I went to work for Barnes & Noble when I started grad school. The store was in Downtown Crossing in Boston, across from Filene’s Basement. It closed some years ago. Last I heard, the doors were locked and the space has been unused for several years.
I worked for Barnes & Noble for several years in several places: Boston, Lansing, East Lansing, and Saginaw over the course of 7 years. My wife worked there even longer. We remain big supporters of Barnes & Noble; a company built on the myth of its founder, Len Riggio who, as a college student, thought he could build a better book store than the one at his school. And he totally did.
That first Barnes & Noble was built on customer service and his legacy is a company built on that service. But when the market began to dry up in the 2000s, that service began to fizzle. Each year, the stores we worked for were expected to cut hours and cut staff. Each year, fewer booksellers were employed to help customers, which means increasing frustration for everyone.
The management is perpetually caught in a bind. More than one manager complained to me that they were mandated to spend certain numbers of hours keeping each register open, but were not given the number of hours to actually do so. When the managers asked the district managers for guidance, they were told to figure out how to make the impossible a reality.
The accounting side of this conundrum calls this change efficiency. They were able to get more work from fewer employees. Many of us put a brave face on doing more with less time. And it may honestly be the only thing that saved the company as its competitors fell apart.
Efficiency came at a price. Fewer opportunities for service, more stress on employees and management, a constant pursuit of stability that would never be realized, increased turnover, lower customer service ratings, further market erosion. A death spiral.
Reading the final report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), I am struck most by the knowledge the TREC has of our own death spiral. I am also struck that their solution is to ultimately double-down on the corporate culture that produced a bloated and inefficient Episcopal Church in the first place.
As the Crusty Old Dean described several years ago, our corporate CEO image of the Presiding Bishop is a modern invention, bearing the marks of a couple trying to keep up with the Jones’ (let’s get one of those fancy leaders to represent us). The final report directly names the comparison and suggests that “streamlining” the structure would allow our CEO to get more done.
The character of the report’s introduction (you can read the whole thing here if you’re into policy documents: otherwise, just read this excellent summary or this thorough response) takes its direction from Scripture and sounds right. It’s when TREC proposes stuff that it begins to fall apart. Because the proposals don’t feel as if they are based in the Luke passage from the beginning: a passage of sending disciples out. It is full of corporate efficiency-seeking and, in those places, reads like a memo to shareholders.
Some of its suggestions are quite welcome, including a unicameral General Convention and moving the whole organization to seek assistance from those with expertise, rather than having us poll the whole body of disgruntled people to find out that they don’t want any of your fancy shmancy change.
The report delivers only on one mandate: how to streamline the Episcopal Church and General Convention. But it fails to deliver similar guidance on the most pressing issues of vitality, viability, and communication to and within our disparate congregations.
To me, the most compelling line in the whole document is on page 2 after reading about Jesus compelling the disciples to go out into the world, traveling lightly:
We invite local congregations, dioceses, and the wider Church structures to enter into a season of sustained focus on what it means for us in this moment, in our various local contexts, to follow Jesus, together, into the neighborhood, and to travel lightly.
The report doesn’t even try to show us how to do that, or to be frank, tell us why we should. I know why we should. And you may know why we should, but do our people? And will they even now? Instead we get opaque references that seem to be insider nods to combining dioceses and new names for emergence ministries and fresh expressions are referenced and yet no money is actually directed there.
What it does do, however, is speak incessantly about accountability. All over the place. Musicians reporting to bishops. Bishops reporting to General Convention. Dioceses reporting to General Convention. The Presiding Bishop reporting to Gen… wait a second. That’s a lot of reporting to General Convention. The one just cut in half and smushed into one body. And don’t forget all of the many, many mutual ministry reviews.
Again, more corporatizing of our structure. And nothing says nimble, 21st Century structure like written reports to indirect supervisors.
What Should Have Been
The report reads precisely like the sausage-making that no doubt went into it. This is perhaps the most depressing part.
The Task Force’s vision of the problem and the opportunity is straight on. I mean it. Like, I wanted to jump up and pump my fist in the air straight on. Their description of the church is prophetic and wise. The problem is found in the solutions, however, which vacillate between too small and specific to too pass-the-buck indifferent. One is left feeling like we are looking at the best option available to us, and it is a pile of over-seasoned spinach. But it is spinach that is closer to edible than what is on our plates, so at least there’s that.
But oh, what could have been…
No, what should have been is more than this.
- The Task Force should have gone bigger and made us stretch more.
- Or it should have gone smaller and targeted one of our real problems directly, inviting us to tackle the next big thing in 2018.
- Or it should have expected more from us, and not let its responders off the hook for saying that what we love about our church is the community and the people, but when asked what we need to change we shouted “get off our lawn!” er- “don’t touch our liturgy!”
- Or it should have schooled the Church, saying the problem isn’t structural or solvable by General Convention or fixed through the same proposals and funding patterns we started with: our problem is cultural. Then demanded we reallocate our finances in such a way as to promote evangelism and new ministries (like the introduction seems to advocate). But actually make that the whole thing and the centerpiece of their work.
- Or they should have told us that their mandate was bigger in theory than in practice, they didn’t have enough time or resources to do much better, and there is no political will for the report that we most desperately need. That what we have is only a taste of what we should be getting.
What we didn’t need was big structural change that will create virtually none of the change locally that the report actually recommends.
Today, the needs of my church didn’t change. The challenge to get out and do stuff while also making greater use of our buildings are the most useful parts of this report, because they actually direct our behavior and could profoundly impact our lives together. And I totally believe it is what is needed to give direction to the church.
Perhaps now we are better off worrying less about the proposals, and instead read the report’s prophetic vision for the church as honest expectation.