Thursday, June 21, 2012

Abandon All Hope?

Abandon All Hope?

“The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow. It is to decide what to abandon. In order to grow, a business must have a systematic policy to get rid of the outgrown, the obsolete, the unproductive.”

So stated the world's leading business guru Peter Drucker over forty years ago.  His “principle of abandonment” was central to his teaching, and has been incorporated by virtually every American corporation and business writer since then. According to Mr. Drucker, institutions must constantly examine their structures and methods to determine what is productive and what is not. If it is not working, get rid of it. Growth will never take place as long as time and energy are spent supporting people, programs, and products that do not produce. Before management can decide what needs to be done differently, they must first “clear the decks” of anything from the past that may restrict innovation. We can honor the past without letting it set the agenda. For an institution to move forward, it can never look back. In Drucker’s words, “Abandon all but tomorrow.”

Drucker’s words are wise council for us in the church as we face our task of “restructuring,” which will begin in just two weeks at our General Convention.  My fear is that rather than follow Drucker’s tried-and-true strategy of purposeful abandonment of structures that do little or nothing to further our goal of spreading the Good News (aptly defined in the “Five Marks of Mission” that we adopted and then largely ignored), we will instead settle for an ongoing tinkering process, referring our problems to various committees, which in many cases helped create the mess we are in.  If we are to truly restructure, then we must first be prepared to jettison everything, and I mean everything, that holds us back.  To that end, I offer my own “abandonment list.”  I admit that this is not a good word for us Episcopalians. We think of abandonment as a negative word, as in child abandonment, abandonment by God, abandonment of communion, the opposite of the concepts of covenant and commitment we are more comfortable with. But if we think of the word in its original sense, not as desertion or forsaking but as a “release from bonds” (what the world literally means) then we can understand abandonment as a pathway to the kind of creative freedom Drucker is talking about. I don’t mean this to be an extended snark. I have great regard for those involved in the day-to-day operation of the church, and I include myself among those who have spent a lot of time trying to shore up structures that should have been junked long ago. Our inertia was largely due to fear, apathy, or just cluelessness about how to proceed. To our malaise, Drucker offers a starting point:  “don’t tell me what you are doing, tell me what you have stopped doing!”

Since General Convention is imminent, I will start my list with some recommendations for this gathering. Lest I be accused of finger pointing, I will then turn to some unproductive ways of business which are closer to home—i.e. Diocesan-level—and which also in my opinion need to go.

1.  Reduce the size of General Convention.
One bishop, one priest or deacon, and two lay people from each diocese should just about do it.  This body would meet every three years for three days to do the business work of the church.  No ecclesiastical supermarket, no special interest presentations, no banquets.  

Since it is important to have the opportunity to worship, learn, and enjoy fellowship, let’s move those activities to a new churchwide assembly or “tent meeting”  which would do no business, and which would be attended, not by deputies, but by those up-and-coming designated young leaders selected by their diocesan conventions just for this purpose.

As for bishops, we see quite enough of each other. One (shorter) meeting a year is quite enough.

2.  Limit resolutions to matters having to do with the immediate and concrete issues of faith and practice in the church.
Changing insurance plans, setting standards for ordination, or adopting a new prayer book are fine.  All other non-essential debates over such things as adding politically correct persons to the liturgical calendar, writing special liturgies for the loss of a pet, sending “feel good” political resolutions to Congress (not that they in any way care), those things should be addressed locally.

3.  Scrap the budgeting process.  
Who ever heard of an institution doing a budget by consensus?  Let the Presiding Bishop propose a budget and then have General Convention vote it up or down—as she has thankfully done just today!  It is a futile waste of time to try to fund the pet projects of every special interest group and it detracts from strategic goal-setting.  It also goes without saying that any money not spent on realizing the “Five Marks of Mission” should be on the chopping block.

4.  Dump the current mission asking.
It is effectively ignored by many dioceses anyway.  Figure out what revenue is required by the more streamlined budget, then make the mission share a flat percentage (10%?). If you don’t pay it, you don’t get to vote.  Period.  

