Monday, January 28, 2019

Avoiding the Rubber Stamp

As a kind of follow-up to last week's post on the differences between strategy development and strategy deployment (at least in the way that my association's Board are working to define those terms), I had another conversation on the same subject this week with another Board leader, and this one had a decidedly different feel to it.

I was talking to this Board leader about a piece of our next meeting agenda that he was going to lead. He's the chair of one of our Board's strategic task forces, and his role is to lead a thoughtful discussion among his task force on the selected subject, and bring a set of recommendations back to the full Board for action. And the subject we discussed for his task force was decidedly on the deployment side of the spectrum that I described last week. It had to do with resourcing a program that had already been well-baked into our agreed-upon strategy. The discussion at the task force table was going to be focused on determining if the program was achieving the outcomes we sought and, if so, how much it should be resourced and scaled-up in future years.

To help prepare for the conversation, my staff had put together a short briefing presentation that our Board leader or the lead staff person could give to the task force. It included a quick definition of the program, the outcomes it sought to achieve, the degree to which it had been resourced so far, the tangible outcomes it had produced, several lessons that we had learned in working on its execution, and a financial projection for possible resources that could be dedicated to its growth.

In reviewing all this information, our Board leader seemed to simply nod his head. He had only one question for us. What if the task force simply says, "Looks good. Do that."? What are we going to talk about for the other eighty-nine minutes?

Ah yes. We want the Board focused on strategy deployment, but strategy deployment is the staff's job, so too much focus there can lead to an unproductive dynamic that most association professionals are familiar with. Staff brings their plan of action and the Board rubber stamps it.

One of the ways to avoid the rubber stamp is to only focus the Board's attention on the deployment plans that require increased investment in order to achieve. Reviewing the planning process for the association's Annual Conference, or dues renewal process, or anything else that is easily and non-controversially budgeted for every year is a waste of the Board's precious time. There are no strategic decisions to be made in these spaces, only tactical ones.

The program we're planning to discuss is different. If we were planning to keep it at its current level of investment and impact, there would be nothing for the task force to discuss. But we are contemplating a dramatic increase in resources, growth, and impact. That's not just money that can't be spent on other programs, in our specific case, it's money we may need to pull out of our reserves, and it will also require the addition of staff to help execute it. All three of these realities -- although certainly within the realm of deploying our existing strategy -- are strategic decisions in their own right.

Because it's not really the individual steps of the deployment plan that we'll be asking the task force to discuss and the Board subsequently to approve. It's really the decision to move in this direction -- one that will costly, will prevent us from moving in other desired directions, and will be difficult to retreat from if it turns out worse than we expect. That's the core of the discussion that should be had at our Board table, and that is anything other than a rubber stamp.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 2 (DRAFT)

I remember this one place. God, was it a palace. The kind of place where coffee is eight bucks a cup and no one thinks twice about it. I don’t remember where it was—when you never get out of the hotel, the city you’re in kind of drifts by the wayside.

I was there for one of those VIP shindigs we used to do. The company had clients, you see. But these clients weren’t individuals who had hired a professional services firm, or companies working with an ad agency. Our clients were non-profit organizations, and they paid us to manage them. We collected their dues, we planned their meetings, we published their journals—we did whatever it took to help them achieve the vision they had defined for themselves. And every client organization had a group of people who formed the upper crust of their leadership. A board of directors. A house of delegates. They went by different names, but they all had the same thing in common. They were all comprised of Very Important People who, when they came together on behalf of their organization, made sure it was in one of the best hotels in town. By day, they would sit around polished tables in high-backed leather chairs and make decisions, and by night, they would hold cocktails and pat each other on the back, safe in the knowledge that they were the elite and that things truly ran best when they were in charge.

This one meeting was the first one I had attended after being promoted to deputy account executive. It was just me and my boss, Mary, and about a hundred or so of these decision-makers, and it was funny the way Mary was nervous and pretended to actually take me under her wing. I knew most of the people there already, but now that I had this new role, I had to meet them all over again. Mary had to introduce me because that’s what protocol demanded, and she wanted to watch as they sized me up and decided if I was truly worthy of the honor I had been given.

The biggest fish in the pond back then was this woman named Eleanor Rumford. She was probably in her late fifties, and one of only three or four women in the leadership at that time. She was slated to chair the board of directors the following year, and had led the planning for the meeting we were attending. I had worked with her on a couple of projects prior to this. Her professional achievements had earned her the respect of her mostly male colleagues, but I found her to be meticulous in the extreme—a real micromanager who tried to control everything she was even remotely involved with. Among many other tasks she had overseen, she had hand-picked the speaker for the dinner program, and I remember her sitting triumphantly enshrined at the VIP table just below the podium as the speaker went through his busy slides and I poked absently at my New York-style cheesecake.

I was there, too, you see. For the first time I was at the VIP table—a VIP table, mind you, in a room full of a hundred VIPs—because I had been promoted and, although I was still the hired help, there was some chance I might be needed to respond to some question or run some important errand at the behest of the people who were really in charge. So it was Eleanor Rumford in her hand-tailored business suit and freshly-permed hair with her happy-go-lucky husband sitting on one side and my boss Mary Walton sitting on the other. Mary sat on Eleanor’s right and I sat on Mary’s, the chain of command clearly on display for anyone who would care to take notice.

It was near the end of the Q and A session when this guy got up—this guy with a pair of worn sneakers and tube socks poking out from beneath the raised cuffs of his dress slacks and a Pink Panther tie lying awkwardly on his round belly. He looked about as out of place as a rotten turnip on the dessert trays the banquet captains were carrying around. A whole group of people had been lined up at the floor microphone in the center of the room to ask the speaker their questions, and the speaker had methodically whittled them down one by one in what had to be the longest Q and A session I had ever been forced to sit through.

