rails and burn people out. Now, this can happen to anyone doing anything, but it’s especially likely to happen to religious organizations. After all, saying, “We just need to be more enthusiastic and the silicon wafers will start printing properly,” sounds moronic whereas, “We just need more faith and God will come through for us,” sounds hard to argue with. But it is worth arguing with the enthusiasm cycle because the other option is to let it continue unabated.

What is the critical difference between a self-feeding enthusiasm cycle and a genuine call to faith? Most of this relies on careful thinking. The enthusiasm cycle is built on not thinking and, importantly, on thinking that anyone who thinks differently is bad or out to squash you. The fact is that God gave you a brain as well as hands and so a lot of doing without any thinking isn’t really using your gifts fully and hoping that God will bless your work. Instead, it’s probably doing what comes easy to you and hoping God will bless you despite your unwillingness to do the part of the work you didn’t like. (Needless to say, there are plenty of us who like the thinking and not the doing, too.)

Enthusiasm is also not a Biblical virtue. If a Christian organization is producing character damage in people because it wants to see more enthusiasm then that organization needs to rethink what it is doing. Burn-out is very common in religious service due largely to the fact that it is very hard to say, “No, I cannot be doing God’s work right now, I need a break.” The problem, of course, is that God’s work is not something you will finish up by working hard. God’s work is too big for anyone but God to actually accomplish and so killing yourself doing His work isn’t working for God. Being lazy isn’t working for God either, but burning oneself out isn’t what God wants either. The solution to burn-out isn’t to be more emotionally hyped-up but to be smarter about the work you (and your organization) does.

Ultimately, it’s very easy to get caught in a perfectly normal, everyday cycle of enthusiasm and call it the fire of God. It’s easy to call people who are just as excited as you by your ideas and call that leadership and vision. However, none of this is anything other than the normal result of being overly-excited and overly-distrustful of the unexcited. True character, not mere enthusiasm, is what God’s people need.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    October 22, 2012 8:27 am

    This is spot-on, and I wish more people stepped back and saw this cycle. As I’m somewhat low-key, unemotional, and pessimistic, I’ve ended up on the other side of the cycle in both business and religion. I usually press through and support them as best I can, because it seems like the only way people trapped in the cycle will change is if they fail after their idea gets a fair shake.

    The problem is, many of them forget the failures, avoid serious consequences, and get caught up in it. The cycle starts on how exciting an idea is, not how viable it is. It reminds me about that quote about the “reality-based community” (–“we create our own reality, and while you’re studying it… we’ll act again.”.

  2. October 22, 2012 2:07 pm

    I’d say that a big part of the problem is a sort of spiritual peer pressure that induces false guilt for not “keeping up” with others and/or not keeping up appearances. As you say, spiritual burn-out is all too common in many fine ministries.

    One solution is God’s idea of Sabbath rest…not simply going to church or doing other religious/worshipping chores, but the spiritual discipline of retreat and solitude with God WITHOUT any kind of agenda. The point is to just be with Him and enjoy each other’s company. Jesus did this frequently, even when the crowds clammored for his attention. How unfortunate that this is so poorly misunderstood and even considered suspicious by some. It just isn’t a mainstay of modern Christian practice.

    You have put your finger, I think, on a problem that’s reaping exactly what’s sown.

    • Eric permalink
      October 22, 2012 4:57 pm

      I agree. I’ve run across several ministries that do this sort of thing and the effect on volunteers and even paid staff is what you’ve said – they feel a lot of peer pressure to “do God’s work”. I think the Sabbath is a good cure for that at the personal level although I’m not sure it cures the institutional problem.

      • October 22, 2012 10:00 pm

        My thought is that if you cure enough people, the institutional problem will likely cure itself. Institutions are only as good as the people they’re comprised of. But maybe I’m just naive.

