Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reflections on Goodness and Greatness

(The following essay was written by a former colleague, Dan Dick, Research Director in the new Solutions Team at the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dated September 5, 2006, it is part of a regular column he writes for staff of the agency. With Dan’s permission I include it in my blog. I post it without comment, except to say that I am deeply appreciative of Dan’s thoughtfulness and discernment. I will make comment in my next blog entry.)

One of the most popular business books of the past five years is Jim Collins’, Good to Great. The main premise of the book is simple and solid – good enough isn’t good enough. If you want to dominate a field, you must strive for excellence and make the necessary sacrifices to be great.

Implicit in the argument is a cultural perspective that says great is better than good. In the modern world, few argue that great is great and good isn’t as good. But has this always been the case?

When exactly did good become bad and great become better? Tracing the etymology of both terms, it is fascinating to see how they evolved, and to consider the implications when applied to spiritual communities of faith.

The Good – the root of the word good (gōd) is ghedh, meaning to unite, to join, or to fit. In its earliest usage, it described the quality of integrity. When something belonged, fit well, was right and true, it was considered good. Qualitatively, the good = perfection; when everything was in its optimal place and in right relationship with everything else, it was good. (This aligns more closely with the modern definition of great.)

The Great – this root, grete, means course, thick, or bloated. In its earliest usage it described immensity, usually of a natural disaster (i.e., great flood, great quake, great plague). Great was a quantitative term, not a qualitative term. Alexander was “the Great” not due to his charm and intelligence, but due to his power, possessions, and reach.

Throughout the Middle Ages – indeed into the late 19th century – it was preferable in most societies to be “good” than to be “great.” Goodness equated to moral fiber, standards of conduct, and defining values. Greatness was about achievement and accomplishment. Shakespeare muddied the waters mightily, using the word “great” humorously to state quality, while subtly implying girth.

A question raised by Alexander Pope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Benjamin Disraeli and others is a question worth considering today: can true greatness be achieved apart from fundamental goodness? Is something large, powerful, successful, popular, and well run necessarily good?

Many churches strive to be great, but to the exclusion of being good. To strive to be good – to have integrity, wholeness, virtue, and grace – if often denigrated; it isn’t enough to be good anymore.

The consideration for our congregations is this: many, perhaps most, can never aspire to greatness as defined by Collins, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and many others. Leading the industry, squashing the competition, gaining market advantage, positioning at the top – these are not within reach of most of our churches, and in fact divert their attention from their real work.

What is within the reach of every congregation is “the good.” Each local church has the capacity to work for integrity, balance, wholeness, and radical community. Other words that spring from the root of good – ghedh – are gather and together. True good is not the work of any individual, but of the community.

Greatness is fine, and a commitment to excellence is never unwise, but let’s be fair to poor little “good.” Our church might make a world of difference if we were simply able to shift our thinking from Great to Good.

Research Update is produced by Dan Dick for the General Board of Discipleship. Information contained in Research Update is intended for internal use at the General Board of Discipleship and partner agencies UMCom/UMPH. It is not for reproduction without the author’s permission. You may contact Dan at

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