And it wasn’t just me who was getting antsy. Every VIP in the room looked like they were about to turn into pumpkins, but this guy gets up and starts to amble his way over, obviously intent on getting in one last burning question. Eleanor saw him coming, and she must have known he was trouble, because she suddenly rose to her feet and, waiting only for the barest of pauses in the on-going interchange between the speaker and the last person at the microphone, she announced in her typically parliamentary way how honored we had all been to have the speaker with us that evening. She then thanked him gratuitously, and then she led us all in a round of appreciative applause.

It was a nicely handled. Eleanor, despite her fussiness, was one of those people who could always be relied on to do what was proper in a social situation, and she knew from long experience that the most proper thing of all was to strategically avoid the most awkward of social situations altogether. But old Inspector Clouseau was not to be deterred. Although Eleanor’s calculated actions caused the woman at the microphone to take her seat and the speaker to step away from the podium, the guy in the Pink Panther tie stepped right up to the microphone and began asking his question anyway, his amplified voice carrying loudly and unfortunately subduing the growing ambient noise associated with a crowd of people finally released.

I can’t remember what the guy said or what his question was. I know it was long and rambling and more about him and his own theories than anything the speaker had said in the last two hours. It doesn’t really matter. The guy isn’t important. What’s important is how Eleanor reacted to his boorishness. Obviously unable to stop what she had viewed as an unsatisfactory outcome, Eleanor reseated herself and then not-so-quietly began tsk-tsking about the bad social graces of some, turning alternatively between her husband and Mary, and getting exactly the same kind of puckered-lip commiseration from them both.

At the time I wasn’t sure what to think. I mean, there she was, Eleanor Rumford, hard-nosed champion of her gender, a conquering hen in a room full of conquering roosters, looking exactly like a tittering matron of the Titanic, desperately appealing to her fellow peers of the realm for an explanation that could justify the appearance of this ragamuffin from steerage on their gold-plated decks—all the while oblivious to their mutual rendezvous with the iceberg.

And there was Mary—my boss, my leader, the woman who was going to teach me the ropes and whose behavior I had been told to emulate if I wanted any kind of a future in the company—kissing Eleanor’s ass and telling her that she was right, that some people had no class, that some people didn’t know when to mind their place.

Looking back on it now I can’t help but laugh. The guy was a dope, sure, but it’s not like he came in and took a dump on the vegetable crudite. He was a self-important fuck like all the other self-important fucks in the room—only with a lot less fashion sense. But he offended Eleanor Rumford, and that meant that he had offended Mary Walton, too. If I had been paying more attention I might have realized the fact that he didn’t offend me or, more importantly, that Eleanor’s offense hadn’t automatically prompted me to feign offense as well, was the first real indication that I had made a mistake accepting that promotion.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Strategy Development and Deployment

Couple of conversations this week with members of my association's Board on the differences between strategy development and strategy deployment.

I probably need to provide some background first. My Board recently decided to change our cycle of strategic planning. When I first came into the organization (12 years ago!) I put it on an annual cycle of strategy development and deployment. Essentially, at only one Board meeting a year would we do anything that looked like typical "strategic planning" work. We would do an environmental scan, compare its results to our current strategy, make necessary adjustments to that strategy, and codify a set of strategic goals and objectives for the year ahead. At subsequent Board meetings, revisiting that strategy was "off the table." The focus turned to deployment. Not "What should we be doing?", but "How well are we doing what we should?".

At first, that was a good thing. Given where the Board thought the association was positioned, the opportunity for an annual course correction made sense. But over time, as we worked out some of our strategic kinks, and got better and better at focusing the association resources on the things that mattered most, this annual planning cycle seemed to interrupt the flow of some of the long-term strategic commitments we had made.

So my Board just made the change to a triennial cycle. Not once a year, but now once every three years, would we have the kind of deep dive, strategy changing event like the one I described. For all the other Board meetings over that three-year span, the focus would remain on strategy deployment, on making sure we were executing our existing strategy as effectively as we could.

Now fast forward to today. I'm engaging with members of the Board's leadership to help determine the topics we will discuss at our next Board meeting in March -- the first meeting after our decision about the new development and deployment cycle was made. As a result, the two concepts are heavy on everyone's minds, and, believe it or not, it seems like many of us are operating under different definitions of those two words.

Here's my take. At the Board table, our strategy is defined by three factors. There's our mission, our overall purpose; from which we determine our ends statements, the outcomes that will result if we are successful in accomplishing our mission; and then our success indicators, the metrics by which we'll know that we are achieving those outcomes. That's what gets locked in for each three-year cycle. Changing any of those, or adding to them, means that you are developing new strategy, extending the association into areas not foreseen by the existing set of mission, end statements, and success indicators.

Strategy deployment, then, is everything and anything you do within those boundaries. The work you do to hit the goals attached to your success indicators, which result in the outcomes defined in your ends statements, which in turn achieve your mission. Looking at how well the association is accomplishing what it has set out to do, and discussing new ways to achieve it, or the allocation of different resources; that all falls within the boundaries of what I would call strategy deployment.

And that, I think, is where things get tricky. Because if something isn't working well, and you want to discuss a new approach, or have the Board allocate a new set of resources, you run the risk of straying into what others might think is new strategy development -- and that was among the concerns expressed in my conversations with Board members this week.

We need to stick to our strategy, some of them said, but it wasn't the strategy that I was proposing to change. Upon reflection, it was probably another instance of our imprecise choice of words causing confusion among well-intentioned professionals. I wasn't proposing that the Board discuss a change to our strategy. I was proposing that they discuss a change to the tactics that we have been pursuing in order to achieve our strategic outcomes.

And that, to my way of thinking, should be fair game at every Board meeting.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Carol Milford is a young, college-educated woman in the early years of the 20th century who marries a small-town doctor named Will Kennicott. In a sense, he plucks Carol out of the metropolis of St. Paul, and brings her to his humble home in the relative backwater Minnesota town of Gopher Prairie.

