Peter Drucker, the pioneering twentieth-century management consultant, famously told organizations and their leaders to “face reality.” Close on the heels of that, he would say, in effect, “what got us to today will not necessarily get us to tomorrow.” And, perhaps less famously, he would warn of the temptations of accepting the authority of “what everybody knows.”
“What everybody knows” is legion in church life.
Everybody knows the choir is unhappy with the new worship plans.
Everybody knows that people are upset about the youth program. (Who are these people? You know! People!)
Everybody knows that the (fill in the blank) plans are just the work of two insiders.
Everybody knows we all want to ….
How do church board members respond to the phrase “everybody knows,” whether whispered one-on-one in a hallway or introduced into a board discussion?
One way to think about this might be to ask: what work is the phrase ‘what everybody knows’ doing in this situation? To return to Drucker’s other famous advice, does ‘what everybody knows’ help get us to tomorrow? Does ‘what everybody knows’ help us face reality or avoid it?
In “what everybody knows now,” African American poet Jacqueline Woodson (b. 1963) explores these questions powerfully and poignantly in the context of a childhood bus ride with her grandmother.
what everybody knows now
by Jacqueline Woodson
Even though the laws have changed
my grandmother still takes us
to the back of the bus when we go downtown
in the rain. It’s easier, my grandmother says,
than having white folks look at me like I’m dirt.
But we aren’t dirt. We are people
paying the same fare as other people.
When I say this to my grandmother,
she nods, says, Easier to stay where you belong.
I look around and see the ones
who walk straight to the back. See
the ones who take a seat up front, daring
anyone to make them move. And know
this is who I want to be. Not scared
like that. Brave
Still, my grandmother takes my hand downtown
pulls me right past the restaurants that have to let us sit
wherever we want now. No need in making trouble,
she says. You all go back to New York City but
I have to live here.
We walk straight past Woolworth’s
without even looking in the windows
because the one time my grandmother went inside
they made her wait and wait. Acted like
I wasn’t even there. It’s hard not to see the moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands—waiting quietly
long past her turn.
In Matthew 16, we also have a “what everybody knows” moment.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[a] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God in heaven.
In this text, Jesus actually asks, “What do people say..?” But notice how his questioning then shifts from ‘they’ to ‘you’ – “who do YOU say that I am?” And, notice, too, how Jesus affirms that Peter’s ‘you’ answer does not come from “flesh and blood” but from God. For each of us, and for our church boards, there is much in this passage to help guide us in the face of “what everybody knows.”
In Woodson’s poem, what is it that “everybody knows now,” per the title?
What does the grandmother know that the granddaughter does not?
Who in the poem is facing reality?
In Matthew 16, how does Jesus engage and address the question of ‘what everybody knows?’ How does he orient his disciples to reality?
In your church board, how can you engage and address the question of ‘what everybody knows’ when it arises? How can you, in the process, help yourselves and one another to face reality?