Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The Main Effort

I recently expressed my preference for the simplicity of small groups over administering a larger, more sophisticated ministry.  I'd like to illustrate why using an historical analogy.

My son and I volunteer regularly for the National Park Service at the Civil War battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The story of the Union fiasco that took place here is instructive for ministry leaders, as it illustrates the danger of allowing supporting activities to overwhelm a main effort, whether for an army or for a ministry.

In December 1862, newly appointed Union General Ambrose Burnside stole a march on Confederate General Robert E. Lee and moved his army south to Fredericksburg, intending to finally seize the initiative from his famously aggressive opponent.  Lee was able to dig in along the heights above Fredericksburg, however, when Burnside stalled north of the Rappahannock River, setting up a major confrontation.  

Once across the river, Burnside elected to attack the Confederate right flank, where Lee's supply depot at Hamilton's Crossing seemed to offer a potentially decisive point for his main effort.  Strangely, though, due to a confusing and still controversial sequence of orders and interpretations, Burnside's subordinate General William Franklin sent only two divisions against Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's entire entrenched corps.  Then, after this minimalist assault was driven back, Franklin seemed content to hold his line against the river.  

Meanwhile, as he waited in futility for Franklin's attacks to evolve, Burnside gradually fed six divisions into his supporting assault on Marye's Heights, where Lee held an impossibly strong defensive position, with his artillery on the high ground and his infantry behind a protective stone wall.  Thus did Burnside's supporting effort inexplicably morph into his main effort, resulting in over 12,600 Union casualties in an embarassingly ham-handed and lopsided defeat.

To me, this battle holds a cautionary analogy for the church.  As ministry organizations grow, they easily become weighed down and distracted by their growing support functions:  administration, event management, stage management, buildings and other property, meetings and more meetings ... you get the idea.  These become "must-pay" taxes on the ministry's limited resources:  time, money, energy, gifts, focus, etc.  It's distressingly common for evolving organizations to essentially forget why they exist (the mission and purpose we discussed last week) and become preoccupied with, obsessed with, and suffocated by supporting activities.

To quote a familiar adage:  The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.  It was true for General Burnside, and it is true for us in ministry.


  1. Keeping with the analogy - Franklin could be viewed as the church member who is still closely tied to the old pastor (Gen. McClellan) who left under unhappy circumstances. That church member, viewing the old pastor as still "the correct one for this church", will continue to cause discontent (and major problems for the new pastor/general) if not addressed.

  2. Ha! I like it. Probably borders on taking the analogy too far, but it's clever! :)


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