It is quite a shock to young Carol.

It was not only the unsparing unapologetic ugliness and the rigid straightness which overwhelmed her. It was the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded unpleasant colors. The street was cluttered with electric-light poles, telephone poles, gasoline pumps for motor cars, boxes of goods. Each man had built with the most valiant disregard of all the others. Between a large new “block” of two-story brick shops on one side, and the firebrick Overland garage on the other side, was a one-story cottage turned into a millinery shop. The white temple of the Farmers’ Bank was elbowed back by a grocery of glaring yellow brick. One store-building had a patchy galvanized iron corince; the building beside it was crowned with battlements and pyramids of brick capped with blocks of red sandstone.

She escaped from Main Street, fled home.

And so begins Sinclair Lewis’s famous and unflattering study of small-town American life.

She wouldn’t have cared, she insisted, if the people had been comely. She had noted a young man loafing before a shop, one unwashed hand holding the cord of an awning; a middle-aged man who had a way of staring at women as though he had been married too long and too prosaically; and old farmer, solid, wholesome, but not clean -- his face like a potato fresh from the earth. None of them had shaved for three days.

And Carol’s problems with Gopher Prairie go far beyond these ugly appearances. She quickly discovers that there is no intellectual curiosity to be found.

Carol listened. She discovered that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie. Even at this affair, which brought out the young smart set, the hunting squire set, the respectable intellectual set, and the solid financial set, they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse.

Juanita Haydock talked a good deal in her rattling voice but it was invariably of personalities: the rumor that Raymie Wutherspoon was going to send for a pair of patent leather shoes with gray buttoned tops; the rheumatism of Champ Perry; the state of Guy Pollock’s grippe; and the dementia of Jim Howland in painting his fence salmon-pink.

It is a state of affairs any college-educated person would find frustrating, and any artist would find unbearable. And Lewis, of course, is writing from direct experience -- as Gopher Prairie is famously based on his own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He does an excellent job encasing the reader in the mindset he himself escaped. Whether it is books…

“One trouble with books is that they’re not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you’re wasting your time on. What I like in books is a wholesome, really improving story, and sometimes-- Why, once I started a novel by this fellow Balzac that you read about, and it told how a lady wasn’t living with her husband, I mean she wasn’t his wife. It went into details, disgustingly! And the English was real poor. I spoke to the library about it, and they took it off the shelves. I’m not narrow, but I must say I don’t see any use in this deliberately dragging in immorality! Life itself is so full of temptations that in literature one wants only that which is pure and uplifting.”

...or art…

Ensued a fifteen-minute argument about the oldest topic in the world: It’s art but is it pretty?

...time and time again, the aversion to new ideas and new ways of thinking is suffocating.

Carol decides to reform Gopher Prairie. She studied sociology and village improvement at college after all, and it was time to put all that book learning to useful purpose. But can she do it? Will the town allowed itself to be reformed?

She reverted to her resolution to change the town -- awaken it, prod it, “reform” it. What if they were wolves instead of lambs? They’d eat her all the sooner if she was meek to them. Fight or be eaten. It was easier to change the town completely than to conciliate it! She could not take their point of view; it was a negative thing; and intellectual squalor; a swamp of prejudices and fears. She would have to make them take hers. She was not a Vincent de Paul, to govern and mold a people. What of that? The tiniest change in their distrust of beauty would be the beginning of the end; a seed to sprout and some day with thickening roots to crack their wall of mediocrity. If she could not, as she desired, do a great thing nobly and with laughter, yet she need not be content with village nothingness. She would plant one seed in the blank wall.

At first it is poetry, then plays. She desperately tries to introduce something she calls culture to the small-minded people of this small town, but they rebuff her again and again. Not in ignorance and shame, but in superiority and aloofness. They have a philosophy, Carol comes to bitterly understand, one that is as old as the hills. Here it is, “complete”:

The Baptist Church (and, somewhat less, the Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches) is the perfect, the divinely ordained standard in music, oratory, philanthropy, and ethics. “We don’t need all this new-fangled science, or this terrible Higher Criticism that’s ruining our young men in colleges. What we need is to get back to the true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have it preached to us.”

The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs.

All socialists ought to be hanged.

“Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals in his novels, and folks say he’s made prett’ near a million dollars out of ‘em.”

People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked.

Europeans are still wickeder.

It doesn’t hurt any to drink a glass of beer on a warm day, but anybody who touches wine is headed straight for hell.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be.

Nobody needs drug-store ice cream; pie is good enough for anybody.

The farmers wants too much for their wheat.

The owners of the elevator-company expect too much for the salaries they pay.

There would be no more trouble or discontent in the world if everybody worked as hard as Pa did when he cleared our first farm.

In case you can’t tell, I think that’s called satire.

But of course, the town will not be reformed. Not in the way Carol wants. The ugly people in their ugly town will not be changed. Even though she finds a few kindred spirits, young people who yearn for the same kind of revolt Carol does…

“I believe all of us want the same things -- we’re all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the Negro race and the Asiatic colonies, and even a few of the Respectables. It’s all the same revolt, in all the classes that have waited and taken advice. I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing the politicians and priests and cautious reformers (and the husbands!) coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have plans for a Utopia already made; just give us a bit more time and we’ll produce it; trust us; we’re wiser than you.’ For ten thousand years they’ve said that. We want our Utopia now -- and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is -- everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We sha’n’t get it. So we sha’n’t ever be content --”

...even they come to disappoint her.