5.  Scrap ALL boards and commissions and start over.  
They should be appointed and staffed by General Convention, and half the members should come from outside General Convention so as to encourage “outside the box” thinking.    

6.  Redefine the office of the Presiding Bishop.  
I am not among those who think that this office should or can be held by a sitting diocesan bishop, as was the case in the past.  We need a “head of state” for the Episcopal Church, particularly one like our present incumbent who has a real charism for leadership and spiritual direction.  

A bit closer to home:

1.  Reduce the number of seminaries to three (I would go for East, West, South).  
This will be hard, since each of our existing institutions is in effect its own financial fiefdom.  The graduates they turn out—and I speak from personal experience—are not exactly well-formed, either in intellectual knowledge or leadership ability.  We need scholars in the church, to be sure, but even more we need young men and women who can grow the church. This clearly is not happening, which means...

2.  Send fewer people to seminary and create more local training programs.  
This is especially important if we are to place priests and deacons in nontraditional settings—the places that will be the cutting edge of church growth.  I am looking for ways to follow the example of the African church in which a candidate for ordination is licensed as an Evangelist for an indefinite period, which includes close, local mentoring.  When that Evangelist proves his or her gifts and ability to gather new Christians, then, and only then, is that person ordained priest. You can see here that I am arguing, not for making ordination standards lower, but higher.

3.  Reduce the level of diocesan paperwork.  
Our staff is constantly looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.  For example, it is a waste of my time to license eucharistic ministers—their local clergy can do that.  If the Canons would permit it, I would also delegate permission for remarriage to priests-in-charge, who actually happen to know the couple!

4.  If diocesan staff work does not directly serve the needs of local congregations, get rid of it.
All our work needs to be tied to “customer service” model.  (I highly recommend the work of Russell Crabtree and his book, A Fly In the Ointment).  It should be noted, however, that unlike a business (which has the job of keeping the customer happy), our job is to help the customer be transformed to the image and likeness of Christ. Not the same thing.

Are we up to abandoning the practices that hold us back?  I am not sure, but I do know the consequences of trying to carry a lot of useless baggage. I am often reminded of the story of the Franklin Expedition of 1845.  In that year, Captain John Franklin set sail from England to find a Northwest Passage through the arctic ocean to shorten the route between Britain and the Orient.  Being a proper Englishman, he brought with him everything he thought necessary for such a trip—dress uniforms, silver tea service, tins of gourmet food, ceremonial swords, and cannons (for use on seals?).  They were so loaded down with “necessities,” that their heavy ships quickly became trapped in ice floes.  The crews tried to jettison the now useless “necessities,” only to find they had not brought along what they really needed—foul weather gear, non-perishable rations, and ropes.  All 129 crew members perished on the ice. The mission failed because it was weighed down by frivolous items which were totally unsuitable for the new environment in which they found themselves, and yet they could not, or would not, jettison them.

Drucker makes it clear that the principle of abandonment must be an ongoing task.  Without such a mindset, an institution might make radical changes but all too quickly settle back into the comfortable status quo.  If our church is to affect productive change, we will have to begin somewhere, and I suggest a thorough housecleaning.  I have my doubts that any institution— General Convention, diocese, or congregation—can really be reformed from within, but I also know that such reform is the only acceptable way forward.  Sadly, at this writing, even though there are plenty of resolutions which address restructuring, there is nothing which calls for the principle of abandonment I am talking about, although the Presiding Bishop’s offer of an alternative, mission-based budget to General Convention is a good start. To suffer a failure of nerve at this point will only serve to point our great church on a path to irrelevance and eventual collapse.  We need more than structural puttering by trimming a committee here, shaving costs there. But does this mean we must abandon all hope?  I think not.

There is still time to get the process of creative abandonment started. Furthermore, we can face such a radical restructuring with a sense of joy and excitement about the future.  As people of faith, we have seen again and again how powerfully the Holy Spirit can move in our lives when we make room for that to happen, when we let go of customs and procedures which have become familiar and comfortable—and counterproductive.  Abandoning those structures which are hopeless does not mean abandoning hope.  

