Old Habits Die Hard

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I grew up working with my parents in our country grocery store. Those were days before the advent of large drug stores with hundreds of over-the-counter medications and dozens of customized variations of each of them. With limited alternatives available, we sold Bayer aspirin as a cure for virtually any ailment, from headaches to arthritis. Most bought small “tins” containing twelve aspirin. Each package contained a sheet of cotton to hold the tablets in place. Larger packages also included cotton.

Practices, routines, and programs arise to meet specific circumstances at the time. Often the actions continue once the circumstances have changed.

The practice of putting cotton into aspirin containers dates to 1914 or 1915, about the time Bayer began compressing aspirin powder into tablets. The cotton served a vital purpose. Aspirin tablets could pulverize by rattling around in a tin or bottle. In 1980, however, Bayer created a coated tablet, meaning it would hold up without padding. Yet Bayer only removed cotton from their packages in 1999. “We concluded there really wasn’t any reason to keep the cotton except tradition,” a Bayer spokesperson said. “It’s hard to get out.”

What might be the connection with church leadership? A pastor used the first year in a congregation to ask the church leaders as each activity and project came up on the calendar, “Why do we do this?” Once the leaders understood that the question was in no way a criticism, since it was asked about everything, they took it as an opportunity to think through many endeavors that may not have received careful thought for many years. Once churches have been around for a while, it is likely they are still putting lots of cotton in bottles well after the need has passed.

Practices, routines, and programs arise to meet specific circumstances at the time. Often the actions continue once the circumstances have changed. It may be that the church treasurer still passes out a monthly budget report and goes over each line item to explain and receive questions, even after the budget has gone out as an email attachment well before the meeting. And members have already come prepared for questions and discussion. When I was growing up, I thought 11 a.m. on Sunday was a biblically dictated time for church. It turns out that 11 a.m. became a common pattern for worship because most of the United States was rural, and farmers needed enough time before church for their chores, with time left to travel to church by walking or by horse-drawn wagons. It could be that choir practice time was set years ago to accommodate a choir director’s secular work schedule but continues a decade after that director left.

Not only is it silly to do things that meet a need we used to have; it is also costly. The tradition of continuing to use cotton in the aspirin containers once it was no longer needed cost money to Bayer and their customers. Continuing unnecessary activities or practices costs money, time, and energy. All three of those resources are in short supply in most churches. Every resource the church has to offer should be dedicated to one purpose alone: fulfilling God’s mission for our church faithfully in our time and place. Keeping the cotton in the bottles may reassure us that everything is how we remember it, but there is a world outside our church doors crying for attention and the love of Christ in new and vital ways.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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