She wondered why he was wincing. He broke in:

“See here, my dear, I certainly hope you don’t class yourself with a lot of trouble-making labor-leaders! Democracy is all right theoretically, and I’ll admit there are industrial injustices, but I’d rather have them than see the world reduced to a dead level of mediocrity. I refuse to believe that you have anything in common with a lot of laboring men rowing for bigger wages so that they can buy wretched flivvers and hideous player-pianos and --”

At this second, in Buenos Aires, a newspaper editor broke his routine of being bored by exchanges to assert, “Any injustice is better than seeing the world reduced to a gray level of scientific dullness.” At this second a clerk standing at the bar of a New York saloon stopped milling his secret fear of his nagging office-manager long enough to growl at the chauffeur beside him, “Aw, you socialists make me sick! I’m an individualist. I ain’t going to be nagged by no bureaus and take orders off labor-leaders. And mean to say a hobo’s as good as you and me?”

At this second Carol realized that for all Guy’s love of dead elegances his timidity was as depressing to her as the bulkiness of Sam Clark. She realized that he was not a mystery, as she had excitedly believed; not a romantic messenger from the World Outside on whom she could count for escape. He belonged to Gopher Prairie, absolutely. She was snatched back from a dream of far countries, and found herself on Main Street.

The mind control is deep here, man. And that, probably, is Lewis’s larger point, made more express here than elsewhere. The struggle is not just Carol’s. It is the struggle of progressives everywhere. The opposition is not just the blinkered people of Gopher Prairie. It is the large and timeless force of conservatism, the protectionism of what we have against those we fear will take it.

And, In fact, these forces, with their relentless and ignorant sense of superiority, rather than being changed by Carol, slowly succeed in changing Carol instead.

Did I say relentless?

In the manner of one who has just beheld a two-headed calf they repeated that they had “never heard such funny ideas!” They were staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word “dude” is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always peddlers or pantsmakers.

There a Quixotic element to Lewis’s novel. Again and again, without fail, Carol is confronted with the solidity of the windmills of Gopher Prairie.

It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment … the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.

A savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs, prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.

And eventually, inevitably, it wears Carol down.

She went hastily up to her room, to her mirror. She was in a mood of self-depreciation. Accurately or not, this was the picture she saw in the mirror:

Neat rimless eye-glasses. Black hair clumsily tucked under a mauve straw hat which would have suited a spinster. Cheeks clear, bloodless. Thin nose. Gentle mouth and chin. A modest voile blouse with an edging of lace at the neck. A virginal sweetness and timorousness -- no flare of gaiety, no suggestion of cities, music, quick laughter.

“I have become a small-town woman. Absolute. Typical. Modest and moral and safe. Protected from life. Genteel! The Village Virus -- the village virtuousness.”

And later, after she has sought affairs with some of the initially alluring but resolutely feckless men, further distancing her from the clucking respectability of Main Street…

Then, in a very great desire of rebellion and unleashing of all her hatreds, “The pettier and more tawdry it is, the more blame to Main Street. It shows how much I’ve been longing to escape. Any way out! Any humility so long as I can flee. Main Street has done this to me. I came here eager for nobilities, ready for work, and now -- Any way out.

“I came trusting them. They beat me with rods of dullness. They don’t know, they don’t understand how agonizing their complacent dullness is. Like ants and August sun on a wound.”

They. They’ve pushed her to this extreme. But Carol, like Lewis, understands that the ‘they’ in question is not merely the people of Gopher Prairie, but the institutions they represent.

And why, she began to ask, did she rage at individuals? Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.

There is deep analysis in this book of otherwise simple fiction; analysis of the forces and institutions that have shaped and will continue to shape American Society. And finally, it is one of those institutions, mentioned only among others in the list above, that may be the most humbly powerful of them all, demanding strict conformity, but offering sublime connections in return.

She was at Sunday morning service at the Baptist Church, in a solemn row with her husband, Hugh, Uncle Whittier, Aunt Bessie.

Despite Aunt Bessie’s nagging the Kennicotts rarely attended church. The doctor asserted, “Sure, religion is a fine influence -- got to have it to keep the lower classes in order -- fact, it’s the only thing that appeals to a lot of those fellows and makes ‘em respect the rights of property. And I guess this theology is O.K.; lot of wise old coots figured it all out, and they knew more about it than we do.” He believed in the Christian religion, and never thought about it; he believed in the church, and seldom went near it; he was shocked by Carol’s lack of faith, and wasn’t quite sure what was the nature of the faith that she lacked.

That’s one of the Church’s powers. On Main Street, it is universally understood to be good for someone, even if it is not good for one’s self.

Carol herself was an uneasy and dodging agnostic.

When she ventured to Sunday School and heard the teachers droning that the genealogy of Shamsherai was a valuable ethical problem for children to think about; when she experimented with Wednesday prayer-meeting and listened to store-keeping elders giving their unvarying weekly testimony in primitive erotic symbols and such gory Chaldean phrases as “washed in the blood of the lamb” and “a vengeful God”; when Mrs. Bogart boasted that through his boyhood she had made Cy confess nightly upon the basis of the Ten Commandments; then Carol was dismayed to find the Christian religion, in America, in the twentieth century, as abnormal as Zoroastrianism -- without the splendor.

And that’s another. It’s foreignness, it’s ritual, it’s mystery. And yet...

But when she went to church suppers and felt the friendliness, saw the gaiety with which the sisters served cold ham and scalloped potatoes; when Mrs. Champ Perry cried to her, on an afternoon call, “My dear, if you just knew how happy it makes you to come into abiding grace,” then Carol found the humanness behind the sanguinary and alien theology. Always she perceived that the churches -- Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, all of them -- which had seemed so unimportant to the judge’s home in her childhood, so isolated from the city struggle in St. Paul, were still, in Gopher Prairie, the strongest of the of the forces compelling respectability.

It has real power over people’s lives, and not unwillingly. In Gopher Prairie and on Main Street, it is religion and provides both the respectability and the humanness that their people intrinsically seek. And even Carol, raised without it, and understanding it only as a sanguinary and alien theology, can’t help but see that.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, January 14, 2019

Give Me Free Afternoons

This post in Associations NOW recently caught my eye, arguing, as it does, for association conferences that span a fewer number of days in recognition of the increasing desire for "work-life balance" among association members.

