Monday, March 31, 2014

Government employment


A few weeks ago, a subscriber to Ethical Musings raised some interesting questions about government employment:

  • Government salaries/wages too high? Pensions too generous?
  • Are government jobs sinecures?
  • What's wrong with the government bureaucracy? What can we do to fix it?

Those questions prompted these musings.

First, civil service systems (e.g., in the United States and United Kingdom) emerged as a way to insulate government employees from the worst vagaries of political influence and to improve the quality of services provided to the public. A civil service in which an elected government can replace all of the employees will tend to attract ideologues and incompetents. Competent, career-minded potential employees will generally choose to avoid the uncertain, temporary nature of a job in which tenure depends upon an uncertain political outcome.

Second, many government functions require a reasonable level of competence, knowledge, and perhaps experience. Obvious examples include positions involved in testing new drugs, formulating regulations pertaining to public safety, law enforcement, and financial management. In other words, the preponderance of government positions require more from incumbents than the type of skills, knowledge, and competence associated with most low wage, manual labor jobs. Increased reliance on computers is substantially reducing the number of clerical employees, which results in a diminishing number of low wage, low skill government jobs.

Third, growing numbers of people regard government employment unfavorably, a change especially noticeable in the United Kingdom. This diminishes the status of government employees, making it more difficult to attract highly qualified individuals and thus making compensation more important in an individual's decision to accept (or reject) a government job. Ironically, the civil service systems created to insulate employees from inappropriate political influence have now made it difficult for elected leaders to exert appropriate guidance (e.g., civil servants may simply engage in delaying tactics until a new incumbent arrives) and for the exceptionally competent to rise speedily within the organization.

Fourth, most government programs and offices have external constituencies with some measure of political influence. These external constituencies, widely known as special interest groups, seek to use the government program or office to achieve the group's agenda. Consequently, eliminating redundant, anachronistic, inefficient, or undesirable programs, policies, etc., is exceptionally difficult. In the U.S., political gridlock exacerbates these problems. Bureaucratic inertia contributes to these problems everywhere.

Fifth, political pressures, potential media interest, and external interest groups all create an environment for government unlike anything found in the private sector. Not only is there generally zero tolerance for fraud, waste, or abuse but the outward appearance of any of those is not tolerated. Businesses, for example, will generally weigh the cost of reducing fraud, waste, and abuse against the cost of prevention. Thus, a business will not spend $10 to avoid the risk of losing $1. Governments do.

Sixth, job security, intended to insulate personnel from inappropriate political pressures, has had the unintended consequence of deemphasizing job performance. This can sap employee morale and make terminating employment of the occasional misfit or incompetent so costly that management may avoid taking those steps even in the most egregious situations.

What can we do to improve government?

  1. Rationalize management. For example, let's accept fraud, waste, and abuse when the cost of prevention exceeds potential benefits. The real cost of our current approach to prevention is to make government more costly and less responsive.
  2. Raise the status of civil servants. Serving the public interest is highly honorable, something as true for civil servants as military personnel. Most civil servants I have known, in both the US and the UK, wanted to perform well in serving the public good.
  3. Improve the civil service system to make hiring, firing, and promoting individuals easier. Yesterday's ills are not today's problems.
  4. Give managers more latitude to determine optimal methods for achieving the goals and outcomes set by elected or appointed political leadership.

Collectively, these changes will improve the conditions of government employment and make that employment more satisfying, attracting a higher caliber employee.

Government salaries, pensions, and other benefits have historically helped to raise employment compensation standards. Today, government compensation – for senior managers – is far below what comparable civilian posts pay. Raising this compensation to competitive levels will attract some of a nation's best and brightest, improving the quality of government.

Conversely, government compensation for many other workers offers a pension plan that is unaffordable and unrealistic because the plan is premised on both a shorter working life and total lifespan than people have in the twenty-first century. Fixing the pension plan without concurrently addressing the other issues will simply compound existing problems.

Grand pronouncements about cutting government waste or size are not the answer. Citizens rightly value the vast majority of the services that government provides. The challenge is to improve quality, enhance efficiency, and cut costs – all of which are possible.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bring this terrorist to the U.S. - NOW!

A military review board on March 5, 2014 decided that Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi should remain indefinitely in U.S. custody in the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Al Rahabi, a Yemeni citizen, was one of the first detainees incarcerated at Guantánamo, arriving there in 2002.

