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Decide what to abandon

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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Good points, no doubt. I would suggest, though, that what‘s one person’s local vagaries is another person’s sense of subsidiarity. 🙂

A local or regional program can be first-rate as it is more attuned to the needs of the people which it is to serve, while a centralized one can be second-rate as it tries to be all things to all people.

In addition, I would suggest that managers of centralized programs do not have an exclusive license on standards and quality. I know of a number of scholars who help create excellent local programs. Besides, alternative models of training clergy are already upon us. I have been reminded that a significant numnber of our current priests come from programs other than the traditional seminary.

Kevin McGrane


Actually, I would not be so interested in Drucker as I would be in Edward Deming, who brought long term planning and continuous quality improvement to the Japanese (after Detroit has rejected it) and then to Detroit when they discovered their mistake. He does indeed focus on clarifying and holding to one’s central mission; but his focus is not only on “what do we do,” but also on “what do we do now, and how do we get better at it.” (And Deming was, at least nominally, an Episcopalian.)

With that in mind, I’m less inclined to so radically pare down the seminaries. First, while there are certainly many local and regional programs in the Episcopal Church, the quality of their preparation and formation is very uneven, and is all too often driven by the vagaries and political sensibilities of individual bishops and/or Commissions on Ministry. We need not only clear standards, but some recognized institutions that meet and model them. Second, beyond “recognition,” the General Convention and the Episcopal Church Center provide remarkably little support to those institutions. I to think Tom has a point: those that don’t adapt will fail without being “de-recognized” by the Church; but success should not just be financial, but also missional according to the needs of the Episcopal Church, and where we want to be as a Church in the next generation.

Marshall Scott


Regarding why TEC need do anything at all relative to seminary ed.:

In the article I linked above, it discusses 5 trends in No. American theological ed. They are:

1. a widening chasm between Christian churches and seminaries;

2. increasing # of seminary students who have not grown up in the church;

3. a growing awareness that seminary ed is inaccessible for many potential students;

4. an increased questioning of whether seminary is worth the financial costs;

5. population shifts that will affect our ability to culturally prepare leaders for the 21st century.

The old model created some great priests who have some great memories, but it is apparent that it doesn’t address today’s needs of the church it is to serve. We need to consider abandoning it.

I would suggest a decentralized model duplicated across the country; not 3, as the AZ bishop suggests, but rather a couple dozen of them. Diaconate programs are similarly organized, and are producing some terrific clergy, with far less cost and greater accessibility.

Kevin McGrane

Tom Sramek Jr

Regarding seminaries: Why does TEC as a whole need to do anything at all? Seminaries that provide useful formation and education opportunities will survive, even thrive, and could be a good resource for more local (Cathedral based?) training programs. Those that do not find a place in the new order will either consolidate or close. I do value my residential education/formation process–expensive as it was. I’m not sure you could easily duplicate that immersive formation another way. How does one duplicate hanging out over a cup of coffee in the student lounge, sharing a meal together in the refectory, or gathering daily in worship with people hundreds or thousands of miles apart? That experience of Christian community is priceless. However, I wonder if we can somehow re-imagine it for the 21st century.

Regarding Bishop Kirk’s other proposals, I think he’s onto something here….

Leslie Scoopmire

Regarding the seminary idea, why must the middle of the country once again be relegated to flyover status? And why not create some partially online programs?

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