I've got a different take. Don't shorten the number of days that your conference spans. Shorten the amount of time I spend in educational sessions on the days that I am there.

I used to work for a professional medical specialty society. Educational sessions at their Annual Meeting began at 7:00 AM and ended at 9:00 PM. As a staff person, running that conference was exhausting, but many of the attendees expressed similar sentiments. Most, in fact, didn't stay for the full conference run of six days. Two, maybe three days was as much as most attendees could handle.

I now work for a trade association. Educational sessions at our Annual Conference begin at 8:00 AM and end, at the latest, at 2:00 PM. All the activities in the afternoon are completely optional and are purely recreational. We even tell our attendees to go out and have some fun. We'll want to hear all about it when we see them again at the evening social dinner.

Speaking as a staff person, I far prefer the less intense schedule of the trade association. But exposure to that reality has spilled over into my approach to my own professional education activities. When I attend an educational conference, I want my afternoons free. So much so that, if the conference has scheduled educational sessions that go past 2:00 PM, I, without apology, will play hooky and do something else.

What do I do? It depends. Sure, sometimes, I catch up on email or knock off a work project that has been on my plate for too long. But more frequently I will do something more rejuvenating. I'll grab a workout in the fitness center. Or (depending on the weather) sit in the sun with a good book. Very occasionally, I'll even take a nap.

The point is, if the objective is to give people more "work-life balance," there are more ways to do that than cramming the content of a three-day meeting into one. Quiet and contemplative time away from home and office, and away from the usual onslaught of speakers and presentation slides, can be one of the most powerful tools we busy professionals have to put new thoughts, attitudes, and objectives in their proper order.

That ain't gonna happen in the airport on the way home, and it certainly ain't gonna happen when I'm back in the office the following day.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 1 (DRAFT)

You know what I miss the most? Funny as it sounds, I really miss staying in all those swanky hotels. Unreal, I know. After all that time on the road and the way it almost destroyed me—I should miss something like that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the travel. I told you I’ve always hated the traveling and being away from my family. And I’m certainly not talking about the demons I wrestled with in all those soulless sleeping rooms. What I miss is the sense of place those hotels always had, a kind of upper crust other worldliness you just can’t get unless you’re willing to pay three or four hundred dollars a night.

I mean, I know it was all phony—the fake crystal chandeliers, the bellmen in their starched uniforms, the concierge lounges with their carafes of fresh-squeezed orange juice and copies of The Wall Street Journal on their imitation mahogany tables—it was all calculated by some corporate hack to ensure a certain kind of experience for their guests. I knew that, and could always tell what kind of place I was staying in by how obvious the calculation appeared to be.

Some places didn’t have a clue. Sure, they put chocolates on your pillow every night, but they were old and had long since gone stale; or they provided you with one of those fluffy bathrobes, but they hung it on one of those cheap hotel hangers attached to the closet rod. They were just going through the motions, and didn’t understand that it’s not really about props like bedtime chocolates or white terry cloth bathrobes. The best hotels knew those things were only the means to a larger end, and they used them to seamlessly construct what was ultimately an imaginary place where the harshness of the outside world wasn’t allowed to peek through any nook or cranny.

Think I’m kidding? The kind of hotels I’m talking about are a lot like big Hollywood productions. The amount of thought, time, and money that goes into creating their illusions is staggering, and when they pull it off successfully, their construction is completely hidden from the eyes of the paying guest.

Have you ever seen one of those “behind-the-scene” specials about one of your favorite movies? Well, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You watch one of those and you begin to appreciate the artistry that goes into the two-hour illusion you just enjoyed. Maybe there was a twenty-second scene in your movie where the actors are standing amidst the ruins of an abandoned city. And you find out only by watching the “behind-the-scene” special that those buildings in the immediate background—the ones they used for the close-ups—were built to specification by hundred-person crews, then artificially aged, weathered, and deteriorated under the guiding hand of building restoration specialists from the National Historical Society. And for the wide-angle shots you discover they used an enormous matte painting, twelve feet high and thirty-five feet long, worked on by a team of twenty-five artists for eight months and shot with a special lens to heighten the diminishing perspective as your eye retreats into the distance.

I’m telling you the hotels I used to stay in are like those budget-busting Hollywood epics—or better yet some Broadway extravaganza, since they were really more live theater than anything else. And doing what I did for a living, well, that was like having a backstage pass.

I saw it all. Things you wouldn’t believe unless you saw them with your own eyes. They tried to impress me, you see. They knew what kind of business my client represented, and they were only too proud to show me all the details that went into their production. They wanted me to see the magic so I could be their ally in filling their hotel with a bunch of people who had spent their whole lives in front of the curtain, never knowing nor caring how the illusions that defined them were manufactured. And do you know what it all came down to? Do you know the secret that drove their success?

Waste. Those hotels were fundamentally all about waste. It was their primary strategy, the only way they could maintain their competitive advantage. The minute any piece of reality intruded itself on the illusion—a frayed curtain, a stained bathroom floor, a lukewarm pot of coffee; any actual residue from the thousands of human creatures who breathed, drank, ate, slept, fucked and shat in their magical building—it was torn out at the root and replaced with something new and beautiful. It required the hotels to constantly remodel themselves, ripping up perfectly good carpeting and junking perfectly good furniture, desperately trying to stay ahead of the changing tastes of fashion.

And that’s nothing compared to the waste associated with their food and beverage. I’ve seen things there that would turn your stomach, make you think there wasn’t a hungry person anywhere on the planet. More day-old pineapple than an army could eat, thrown away because the fresh shipment arrived that morning and the cost was already factored into the price of breakfast.

