The Elephant in the Room

When I was in junior high, our English teacher Mrs. Visconti made us read James Michener’s massive novel Centennial, about the settling of the state of Colorado. In it, Michener described the migration of a young Mennonite farmer, Levi Zendt, and his new wife, Elly, from Pennsylvania to the West. Like many, seeking a better future, they loaded all their belongings on a big Conestoga wagon and headed for Oregon. Unfortunately, coming through the Rocky Mountains, they ran into all kinds of troubles, then, just as they reached the far side of the mountains, where the going would be easier, Levi had an experience that would change the trajectory of the family’s life forever. Levi went out one night to check on his oxen, and out of the shadows rose the great elephant. “It was gigantic,” says Michener, “thirty or forty feet tall, with wild, curving tusks and beady eyes that glowed.”  Levi was officially spooked and went back to the camp and told his wife that they were turning back and settling in Colorado. “I saw the elephant,” he said.

I can only imagine how terrified poor Levi must’ve been when he gazed at that gigantic elephant looming large in the darkness. I’m sure his life flashed before his eyes, and he imagined all kinds of horrors and pains that the elephant had the power to exact on his family. So traumatizing was the experience, that he literally changed the course of his family’s life abandoning their goal of migrating to Oregon and settling for retreat to Colorado from which they came. As I think about it, Levi’s story is a cautionary tale about what happens when we allow our imaginations to run wild with fear and trepidation and we allow that fear to make decisions for us.

As pastors and church leaders we often do the same thing when we refuse to acknowledge and confront questions, topics or issues that are important and/or controversial and often loom large over the congregation that everyone already knows about. These types of situations metaphorically described as “the elephant in the room” haunt many of us as leaders and our congregations silently, hovering over us, scaring away new vision, new ideas, fresh perspective, ingenuity, and new congregants alike. The “elephant in the room” can take all types of forms and shapes.

  • It can be something in a congregation’s history that lives on through communal memory that we refuse to address because we are skittish toward hard conversations and delude ourselves into thinking the past has no bearing on the present that keeps the congregation stuck in an abyss of nostalgia.


  • Perhaps it is a congregational loss that was never adequately mourned or grieved that keeps the congregational vision repressed and perhaps even depressed, tied to scarcity and wistfulness instead of resilient hope and imagination.


  • Maybe, it’s a cultural phenomenon that has no origin within the congregation but makes us insular and tone-deaf to community concerns affecting the congregation’s ability to be outward facing and missional.


Whatever the form or shape “the elephant in the room” takes, when we don’t acknowledge or address it, like Levi we allow our imaginations to run wild with fear and trepidation and we allow that fear to make decisions for us. We already know that fear is a bad decision maker. When Sarah and Abraham feared that God’s promise wouldn’t come to pass, fear made them take matters into their own hands and make some bad decisions.

  • Sarah concocted a short-sighted plan based to produce an heir that would lead to her dehumanizing and abusing Hagar her Egyptian slave girl.


  • Abraham went along with the plan even though he knew it was not in line with Gods promise and eventually lost relationship with his first-born son.


  • Hagar, their Egyptian slave girl’s agency was usurped making her a concubine who was later scapegoated and banished to the wilderness.

When we look at this narrative through the lens of “the elephant in the room” we can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened had Abraham and Sarah confronted their frustration with the delayed promise and the fear that God had forgotten them? How could their story have been different if they acknowledged their insecurity, vulnerability, and crisis of faith with one another and with God? While their story has been worked for God’s glory, perhaps acknowledging the “elephant in the room” would’ve alleviated the pain, dehumanization and relationship breeches that ensued. As leaders we cast vision, strategy, programs, and the church agenda based on God’s revelation, certain desired outcomes, community needs, and membership demands among many other factors. I encourage you to also consider “the elephant(s) in the room”. These “invisible” issues can sometimes affect our congregations more than the physical or easily identifiable issues we face as congregations. Refuse the temptation to simply, “not see” what is looming large in the hearts and minds of the congregation and the community.

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