The review board decided that if returned to Yemen, al Rahabi, who served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and who has ties with the current al Qaeda leaders, would pose a threat to U.S. safety. I'm willing to accept that conclusion as a realistic assessment. In my experience, most of our military and national security personnel are dedicated professionals who attempt to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

So why bring al Rahabi to the United States?

We owe it to ourselves to give him his day in court. I believe in our judicial system. Our courts have tried and convicted over 200 terrorists since 9/11. I believe in our law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, etc.). They can reliably ensure that al Rahabi remains securely in federal custody. I believe in the American people. Most of us do not panic at the mere mention of terrorism; most of us share my confidence in our judiciary and law enforcement. A terrorist incarcerated in a federal maximum security prison poses no more threat to any of us than the same prisoner incarcerated at Guantánamo poses. If you doubt that, then let's create new federal prisons aboard military bases especially for accused and convicted terrorists.

When we refuse to give someone like al Rahabi his day in court, we communicate in no uncertain terms that not only do we not trust our judiciary and law enforcement agencies, we also do not believe in our Constitution and the legal system that it establishes. One of the reasons that the colonists rebelled against Great Britain was that the colonists believed nobody should be arrested without knowing why, without a right to a speedy trial by jury, and without rights that included access to an attorney and not having to incriminate one's self.

I, for one, still want to live in a country that prizes those rights. We have a sad legacy of prisoners held at Guantánamo who did not receive those rights. We as a nation hold them at Guantánamo precisely because we do not want to give them their rights. National security authorities believe that probably a quarter of the persons held at Guantánamo are innocent of any major crime, wrongly caught up in the war on terror launched in the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere.

For prisoners against whom the government can make a reasonable case, let's bring them to the U.S. and try them in our courts. We have the best justice system in the world. Keeping a prisoner at Guantánamo costs the taxpayer $800,000 per year, a number that will only increase, e.g., the prison there now needs expensive, major renovations.

Next, let's set our mistakes right. The world is a dangerous place. Yielding to fear does not make the world any safer. In the short-run, releasing prisoners at Guantánamo believed innocent of major crimes and prisoners the U.S. probably cannot convict in a federal court because the evidence against those prisoners was obtained illegally will make the world a slightly more dangerous place. In the long-term, releasing those prisoners will demonstrate to the world that the U.S. really is a country of laws that respect human rights, a move that will do immeasurably more to bolster U.S. national interests abroad and reduce the terror threat.

Finally, al Rahabi may be a terrorist who wants me dead. However, I am a Christian and therefore am committed to treating him as a human being who should have the same rights that I enjoy. Let's give him justice; it's the right thing to do.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Be Bold: Restructuring the Episcopal Church - Part 3


Part 1 of this essay reviewed historical trends effecting TEC. Part 2 extended the analysis by examining two broad social trends (growing apathy to hierarchy and disengagement from traditional forms of organized community) that bode ill for denominations, TEC included. Part 2 also presented the first two of the four steps that TEC can take to once again become a vital missionary organization (focus resources on congregations positioned for growth and review our ecclesiology). Part 3, which concludes the post, presents the other two steps that TEC can take for renewal.

(3) We need new wineskins (i.e., we must revise our liturgy) because the old ones have cracked and no longer preserve the wine. Music is essential. Is congregational singing essential or is it a burdensome and unnecessary historical legacy from a time in which people had music only if they made it themselves? If congregational singing is important, how does TEC become a subculture (or, if you prefer, a counter-culture) that forms people so that they enjoy making music (instead of our current presumption that everyone wants to sing)? What music should we sing?

Scripture is also essential. We do not include Bible readings in our liturgy to afford people an opportunity for private reflection. Biblical allusions should enrich rather than impoverish our liturgy. How do we increase the attention hearers pay to Bible readings? How do we improve their understanding of what they hear? A sermon longer than 10-12 minutes is impossible in a worship service scheduled for an hour (or, more realistically in many places, 75 minutes) that also includes Holy Communion. How do we create a biblically literate community without the aid of a culture, schools, and other institutions upon which previous generations who lived in Christendom relied?

TEC is in the throes of developing a much needed liturgy for the blessing of same sex marriages/relationships (choose your own term; I prefer marriage, but want to avoid that debate in this essay). Assume that 20% of TEC and the population at large are LGBT (I have intentionally chosen an unrealistically high percentage). Even if those numbers are high by a factor of two or three, the need for the new liturgy is plain.

Meanwhile, what are we doing to revise our liturgy to reach the much larger number of people who are biblically illiterate and not attracted by our music? The number of biblically illiterate grows significantly every year; similarly, the cultural trend away from making one's own music becomes more deeply entrenched each year. Personal preference is irrelevant. The Church exists to minister to the world, not cater to its members.