Why do they do these things? They do them because that’s what their clientele expects. That, more than anything else, is what the client is actually paying for. A mythical place that exists nowhere else, a place where the soft goods are always in fashion and the morning fruit is always fresh.

I knew it was fake, but even I could succumb to the illusion from time to time. Sitting on the balcony of my suite overlooking San Diego harbor, or sipping three hundred dollar wine in the sky lounge amidst the tips of San Francisco’s skyscrapers, or paying some banquet captain a hundred bucks to set up a private table in the unused balcony while Tony Bennett performed in the New York ballroom below—stuff like that made it fun in a way it probably never will be again.

But something always shattered the illusion for me. And more often than not, that thing would be kids. I’d see kids staying in these hotels. Kids, sometimes no older than the one I had at home, staying in a place my son didn’t even know existed, a place he couldn’t even imagine because it was so far removed from anything he had ever been exposed to.

I’d see little boys with slicked-back hair and Ralph Lauren sweaters running up and down the carpeted hallways, and little girls at the concierge with their stick-thin mothers making hair and spa appointments, and I would think to myself, who are these kids? What kind of world are they growing up in? Here they are, swaddled in a cocoon of illusion, and to them it’s all normal, it’s the way the world is.

Stuff like that creates gulfs in our society—deep chasms between people that can probably never be bridged, and certainly not by kids who grow up not knowing those gulfs are even there.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Don't Put Association Benefits Before Member Outcomes

Amanda Kaiser on her Smooth the Path blog had a good reminder last month for all us association professionals about the importance of speaking to members in a language they understand. In Association Marketing: They Said/We Said, Kaiser says: "When members talk about the value of their membership they tend to talk about outcomes ... But when associations talk about the value of the membership they tend to list benefits."

I had an opportunity to put this advice to the test when I visited one of the largest members in my association last month. They are already heavily engaged in many of our activities, but I wanted to provide them with an overview of all our benefits anyway. It would provide the structure, I thought, to call their attention to how much value they already get out of their membership, but also allow me to highlight a few areas where they could amp that value up even further.

So, in putting my slides together, I initially focused on listing all the benefits my association offers. Mindful of Kaiser's advice, I decided to group them by the over-arching strategic objective that each was designed to address, and for a while I thought that would also reveal to outcomes that mattered to them. But slowly I began to realize that the strategic objectives in question were the association's, not the member's, objectives. They were the things we wanted to achieve so we could provide the best value to our members.

I needed something different -- and that's when I remembered an exercise we had done last year, when we had defined the "pain points" our members felt that could be addressed by the benefits we offered. I blogged about these back in May 2018, and there are six of them:

  • Enhance my brand
  • Understand the market
  • Increase my sales
  • Reduce my costs
  • Find technical or engineering staff
  • Educate me and my team

Reworking my presentation so that our benefits were organized along these lines suddenly made so much more sense for the purpose I had in mind.

Why do company executives decide to have their companies join our association? I could now ask. They want to enhance their brand -- which they can do by engaging in the following programs that heighten their profile in our market and among their peers. They also want to understand the market -- which they can do by subscribing to the exclusive market data programs that our association offers.

I think you probably see my point. By structuring my presentation this way, I was able to talk about our programs, and the places that the member company was and was not engaged, but I was able to do it in the context of the outcomes that mattered most to the member.

In essence, I didn't put the cart before the horse.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Generally speaking, I enjoyed reading this book.

But I’m going to pick a few nits.

“Mr. Langdon,” Vittoria said, turning, “I assume you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory?”

Langdon shrugged. “More or less.” The Big Bang, he knew, was the scientifically accepted model for the creation of the universe. He didn’t really understand it, but according to the theory, a single point of intensely focused energy erupted in a cataclysmic explosion, expanding outward to form the universe. Or something like that.

I like this. Like most people, Robert Langdon (world-renowned Harvard symbologist and protagonist of this and Brown’s more famous novel The Da Vinci Code) has heard of the Big Bang Theory and knows it has something to do with the beginning of the universe, but is a little sketchy of the scientific details. You know, something like that. But let’s read on.

Vittoria continued. “When the Catholic Church first proposed the Big Bang Theory in 1927, the--”

“I’m sorry?” Langdon interrupted, before he could stop himself. “You say the Big Bang was a Catholic idea?”

Vittoria looked surprised by his question. “Of course. Proposed by a Catholic monk, Georges Lemaitre, in 1927.”

“But I thought…” he hesitated. “Wasn’t the Big Bang proposed by Harvard astronomer Edwin Hubble?”

He doesn’t really know what the Big Bang Theory is … but he knows that Edwin Hubble proposed it? Gosh. Even I didn’t know that off the top of my head. Guess his Harvard pride is showing through.

That’s one. Here’s the next.

Vittoria pointed, and Langdon immediately realized why they had not found it earlier. The manuscript was in a folio bin, not on the shelves. Folio bins were a common means of storing unbound pages. The label on the front of the container left no doubt about the contents.

Galileo Galilei, 1639

Langdon dropped to his knees, his heart pounding. “Diagramma.” He gave her a grin. “Nice work. Help me pull out this bin.”

Vittoria knelt beside him, and they heaved. The metal tray on which the bin was sitting rolled toward them on castors, revealing the top of the container.

“No lock?” Vittoria said, sounding surprised at the simple latch.

“Never. Documents sometimes need to be evacuated quickly. Floods and fires.”

“So open it.”

Langdon didn’t need any encouragement. With his academic life’s dream right in front of him and the thinning air of the chamber, he was in no mood to dawdle. He unsnapped the latch and lifted the lid. Inside, flat on the floor of the bin, lay a black, duck-cloth pouch. The cloth’s breathability was critical to the preservation of its contents. Reaching in with both hands and keeping the pouch horizontal, Langdon lifted it out of the bin.

