Margaret Marcuson: The map is not the territory

What’s going to happen to the church in the future? Everybody’s wondering, worrying, speculating. How much will stay the same? How much will change?

Long, long ago, when I was a senior in college, I wrote a seminar paper on mathematician Alfred Korzybski (stay with me here…). Korzybski suggested and made popular the idea that “the map is not the territory.” My husband and I were dating at the time, and we talked a lot about these ideas. He still remembers a lot more about Korzybski than I do.

Korzybski is not forgotten. Brilliant blogger Shane Parrish wrote about his ideas and their ongoing relevance: “The map of reality is not reality. Even the best maps are imperfect. That’s because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions.” (my emphasis) (

We have internal maps of “church” that don’t represent the territory any more, or not fully. So do the people in the pews. It’s been hard to navigate, and it still is. Imagining a map for the future is even harder. Rev. Joe Clifford, pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC said to me recently, “I think there are a lot of people trying to guess what the post-pandemic church is going to be. And I don’t really think any of us know.” 

Here’s the good news: There’s some freedom in accepting that you can’t know the future, now more than ever. Given that reality, the work is to do what’s right in front of you as faithfully as you can.

What do you have planned so far for 2023? Just as the map is not the territory, so also the plan is not the work. A plan is created at a point in time, and we can expect change along the way. In these fluid times, all plans must be flexible. However, if you know what you need to do next, you’ll be able to get going now with more clarity and less anxiety about this future that you can't imagine.


Get Margaret’s Sustain Your Ministry checklist here .