Legacy services using current liturgical forms will continue for decades, in some places even attracting additional worshipers, as occurred in the transition from the 1928 to 1979 Book of Common Prayer. However, the transition to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has become irreversible. In many places, Rite 1 services are now a genuine rarity. Similarly, we may lament biblical illiteracy and rue the lack of interest in hymnody, but that will not alter either. The Church needs to theorize about, design, test, and revise new liturgical forms appropriate to this technological era with its widespread biblical illiteracy and fondness for listening to rather than making music.

(4) We need to enhance and to expand our organizational capacity, by (a) reconnecting individual Episcopalians and congregations with diocesan and national structures and by (b) streamlining the organization and reducing overhead.

Ship captains tend to guard their individual independence and prerogatives. Yet the victor in war at sea was almost invariably the side whose ship movements and actions were best coordinated in strategy and tactics. Consequently, as monarchs and others acquired fleets of ships, they appointed admirals to command ship captains. Today, U.S. Navy admirals outnumber the Navy's ships. The Navy bureaucracy, like all bureaucracy, is self-perpetuating and has multiplied command echelons to justify its own expansion.

TEC has had a similar expansion of its bureaucracy. Dioceses vary widely not only in geographic area but also in the number of communicants and congregations served. Patterns of organization and structure once useful may have become impediments in an era of flatter organizations and new forms of community. Tellingly, I have never encountered a TEC congregation that enthusiastically made funding the diocesan asking or assessment its top fiscal priority. Indeed, the prevailing attitude seems to be the exact opposite, frequently bordering on resenting what they perceive as diocesan taxation of the congregation's monies.

The TREC survey similarly reported a disconnect between existing TEC structures and people in the pews, underscoring the need to reconnect structures with the broader TEC constituency, highlighting the benefits that streamlined, minimal cost structures provide.

For example, must the Church always gather physically or can it also gather virtually, something inconceivable until just before the beginning of the twenty-first century? Some TEC and diocesan committees, commissions, and boards now meet virtually. How far and fast can we shift the paradigm toward virtual meetings, electronic voting, and other high-tech, lost-cost, flatter structures? TREC, in their December 2013 letter, wrote, "Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration."

During a recent meeting of the TEC Executive Council, a friend emailed me. He noted that the Council that could have conducted all of the business that it transacted electronically, saving the travel expenses for forty people to attend a three-day meeting and perhaps substantially reducing the amount of time the meeting's length.

TEC lacks organizational capacity, i.e., the will or ability to perform multiple concurrent tasks. For example, the Standing Commission on Liturgy is busy with issues linked to same sex marriage, so other issues sit on the table unaddressed. They are not alone. The same observation applies to most elements of our national and diocesan structures. Sometimes the urgent has pushed aside the truly important. Other times, the group has difficulty in setting and adhering to reasonable priorities. Most fundamentally, we lack organizational capacity in large measure because people have disengaged from diocesan and national structures, disengaged from organized religion, and we pursue the wrong priorities.

TREC is moving in the right directions with respect to enhancing and expanding TEC organizational capacity. Their agenda for improving our organizational efficiency, setting out an agenda of needed changes, and proposals for implementing those changes will hopefully result in suggestions regarding:

1) The role and mechanics of General Convention;

2) Roles and accountability of the Presiding Officers and of the Executive Council--particularly as related to Church wide staff;

3) Breadth of CCABs (Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards) and the creation of alternative, fresh, and creative models for Church wide collaboration;

4) Number of dioceses;

5) Capacity and leadership development.

TREC has stated that restructuring is not a cure for decline and that TEC needs to recover a missionary orientation. Nevertheless, TREC's work can easily resemble that of marine engineers designing new sails and rigging for the JAMES BAINES. Radical thinking is required. Radical obedience to the gospel is even more essential. Letting go of old forms can occasion grief; we commonly cling to the familiar for security and fear the new. Yet the currents of change are sweeping away the old even now. Will we become a remnant? Alternatively, will we hear the new song that God is singing, and, following the example of Abraham, Moses, and Mary dare to journey into the unknown, confident that God is leading the way?