We’re 209 pages into Brown’s novel here, the 52nd of 137 relatively short chapters. At this point Vittoria isn’t the only one who wants Langdon to hurry up.

“I expected a treasure chest,” Vittoria said. “Looks more like a pillowcase.”

“Follow me,” he said. Holding the bag before him like a sacred offering, Langdon walked to the center of the vault where he found the customary glass-topped archival exam table. Although the central location was intended to minimize in-vault travel of documents, researchers appreciated the privacy the surrounding stacks afforded. Career-making discoveries were uncovered in the top vaults of the world, and most academics did not like rivals peering through the glass as they worked.

Uh huh. Interesting. And the pouch? What’s in the pouch?

Langdon laid the pouch on the table and unbuttoned the opening. Vittoria stood by. Rummaging through a tray of archivist tools, Langdon found the felt-pad pincers archivists called finger cymbals -- oversized tweezers with flattened disks on each arm. As his excitement mounted, Langdon feared at any moment he might awake back in Cambridge with a pile of test papers to grade. Inhaling deeply, he opened the bag. Fingers trembling in their cotton gloves, he reached in with his tongs.

“Relax,” Vittoria said. “It’s paper, not plutonium.”

Langdon slid the tongs around the stack of documents inside and was careful to apply even pressure. Then, rather than pulling out the documents, he held them in place while he slid off the bag -- an archivist’s procedure for minimizing torque on the artifact. Not until the bag was removed and Langdon had turned on the exam darklight beneath the table did he begin breathing again.

Too much detail, Brown. I’m glad you learned as much as you did about how archivists work, but a little less detail at this point might better keep your plot moving forward.

That’s two. But these are both just nits of Brown’s craft. Even the most accomplished writer will struggle eternally to rid his manuscript of the things that will tweak the sensibilities of the amateur writers in his readership. We can easily overlook all of these minor shortcomings in our general enjoyment of the work.

But there is one more nit I wish to pick.

The MacGuffin of Brown’s novel is a magnetically-sealed container of antimatter which, once removed from its docking station, begins an unavoidable countdown to its destruction and the destruction of anything within a few miles of it. It was the result of an experiment conducted by a God-believing scientist who wanted to prove the co-habitability of science and religion. His daughter, Vittoria, is one of his strongest champions.

“Matter,” Vittoria repeated. “Blossoming out of nothing. An incredible display of subatomic fireworks. A miniature universe springing to life. He proved not only that matter can be created from nothing, but that the Big Bang and Genesis can be explained by accepting the presence of an enormous source of energy.”

“You mean God?” Kohler demanded.

“God, Buddha, The Force, Yahweh, the singularity, the unicity point -- call it whatever you like -- the result is the same. Science and religion support the same truth -- pure energy is the father of creation.”

Brown’s prose is littered with conflations like this -- that matter created by God and matter accreted from the energy of the universe are the same thing. But of course they are not the same thing, because one requires an agency that needs an additional explanation and the other does not. A distinction that seems lost on a lot of characters in this novel.

And then there is the tragic -- and all too common -- conflation that science and religion are two different points on the same continuum of ideology; that they are different not in kind, but only in type. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in an impassioned, and somewhat trite, speech Brown places in the mouth of the Camerlengo of the Vatican. Not much context is needed here -- it has just been revealed that the Illuminati have poisoned the Pope, and his administrator, the Camerlengo, takes to the airwaves to rail against “science.” For the sake of some brevity, I will only include the words Brown puts in quotation marks below, but mark how frequently the implied comparison to religion is made, as if the leaders of “science” promised to deliver to their followers anything similar to the claims and protections of religion.

“To the Illuminati, and to those of science, let me say this. You have won the war.

“The wheels have been in motion for a long time. Your victory has been inevitable. Never before has it been as obvious as it is at this moment. Science is the new God.

There it is, right off the bat. The most obvious false comparison of them all. The religious can only construe reality through the prism of a God -- so those who “believe” in science must feel the same way. Science is their God.

“Medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation … these are the miracles about which we now tell our children. These are the miracles we herald as proof that science will bring us the answers. The ancient stories of immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas are no longer relevant. God has become obsolete. Science has won the battle. We concede.

Hmmm. Is there any other difference, do you think, between “medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation” and “immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas”? No? Then, you’re right. I guess they must both be “miracles.”

“But science’s victory has cost every one of us. And it has cost us deeply.

“Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience, but it has left us in a world without wonder. Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies. The complexities of the universe have been shredded into mathematical equations. Even our self-worth as human beings has been destroyed. Science proclaims that Planet Earth and its inhabitants are a meaningless speck in the grand scheme. A cosmic accident. Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us. Each of us in now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. We are bombarded with violence, division, fracture, and betrayal. Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? Does science hold anything sacred? Science looks for answers by probing our unborn fetuses. Science even presumes to rearrange our own DNA. It shatters God’s world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning … and all it finds is more questions.

There’s so much wrong with this paragraph I don’t even know where to begin. “Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease”. Let’s start there, because the dismissiveness with which this is offered is almost beyond my comprehension. Oh sure, science may have cured smallpox, polio, measles, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, whooping cough, pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, and shingles (just to name a few), but now the 57 million people who annually died from those diseases at their deadliest heights have lost their sense of wonder when looking at the sunset. They “have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies.” Why can’t science just mind its own business!

“The ancient war between science and religion is over. You have won. But you have not won fairly. You have not won by providing answers. You have won by so radically reorienting our society that the truths we once saw as signposts now seem inapplicable. Religion cannot keep up. Scientific growth is exponential. It feeds on itself like a virus. Every new breakthrough opens doors for new breakthroughs. Mankind took thousands of years to progress from the wheel to the car. Yet only decades from the car into space. Now we measure scientific progress in weeks. We are spinning out of control. The rift between us grows deeper and deeper, and as religion is left behind, people find themselves in a spiritual void. We cry out for meaning. And believe me, we do cry out. We see UFOs, engage in channeling, spirit contact, out-of-body experiences, mindquests -- all these eccentric ideas have a scientific veneer, but they are unashamedly irrational. They are the desperate cry of the modern soul, lonely and tormented, crippled by its own enlightenment and its inability to accept meaning in anything removed from technology.