*For a very readable summary of the life and work of Peter Drucker, see Jeffrey Krames, Inside Drucker’s Brain (2008).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tucson Sabbatical Adventure--Casa Mariposa

During the time I stayed in Tucson, I lived at Casa Mariposa, an "intentional" community started by the Vicar of St. Andrew's, Tucson, and her partner Carol.  There are 6 young people living in this community, all very actively involved in peace and justice issues in the community, and with providing hospitality to folks who need a place to stay for a while-- this included a woman seeking political asylum from Ethiopia and a young Mexican man just released from prison.

I was most impressed by their "Greyhound Ministry,"  Every night two of them go to the Greyhound bus station to meet a bus arriving from the immigration detention center in Eloy.  The INS simply drops off those who have been released from detention at the bus station with their belongings in a plastic bag.  Many of them have no place to go, and no money.   The Casa Mariposa folks are there to greet them with food, water, access to a phone, and if they need it, a place to stay for the night.  On Tuesday night (my last night there), they hosted two young men.  One of them was documented but was picked up anyway and held for a week!

It made me think.  Wouldn't it be great if all of our larger parishes had such a hospitality house for those in need in their community, a refugee for folks who needed temporary housing?  Everyone in the parish could help with the cooking and logistics--that now would be a ministry of hospitality!  Lack that, we can all do our best to support efforts like Casa Mariposa to provide shelter and a welcome in the name of Christ.

[Note:  This will be the last blog entry until General Convention begins next month--then look for daily updates from Indianapolis]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tucson Sabbatical Adventure--Living Water

I stayed an extra day in Tucson so that I could a have the opportunity to join with the Samaritan organization in their efforts to drop off water in the desert for migrants making the journey north.  This might seem a simple thing to do, but it is vitally important, for over 6000 men women and children have died in the last decade making this journey.

I gained a sense of just how hard this trip can be from  my brief time yesterday.  Four of us left Tucson in the morning with 40 gallons of water in plastic jugs.  We drove for more than an hour in to rugged country near Lake Arribaca, then more driving on marginal dirt roads, until we finally parked and hiked into various drop sites to deposit the water and pick up any empty containers.  It was very hot and very difficult.  I drank at least two gallons of water myself in the 5 hours we were there, and I was well prepared and was only carrying the weight of the water!  It was hard to imagine how difficult such a trip would be for a family or for anyone not in good shape, carrying their worldly possessions.   At one site I found a homemade canteen abandoned by a migrant.  It was made from a burlap bag and plastic water bottle.  I brought it back with me as a reminder of the struggle of our brothers and sisters and the hardships they endure in their quest to support their families.

In the picture you can see Br David Buer, wearing his Franciscan habit over his jeans.  His cowl made a good head cover!  Watching him, I thought of other "desert fathers" in our tradition from hundreds of years ago.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tucson Sabbatical Adventure--disappointment

Let's start with a nice picture of San Xavier mission taken yesterday--an iconic view of whitewashed adobe walls and deep blue sky.

Now onto more substantial matters.  I finished up my work at Poverello House this morning.  We had nine clients, spent most of my time helping to make Beef Stroganoff for lunch, and doing laundry.

It was hard to leave.  I very much enjoyed my time doing basic service and getting to hear the experiences of men who are living on the street.  I don't think I will ever be able to talk to homeless men again and not see them in some way as "my guys."  I suspect I will become more involved in their plight when I get home.

The disappointment was then attending a meeting of the Secular Franciscans in the afternoon.  They seem a very nice group of people who are committed to following St Francis's example of serving the poor.  I felt that they might be a model for us as Episcopalians to be more in touch with this Gospel imperative.  The only problem is that their agenda (at least for this meeting) was all about "Obama's attack on the family", and how requiring insurance companies to provide birth control was an attack on "religious freedom."  I am sorry, but I don't buy that argument.  Nor do I think that those who support a Woman's right to chose, same-sex marriage, and birth control are out to destroy the country.  I did keep my mouth shut as a guest, even though I was invited to speak.  My mentor, Br David, whom I have great regard for, tried to steer the conversation towards the values of St Francis, but it appears the the culture wars have sidetracked even this most compassionate of Catholics.

It reminded me of a friend in New York City who said than in the last year he has received 10 letters from the Cardinal there.  Seven were about sex, and three were about church governance.  None was about the poor.

