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).