This is perhaps one of those areas where the idea of non-overlapping magestrieums may make the most sense. First off, to say that “science” has not provided any answers is, frankly, ludicrous. Science, from my point of view, is the only thing that has provided any reliable answers -- at least about questions of how the universe works. But those are not the questions that the Camerlengo is talking about. He’s not talking about questions of “is,” but questions of “ought.” Science may have less to say in that space, but the false assumption on which his line of argument is based is that religion does. Philosophy, maybe, but religion is no more an authority on morality than the fanciful dogmas on which it is based. Science, at least, can give you a reliable answer if you start with an unproven moral premise. If I wish to reduce human suffering, how ought I act in this circumstance or that? Science can answer that question with the nuance it probably deserves. Religion is a much more blunt instrument, with only a handful of non-evidence-based answers that it clumsily applies to all situations.

“Science, you say, will save us. Science, I say, has destroyed us. Since the days of Galileo, the church has tried to slow the relentless march of science, sometimes with misguided means, but always with benevolent intention. Even so, the temptations are too great for man to resist. I warn you, look around yourselves. The promises of science have not been kept. Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos. We are a fractured and frantic species … moving down a path of destruction.

“Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos.” Really? Quick. Decide now. Which century would you rather live in? The 21st or the 11th? Are you sure? What about all that pollution and chaos?

“Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral framework to tell you how to use that power? What kind of God gives a child fire but does not warn the child of its dangers? The language of science comes with no signposts about good and bad. Science textbooks tell us how to create a nuclear reaction, and yet they contain no chapter asking us if it is a good or bad idea.

Ummm. To quote the Wikipedia article on the same subject, “Nuclear ethics is a cross-disciplinary field of academic and policy-relevant study in which the problems associated with nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence, nuclear arms control, nuclear disarmament, or nuclear energy are examined through one or more ethical or moral theories or frameworks. And a search for “nuclear ethics” on returned more than 47,000 results. As with so much in this painful little speech, assertions with no basis in fact are made time and time again, all with the apparent intention of appealing to the emotional responses of its audience.

“To science, I say this. The church is tired. We are exhausted from trying to be your signposts. Our resources are drying up from our campaign to be the voice of balance as you plow blindly on in your quest for smaller chips and larger profits. We ask not why you will not govern yourselves, but how can you? Your world moves so fast that if you stop even for an instant to consider the implications of your actions, someone more efficient will whip past you in a blur. So you move on. You proliferate weapons of mass destruction, but it is the Pope who travels the world beseeching leaders to use restraint. You clone living creatures, but it is the church reminding us to consider the moral implications of our actions. You encourage people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers, but it is the church who opens its doors and reminds us to commune in person as we were meant to do. You even murder unborn babies in the name of research that will save lives. Again, it is the church who points out the fallacy of this reasoning.

Wait. It is scientists who are proliferating weapons of mass destruction? Last time I checked it was dogmatic political entities that were the biggest culprits there, some of them with claims to a religious foundation. And although scientists may indeed be cloning living creatures, is it scientists who are encouraging people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers? Or murdering unborn babies? Scientists are doing these things? Who is the Camerlengo talking about? Oh, I know. He’s talking about “science,” the thing that doesn’t actually exist in the way that he needs it to for the purposes of his argument. He’s talking about science like it has autonomy and evil intention.

“And all the while, you proclaim the church is ignorant. But who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power? This church is reaching out to you. Reaching out to everyone. And yet the more we reach, the more you push us away. Show me proof there is a God, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God! You ask what does God look like. I say, where did that question come from? The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God’s hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?

Do we really still need to explain this? Whether or not there is a God, whether or not the Big Bang happened, we can only exist in a universe that has the conditions that are necessary for our survival. In another universe -- however it came into existence -- one with conditions that are contrary to human life, humans would not exist. It’s not like we had a deck of a billion universe cards and we just happened to pick the only one that would allow us to go on living. If I want to torture that analogy, it would be more accurate to say that either (a) The deck was dealt a billion times and humans grew up in the deal that was conducive to their existence, or (b) The deck contained a billion versions of the human-friendly card.

“Whether or not you believe in God, you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith … all faiths … are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable … With faith we are accountable to each other, to ourselves, and to a higher truth. Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed. If the outside world could see this church as I do … looking beyond the ritual of these walls … they would see a modern miracle … a brotherhood of imperfect, simple souls wanting only to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.

And here, like any good clergyman, is where the Camerlengo switches from these unconvincing arguments to a more traditional sermon of simply asserted goodness and brotherhood.

“Are we obsolete? Are these men dinosaurs? Am I? Does the world really need a voice for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the unborn child? Do we really need souls like these who, though imperfect, spend their lives imploring each of us to read the signposts of morality and not lose our way?

“Tonight we are perched on a precipice. None of us can afford to be apathetic. Whether you see this evil as Satan, corruption, or immorality … the dark force is alive and growing every day. Do not ignore it. The force, though mighty, is not invincible. Goodness can prevail. Listen to your hearts. Listen to God. Together we can step back from this abyss.

“Pray with me.”

Why did I spend so much time on this? After all, it’s just a Dan Brown novel, right? Well, it’s partly because Brown makes this such a pivotal moment in his narrative, the point where the world comes to the defense of a church that only a tiny minority actually believe has any moral authority over them. This speech, so riddled with fuzzy thinking and unsubstantiated assertions, is offered as something both eloquent and convincing. And that, at the end of the day, is just bad fiction.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at