An established church in a small town has a simple sign by the side of the road. The town is growing and the road in front of the church is getting much busier. A new church down the road installs a large sign. Not wanting to fall behind the times, the established church installs a new sign, too. This sign allows the church to add custom messages to the sign by manually arranging letters.

At first, the church simply puts up their service times, but some people think that’s boring. The church needs more catchy information on their sign. Something that people driving by will engage with. The pastor recommends putting the sermon title on the sign, but after a few weeks, realizes that she’s got to come up with a catchy sermon title every single week. Someone volunteers to update it with a new bible verse each week, but they get tired of updating it and eventually stop. Another person finds a list of attention-grabbing church sign messages on the internet and volunteers to put those on the sign. But theologically, some of the quotes don’t align with the church’s teachings and others of them aren’t exactly welcoming. Some people driving by are offended by some of the messages. After a couple of years, everyone is sick of dealing with the sign, but the sign is very visible on the main road into town. The sign must be updated.

A handful of members decide to get together. They don’t exactly call themselves the “sign committee,” but they meet every so often to talk about the sign and what to put on it. After months of discussing the sign, they realize that the real problem is that they have to manually update the sign each week. Going out to the sign with those letters on cards takes time and a better solution would be to have a digital sign that could be updated remotely through the internet. As a bonus, one of these signs can cycle through multiple messages.

They raise the money and update their sign to have a beautiful glowing digital display. The sign is bright, but some people think it’s too bright. They start by including the service times each week. And bible verses. And sermon titles. And upcoming events. At first, lots of people are excited about the new sign and have lots of ideas, but over time, that excitement fades. Some people think the sign changes messages too quickly. While the sign is easier to update, keeping track of multiple messages, chasing down information, and updating the graphics takes more time than the old sign did. The sign becomes more than a weekly task. It’s a job. Sometimes, the sign glitches and a technician has to come fix it. Everyone is frustrated with the sign, but the money was spent and the sign is there. It needs to be updated.

Finally, the pastor decides that they are spending too much time dealing with the sign. She switches the sign to share a single message: “All are welcome.” Some people complain that the church isn’t using the sign to its fullest potential. But secretly, everyone is glad they don’t have to deal with it anymore.

I’ve used a shorter version of this metaphor to talk about social media feeds that suck time and energy from an organization that doesn’t really need one (and usually doesn’t have the resources to support one). But I’ve been thinking that this parable/extended metaphor actually has a broader application. A couple of reflection questions:

  • How many times do we take something on because we want what someone else has?
  • How often do we chase a new solution because it’s shiny and bright?
  • How often do you let the opinions of “some people” change how you feel about decisions?
  • What decision could you make that would simplify your life?
  • What have you built that you no longer need, but that you continue to spend significant time on?
  • When have you made a decision that turned out to be much more work than you planned? How did you handle it?
  • Has someone made a decision your secretly agree with? Why haven’t you told them?

Bob Wertz is a creative director, type designer, Ph.D. student and researcher living in Columbia, South Carolina.