One clear indicator of TEC's future will be the number of individuals who engage with TREC. If TREC and restructuring remain the province of the relatively few clergy and laity currently involved with TEC's national organization, then TEC seems headed for oblivion. Alternatively, if TREC can become the catalyst by which the Holy Spirit brings a new missionary impulse to TEC, energizing tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of God's people to engage with TEC congregations, dioceses, and our national structure, then we will hear God's new song, loudly and clearly.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Be Bold: Restructuring the Episcopal Church - Part 2


This essay's first part explored five factors that bode ill for TEC's future: our legacy of small congregations in the wrong places; a growing preference for large congregations; the increasing number of spiritual but not religious individuals; biblical illiteracy; and a diminishing proclivity to make music, preferring to listen to the music of others. Denominational restructuring, regardless of its nature, does not address these issues.

Two complementary trends powerfully influence the future of TEC because those trends set the context for denominational life and ministry. People are increasingly apathetic to hierarchy and disengaging from traditional forms of organized community.

The non-hierarchical trend is easily visible in business. Corporations are flattening their organizational charts, eliminating management layers by trying to become more nimble and responsive to both employees and consumers. This non-hierarchical trend differs sharply from anti-hierarchical Protestant Reformers who rejected bishops for biblical and theological reasons. Now many of the people in our pews, who often perceive that neither they nor their congregation receive much value from the diocese or national Church, want to know why they should support diocesan and national structures with their money and efforts. Dioceses and national structures that want to thrive must now convince members of the benefit that the whole Church receives because the dioceses and national structure exist. Restructuring, by itself, cannot do that.

Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000) exhaustively documented the decline of traditional expressions of organized community in America. He summarized data that traced the decline in civic, fraternal, and religious organizations. Restructuring may helpfully reduce organizational overhead in TEC dioceses and the national Church (that the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) survey showed Episcopalians desire) but cannot reverse the larger social trend.

Although recommendations such as reducing the number of diocesan deputies to General Convention from eight to six advantageously cut overhead costs, the recommendation disadvantageously narrows the number of people personally invested in TEC's national organization. This unintentionally exacerbates rather than ameliorates the underlying social trend of organizational disenchantment and disengagement, probably accelerating institutional decline. The critical issue is not the good of ensuring adequate and diverse representation, but the deeper existential issue of commitment to the organization. TREC should focus its restructuring proposals around function rather than organization. Why does TEC need 10 – or even 7 – days to conduct legislative proceedings? Are decisions that TEC needs to make better made representationally (the status quo) or through direct democracy, harnessing the power of the internet so potentially hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians vote instead of only a couple of thousand?

How can Episcopalians and TEC reverse the apparently inexorable downward trends? The trends are negative, notwithstanding a recent scattering of positive signs, signs for which we should give thanks without thinking our problems solved. TEC can take four positive steps toward a more vibrant, positive future, two discussed here, and two in the third and final installment of this post.

(1) We need to focus our attention, efforts, and resources on congregations located in places where numerical growth is happening or seems reasonably probable. TREC, in its December 2013 letter to the Church, suggested that spiritually vibrant and mission focused congregations comprise perhaps only 30% of all TEC congregations. Arguably, diocesan and national staffs can make the greatest progress toward realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth by concentrating their efforts on these congregations. Seminaries, in addition to the spiritual formation, academic preparation, and practical equipping of students for ordained ministry, should research and teach the sociological, psychological, and organizational dynamics conducive to growing spiritual alive missional communities.

Concurrently, we need to make difficult decisions about the resources – money, time, and energy – that we are willing to expend on small congregations and on congregations with poor prospects for growth. Included in the substantial but generally uncalculated and therefore ignored costs that these thousands of congregations impose on TEC are the costs of regular episcopal visits, programmatic and monetary support, assistance with clergy transitions, and educating and ordaining thousands of priests and deacons. Resources used on these efforts entail opportunity costs, e.g., a bishop visiting a small congregation has not done something else. Congregants who, if the small congregation did not exist, would have joined a thriving congregation also represent an opportunity cost, depriving the larger congregation of the benefit of their presence and gifts.

The choice about support for small congregations, although emotionally charged, is not the same choice that the shepherd faced when one sheep wandered off from the other 99 (Mt 18:10-14). In some remote areas, the TEC congregation may be the only Christian congregation and thus merit ongoing support. In other places, however, people can easily drive a few more miles to reach another TEC congregation. Elsewhere, the TEC congregation might unite with an Evangelical Lutheran congregation, find creative ways to share resources with other religious congregations or non-profits, etc. The choice is not whether to serve the one (i.e., those Episcopalians in small congregations) but how best to serve them. An unexamined, blind commitment to all congregations, regardless of size or prospects, characterizes a poor steward. We have an obligation to God and to one another to use our time and resources as effectively and efficiently for God's purposes as possible. Buildings and other resources should be means to an end, not our raison d'être.