  3. October 22, 2012 11:48 pm

    I am going to be a bit negative here – not about the post (which was great), but about the church. (I apologize in advance for any ungodliness that may result.) It seems to me that many churches and religious ministries largely judge their success in terms of how many converts they win. That seems wrongheaded to me. I think that churches and religious ministries should focus on serving God and following the gospel, and then allowing God to call or not call converts as He sees fit. As N.T. Wright once said (paraphrasing Acts), when you do the work of God, sometimes a thousand people come to faith in a day, sometimes you are killed, and sometimes not much of anything seems to happen – that’s how it goes with the Spirit. On an even more negative note, I think that many churches fail miserably at their basic biblical duties to witness, serve, make disciples, and promote the participation and unity of all their members. I have seen some churches do a good job of evangelizing, but most of these have done a bad job of serving and discipling; I have seen some churches do a good job of serving, but these have done a bad job of evangelizing and discipling; and so on. And don’t get me started on the ignorance of Scripture that is so pervasive in the church today. Surely not all of this ignorance can be blamed on the church, but I think that much of it can be. Churches are not educating their parishoners as they should be. If I were to be charitable, I could say that many individual Christians feel overwhelmed, and that they simply don’t have the energy or time to focus on more than one or two aspects of Christian discipleship at a time. Perhaps churches are often like this too – they have a corporate character that doesn’t have the energy or time to focus on more than one or two basic points of biblical obedience at a time. Though perhaps true, that seems quite sad to me, and I can’t help but wonder if many of the problems in the church today aren’t largely due to a serious lack of good leadership in the church. At any rate, I have encountered very few conservative (i.e., orthodox with a small “o”) Christians who are willing to tolerate much questioning when it comes to theological issues, especially where the Bible is concerned, and I think that this does tremendous harm to the church. The enthusiasm cycle is alive and well in evangelical circles.

    I realize that I am a sinner myself, and that I am far from perfect. I also take Scripture’s teachings on the importance of bearing with the shortcomings of others very seriously. I don’t feel angry at the church for its many failures – at least not anymore. Honestly, I just feel burnt out most days. And pessimistic. I don’t really expect things to get much better. Yet aren’t we the ones who have received the Spirit?

    • Eric permalink
      October 24, 2012 5:25 pm

      That’s why I’m an elitist.

      I don’t expect that most people will be able to do much better than most people usually do. I expect that individuals can hear the call of God and obey. And, primarily, I believe that it is God Who works through us and not we who accomplish God’s works.

  4. Eric permalink
    October 24, 2012 5:24 pm

    If one changed the majority of the people in an organization the organization would change. However, changing the majority of the people is rather difficult. One issue is that the sort of organizations I describe tend to be closed universes unto themselves, interacting with others as either converts or enemies. To convince someone inside that bubble that it is a bubble may require diagnosing the whole organization – this isn’t a personal issue of that person, and that one, and that one, it’s a systemic issue. A systemic solution wouldn’t necessary leave everyone who had been part of the issue in a great place but it would address the issue at its own scale.

    • October 25, 2012 8:50 am

      Yes. It’s very much a systemic issue. To fully & completely diagnose within the bubble means that the one receiving diagnosis must first consider whether there is an issue. Otherwise, there is a closed mind that will not allow for questioning anything — structure, organization, scripture-adherence. Packaging items of service within the church body as “doing God’s work” means that anybody questioning the effectiveness of those doing that work are often put on the defense because then the onus is on them to wonder why they “question God’s work”.

      I have a bad taste in my mouth from organizations like thise who have the mentaility that Eric mentioned above — closed universes who “treat others as either converts or enemies”. It’s an unfortunate situation & one that seems quite pervasive in post-modern culture.

      I’d be the first to admit that i have been a part of that, sucked into the “goodness” of it, before recognizing that there is some disconnect there. I don’t know the real solution other than people examining the community within which they operate & comparing it to what God specifically calls His people to do.

  5. Ben permalink
    October 29, 2012 8:35 am

    Great article. Promoting leaders who are enthusiastic about your way of doing things tends to create an alternative reality bubble within the organization, since many leaders interact only (or mostly) with other leaders. As a result, not only are people treated as either converts or outsiders, even people within the organization are treated somewhat the same way. As a result, changing half of the people isn’t enough, because not everyone is equal. If everyone listens but the leaders continue to dismiss valid concerns as lack of enthusiasm, then the problem is still there.

    And, Sharon – Yep. It does seem like examining things and determining if it is what God actually wants people to do is necessary.

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