Loving Subtraction

 “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.” Coco Chanel

We are better at addition than subtraction, but sometimes less is more.

I love this book by Dr. Leidy Klotz of the University of Virginia and it holds many wise words for those of us serving congregations or other non-profits. It could also work for jewelry and other accessories a la Coco Chanel.

Every congregation I know – when considering their programming, mission activities, and even staff models – likes to add rather than subtract. We are already involved in Habitat for Humanity, the local homeless shelter, and the annual Chili Fundraiser (which we’ve been doing on for 34 years.) And when we are looking to “grow” or “reach new people” we consider adding a tutoring class or a spring ice cream social.

What if – instead of adding something to our already busy church schedule – we take something away? What if the reality is that everybody hates that Chili Fundraiser or it’s increasingly impossible to find volunteers for Habitat? It’s okay to stop doing something. It’s more than okay. It’s healthy to take something away – especially if we are tired of it and it has no positive impact for the community anymore.

As the years pass I need fewer and fewer things and so I’ve developed a personal discipline that goes like this: before I can buy a new pair of shoes, I need to get rid of a pair of shoes. Before I buy a new black turtleneck, I need to give one away. (This works for books and toys too.)

Leidy Klotz notes that humans are more likely to add than subtract in our thinking processes. It’s literally more work for our brains to subtract than it is to add, and so adding becomes our go-to behavior. He uses the example of his young son’s work on a Duplo bridge. The bridge that he was building with his son was uneven because one tower was taller than the other. Klotz’ son instinctively removed a block from the taller side – which was an interesting choice. Most people would add a block to the shorter side.

We seem to forget that we can remove things from our personal and corporate schedules – from meetings to fundraisers to classes. It’s okay, we don’t have to offer a Bible study on Wednesday nights anymore. Maybe we can move it to Sunday nights. Or maybe it could shift to a different kind of study. Or maybe we can just stop doing it for a season and see if anyone misses it.

Business leaders tell us that subtraction can make us more efficient. I think subtraction can make us more faithful. What do you think?

Check out these articles about subtraction as a practice.

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