Throwback Thursday Books – The Penguin Principles

In 1985 Lyle Schaller wrote that “one of the most urgent problems facing Christianity on the North American continent is the product of a severe imbalance in the population.” Not biblical illiteracy. Not theological incompetence. Not good old-fashioned mendacity, greed, and lust for power. No, Schaller wrote, the population is out of whack.

“Our culture includes an excessive number of people who enjoy making others feel guilty and too few adults who can laugh at themselves and their foibles,” Schaller continued. “The most highly visible dimension of this imbalance,” he concludes, “is the overabundance of adults who gain considerable pleasure out of a huge variety of efforts to make their pastor feel guilty about being less than perfect.”

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Thus Schaller begins his introduction to one of my all-time favorite books, The Penguin Principles: A Survival Manual for Clergy Seeking Maturity in Ministry. David Belasic and Paul Schmidt published this hilarious, wise, and insightful little gem in 1986.

I was ordained and began serving a parish in 1984. So, the book came out just at the time I was experiencing the first of numerous cycles of disillusionment with pastoral ministry, with the congregation, and with myself as a pastor. One of my seminary professors recommended the book to recent graduates as a salve for our pastoral souls, a needed infusion of humor, and a plea for perspective from pastors who take themselves all too seriously.

“Perhaps the audience that will benefit most from the wisdom contained in this volume,” Schaller wrote, “will be the recent seminary graduates who have the opportunity to study it during that journey between departure from seminary and arrival in the first pastorate.” I got my prescription for this vocational medicine a little later than that but certainly early enough in the process for it to do me a world of good. It’s easy to read the little book at one sitting, and I did that – each year for nearly every year of my active parish ministry.

Now, I come back to it from a perspective I could not appreciate earlier. “Another audience for this book,” Schaller continues, “is composed of ministers nearing retirement, who, as they look back over their years of faithful and devoted service, are still puzzled over why so often things did not turn out as anticipated.” Once again, I’m a bit behind on the calendar, but not fatally so. “The book will enable them to reflect on their pilgrimage,” Schaller assures the reader,” with insight, laughter, and new satisfactions.”

Quite right.

But why, the authors ask in their opening pages, the “Penguin” principles? “Penguins seem to have that unique dignity that many people expect of the pastor. Yet,” they write, “as dignified as penguins seem to be, they look so ridiculous as they waddle around on the ice.” Belasic and Schmidt note that penguins are sensitive to heat. They have very treacherous enemies. They are relatively small and defenseless beings. They have a powerful homing instinct. And “No matter what happens to penguins, they keep their heads high.” Pastoral penguins, the authors suggest, have an “alien dignity” from God.

It is worth noting the Penguin Principles here. While you can get the gist of the book in five minutes, the stories, insights, and self-deprecating humor are worth the full read. The principles are:

The Five Percent Principle: “Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group of people in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other ninety-five percent is asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

The Inverse Insight Principle: “Most of the time, in the world of the church, things are not what they appear to be.”

The Ecclesiastical Friction Principle: “There is a friction in the church that burns up enormous energy, consumes endless hours, smothers creativity, impedes progress and often creates quite a little heat!”

The Creative Ignorance Principle: “In the ministry it is better not to know some things, even if you have to forget them forcefully.”

The Tweaking Principle: “They’ll only do it to you if you let ‘em.”

The Pastor Principle: “The ultimate principle for pastors is a ‘tough love’ that looks beyond the irritation of the moment and in the strength of Christ loves people as they are.”

These principles are a clever compilation of wisdom from our theology, psychology, and sociology of church life. We church folks do not check our sin at the door on Sundays or any other day of the week. People are complicated and often don’t even know their own real motives for doing what they do. It’s easier to say no than yes, and once a position is assumed it will usually be defended to the death. With knowledge comes responsibility. Good boundaries make healthy people, healthy pastors, and healthy parishes. Following Jesus and pleasing people rarely take the same path. When those paths diverge, following Jesus is the path less traveled but the one we must take.

Even if you know all the principles by heart and have had them pounded into your head by hard experience, the book is so worth the one-liners. Some are painful proverbs from the public domain. For example, “if the temptation to give advice is irresistible, the ability to ignore it is universal.” Or the classic from Luther – the one “who desires the public’s ear must endure the public’s mouth.” Never in human history has that been truer than now.

Pastoral penguins flourish when we accept the genuine humanity of our parishes and people, when the “ideal church” is not understood as the adversary of the “real church.” We do best when we look in the mirror daily and embrace the humility enforced on us by the mysteries of the human heart, human community, and God’s grace. We will survive better if we make allowances for self-delusion (ours and that of others), conflict, sloth, and all the other of the seven deadly sins. We are best served if we hold our desires for success and approval lightly and our trust in Jesus tightly.

I have often reminded myself of the words of Winston Churchill in this regard. Following World War II, someone was commending him on his success and the marvelous turnouts for his speeches and other events. Churchill noted drily that whenever he was impressed with his own popularity, he remembered that approximately twice as many people would likely show up for his hanging! That’s the spirit of the Penguin Principles.

Each principle gets a chapter of wry observations and rueful stories of pastoral adventure and misadventure. The chapters conclude with Items for Reflection/Study/Action.” In these sections, the writers take their tongues out of their cheeks and invite the readers into some serious vocation work, rooted in biblical witness and solid theology.

I hope you will not conclude that this is nothing but a cute little book filled with snarky sniping and dark inside jokes for parish professionals. Each of the Penguin Principles has its “law” side (in good Lutheran theological categories) and its “gospel” side.

For example, as we reflect on the Five Percent Principle, thank God for the five percent! The Inverse Insight Principle trusts in the guidance of the Holy Spirit because our own understanding is often wrong. The Friction Principle is not absolute but allows us to see growth in the midst of the struggle. The Creative Ignorance Principle depends on and reinforces the vocation of the Priesthood of All Believers. The Tweaking Principle reminds us that “even a mighty oak was once only a nut that held [its] ground.” The Pastor Principle reminds me that God is God, and I am not – and that’s the good news!

The book is written from the perspective of two white, male, mainline pastors who served in congregations when Christendom was far less frayed and fragmented than it is now in the United States. So, it has numerous cultural limitations. It is written from a clear Lutheran framework in theological terms, although it doesn’t make a big deal of that. That doesn’t make it irrelevant to other traditions, but it is a reality in the book. The matrix for the principles is an established, old-line Protestant congregation which for the most part no longer exists or is on life-support. That’s all true.

Yet, much of the wisdom in this little book still “works” for me. I was the target audience for the book, so that’s not surprising. And as Schaller noted in his introduction, I’m still the target audience as I reflect on four decades of life in professional church leadership. Much of that journey is shrouded in the mists of memory and the mysteries of human interactions. In retrospect, I wonder how anything productive ever got accomplished along the way.

“Precisely!” Belasic and Schmidt would say, I believe. “Remember the Penguin Principles,” they conclude, “and waddle off into the fray!” Fair advice for life in any time, place, or vocation.

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