Saturday, December 20, 2008

Time for Denominational Restructuring?

I'm about to finish up some vacation days which have been spent on organizing my garage and shed, and thinking about the Big 3 bailout. My personal challenge has been to understand what this means to the church, the Church, and any denomination. I still confess that while I see some opportunity for the church in this type thinking I also recognize MANY challenges. Perhaps you have some answers from your experience or might be part of the conversation in your denominational context to restructure your denomination to "lose the fat" and become more of what God requires and people today need.

Here's an interesting article about IBM restructuring which offers a totally different approach than the Big 3 forced restructuring. They are responding, NOT so much out of fear, but with an emphasis of focus on what they do well AND emphasis on the opportunity of the day.

I like the way the CEO Sam Palmisano puts it. He says, "you can retrench, pull in your horns, protect the balance sheet, and preserve cash. Or you can realize that this is about humanity screaming for change."

Like most of the large business and financial U.S. institutions the various religious denominations have tracked in comparable patterns over the last 50-100 years. We have all quite successfully grown large institutions! But where business will recalibrate or retool based on the "bottom line" (e.g. Big 3 and business of various sizes hit hard in the current economy) what would motivate a denomination to restructure? What is our bottom line? People, finances, certain numbers, ministries, clergy, other factors? What would cause us to refocus on 1) the primary work of what we should be doing, and 2) respond to current opportunity as we hear "humanity screaming for change?"

A denomination wouldn't likely be FORCED to restructure. Instead, just like a dying church, we'd slowly lose participation, finances, and other numbers that we'd then look back to as the "good old days" that we can't seem to reclaim. Yet, we'd likely operate in all the same ways. EXCEPT that we'd gradually start slimming and adapting our denominational personnel at various levels. We'd find less funding available and respond to the lack of finances. Some conference level positions, which should focus on primary agendas of local churches like children or youth ministry or college or young adults, might be combined or disappear-- even though we'd be lamenting the loss of younger people in the church and complain about needing younger clergy. Some national or international agencies might still maintain there size and positions even though they are largely irrelevant to local church concerns, and in fact, better reflect the strategies and emphasis of bygone days than the opportunities of this day.

As time goes on in this scenario, which might appear to need denominational restructuring, churches that are healthy in an area will be fewer, and the few who are growing and strong in finances and resources will be asked for more and more. So that, the local congregation's resources will be under strain as more pressure will be to send help away than to be in local ministry! That ugly downward spiral will take hold so that neither local church nor denomination are healthy, and are in a relationship which slowly drains both of them. They aren't in ICU, yet they aren't as healthy as they were in a previous time. And as the church and denomination focus more on their own unfulfilled needs and expectations they have less time, energy, and focus on everyone outside the church. What a dilemma, huh?! The religious group would certainly retain the old rhetoric and have established ministry principles which are effective yet they won't have the connections to their community and world necessary to be in mission and to develop healthy relationships. The local congregation would talk like they wanted change yet would likely not know how to get "there" and would be resistant to the requirements. Think about some of the recent Big 3 discussions again; what looks obvious to outsiders is merely a way of life and expectation for those in a Big 3 organization or partner group. Change, which is rather radical by nature in such a system, only seems possible as a last resort that is forced!

Even though elements of this conversation take place all the time in denominational settings no one will really do anything about a BIG restructuring. After all, it's not any one person's job, and most of the above has been discussed at length in hallways, classes, and in books for the last 20 years!! Occasionally local churches will complain about the denominational tax, but there are enough good things that happen with that so it's soon forgotten. Plus, there would be a ripple effect of reform. And with the denominational meeting every 4 years to make BIG changes, plus the fact that such naysayers would NEVER gain a much coveted delegate position, the likelihood of institutional insiders streamlining such a system are negligible. It's hard enough for a business model driven by profit and with a CEO to do such a thing. How could a denomination ruled by a committee of a 1000 delegates create such a bold course of action which would undo some of the trappings of our institutional past in order to create a more feasible, vibrant present and future?

Questions, questions, questions... where are some answers?

Christmas is coming! That reminds me of the gift of God meant to change the world. As I'm drawn back to the beginnings, the origin, back before all the tinsel and consumerism, I'm curious if a similar re-start for religion might be the best approach!

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