Decide what to abandon

Arizona bishop Kirk Smith talks about restructuring the Episcopal Church on his blog “Arizona Bishop.” He applies Peter Drucker’s “principle of abandonment” and asks what it is working and what is not, saying “If it is not working, get rid of it.”

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!”

His list for the Episcopal Church:

1. Reduce the size of General Convention.

2. Limit resolutions to matters having to do with the immediate and concrete issues of faith and practice in the church.

3. Scrap the budgeting process.

4. Dump the current mission asking.

5. Scrap ALL boards and commissions and start over.

6. Redefine the office of the Presiding Bishop.

A second list of suggestions include:

1. Reduce the number of seminaries to three (I would go for East, West, South).

2. Send fewer people to seminary and create more local training programs.

3. Reduce the level of diocesan paperwork.

4. If diocesan staff work does not directly serve the needs of local congregations, get rid of it.

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.

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