I don't want to be in the position of casting the first stone here.  Our record in the Episcopal Church of siding with the poor has not always been great, but I had somehow expected better from the admirers of the Poverello(the little poor man), St Francis.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tucson sabbatical adventure--Art at San Xavier del Bac

After cooking breakfast and doing dishes this morning at Poverello House, I drove with Br. David to the famous mission of San Xavier del Bac just south of Tucson.  This is a popular tourist attraction and one of the oldest Spanish missions in America, built in the late 1700's.  Br David was in residence here for five years, so I got a special backstage tour.  The reason for our trip however was to meet with a group of Secular Franciscans who were dedicating a new icon in the chapel of Juan Diego.  Those of you who are familiar with the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe will remember that Juan Diego was the Indian peasant to whom the BVM appeared just outside of Mexico City in the 16th Century.  He was just canonized about twenty years ago, the first indigenous person to gain the status of Saint.  The Franciscans dedicated a chapel to him, but realized not long ago that there was no image of Juan Diego there.  So they commissioned an icon for the chapel.  This was not easily done, they had only a few hundred dollars for the painting, and the artist they commissioned seemed unresponsive.  Finally, through a "friend of a friend", Br David made contact with an artist named John Giuliani, a Benedictine who had worked on the Navajo reservation.  He agreed to do the painting.  What they didn't realize was how famous Giuliani's work is.  He is internationally known for his portrayals of Biblical characters as Native Americans.  You can find his art in almost any religious bookstore.  What they got therefore was an unexpected masterpiece which they could never have afforded.  If you are ever in the vicinity of the San Xavier, be sure to stop in and see it--I am still not sure they know what a treasure they have.

So it was a day filled with both the sublime of great religious art and the down to earth work of doing the laundry of men "who have nowhere to lay their heads."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tucson sabbatical adventure

I have been in Tucson for since Tuesday.  As part of my sabbatical leave, I wanted to spend some time working with the poor.  Like most clergy, I spent a lot of time talking about serving the poor, but don't actually do much of it.  I considered a number of ways to do this--go to a third world country, etc, but finally decided to do something in Arizona.  I meet a Franciscan friar, Br David Buer, from Tucson at the Desert House of Prayer last year who told me about Poverello House, a "respite house" for homeless men that he helped to get started.

Since PH doesn't have a place to stay (except for the manager), I am living while here at Casa Mariposa, an intentional faith community consisting of mostly young people interested in spirituality and peace and justice issues.  There are about 8 of them living in former railway worker barracks right in Old Tucson. It was begun by our youngest Episcopal Vicar in Arizona, the Rev. Kate Bradsen and her partner Carol.  They take in guests like me as well as people who have been released from detention or who are seeking political asylum.

The work at PH has gone well.  Each day, ten men come by reservation from 8-4.  The house is small and can only handle that many.  They have breakfast, do laundry, take showers, and relax in the air conditioning, we also serve lunch (usually provided by a local eatery) as well as a sack lunch for dinner.  The day is spent reading, watching tv, or rolling cigarettes and smoking outside.  I help in whatever way I can--I have washed more dishes in a few days than I think I have in my whole life put together!  I also do laundry and clean toilets,  do a little help with cooking, and of course just chat with the "clients."  Each one has an interesting story to tell.

In addition to working at PH, my "mentor" Br Buer has made sure that I learn about those working with the homeless and other justice issues in Tucson.  We attended a meeting of the Samaritans, who do water drops in the desert, attended a vigil for migrant victims, went to a rally at City Hall in support of keeping the price of bus passes low, and folded newsletters for an anti-war group.  By coincidence (or Providence) I just happen to be reading a biography of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, so I have become thoroughly "radicalized."  Tomorrow I will meet with some Third Order Franciscans and on Monday, go with the Samaritans on a water drop near Ajo, AZ.

My time with the Casa Mariposa folks has been great too.  In so many simple ways they are living out their faith by their simple lifestyle and passion for the forgotten people of Tucson.  As good as the food has been here (vegan mostly), I am going to treat them all to dinner tonight, they deserve it!