The ordination process, canonically standardized, has considerable variation in practice. Dioceses utilize the General Ordination Exams in a wide range of ways. Some of our seminaries are struggling financially, exploring new ways to be relevant, or developing online degree programs. Some dioceses are establishing alternatives to residential seminary programs for preparing new priests. Leaders in theses dioceses regard seminary degrees as unaffordable for clergy whom the diocese hopes will serve congregations unable to afford a full-time stipendiary priest. Leaders in these dioceses also recognize that both increasing numbers of postulants for holy orders have an employed partner unwilling to relocate for three years and ordinands, after graduating from seminary, may receive a call to a different geographic area. Some dioceses also have unique issues, e.g., Hawaii has had difficulty retaining mainland clergy for more than a couple of years because emergent family obligations make relocating to the mainland desirable for many.

How should TEC form and educate new clergy? Which small congregations merit our continued support? Which ones should we target for closure, consolidation, or another form of realignment? These questions are like the proverbial 800-pound gorillas in our midst that we are desperately trying to ignoring, but that obstinately refuse to disappear. Not seeking honest answers to these tough questions can only accelerate TEC's demise.

(2) We need to reexamine our ecclesiology. Why are bishops important? I know the answer in the Book of Common Prayer, but that answer is insufficient. What do we really want – need – bishops to do? If the answer is to be a visible sign of the Church's unity, then one bishop might be best, representing an unmistakable unity. If the answer is to teach the faith, then we need sufficient bishops to teach regular assemblies of the faithful. If the answer is to administer confirmation, then we need the number of bishops required to administer confirmation annually in large parishes and for regional gatherings of small congregations. None of these answers presumes the geographically contiguous dioceses defined by the borders of political jurisdictions. Are there other important tasks for bishops to perform or roles for them to fill? Once clear on what we expect bishops to do, then determining the number of bishops required becomes relatively easy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Be Bold: Restructuring the Episcopal Church - Part 1


In 1854, a clipper ship, the JAMES BAINES, established a new record of 12 days and 6 hours for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic under sail. By the time of its historic voyage, steam powered ships that did not depend upon the vagaries of wind, could carry larger cargoes, and transit canals had already begun to displace merchant sailing vessels on the seas. Devising new sails and rigging for the JAMES BAINES to enable an even faster transatlantic crossing might offer an interesting challenge to engineers and sailing aficionados, but would never resuscitate the era of sail that clipper ships once dominated.

I wonder to what extent restructuring The Episcopal Church (TEC) is a similar endeavor, an interesting exercise to ecclesiologists, students of organizational behavior, and the small elite of Episcopalians who dominate our denominational life but lacking potential to resuscitate a dying organization.

The era of denominations, like that of clipper ships, seems to be ending just as denominations are achieving important new milestones. TEC, for example, is clearly on a trajectory toward greater justice, inclusivity, and fidelity to the fullness of the gospel even as its membership has declined precipitously (cf. my previous Daily Episcopalian essay, Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). All mainline Protestant denominations are declining, though at various rates. Numerical decline has also begun among evangelical denominations; U.S. Roman Catholics have avoided decline only through an influx of immigrants.

Pursuing denominational restructuring in lieu of addressing the more basic issues of institutional decline effecting TEC seems troublingly analogous to designing new sails and rigging for a clipper ship. Both clipper ships and TEC are magnificent examples of their genre. Both have achieved greatness. Yet the JAMES BAINES was constructed after marine engineering had crossed the cusp of the steam era; perhaps we will finish restructuring TEC after God's people have crossed the cusp of the next era in church history, a post-denominational era.

Several trends indicate the dawn of a new era (not, I hasten to add, the Age of Aquarius!). First, demographic shifts have left TEC with a legacy of many small congregations in the wrong geographic locales. These small congregations typically consume disproportionate amounts of diocesan and national resources, struggle to pay a priest and to maintain their buildings, and focus on survival rather than mission. Meanwhile, the population in the area from which the congregation once drew its membership is changing, declining, or both.

Second, increasing numbers of Christians prefer to attend a large rather than a small congregation. Obviously, not everybody shares that preference (I, for one, don't). However, the proportion of Christians who attend megachurches continues to swell; the proportion of Christians who attend small congregations (fewer than 100, perhaps even 200 average Sunday attendance) is shrinking. TEC, with mostly small congregations, is on the wrong side of that trend.

Third, growing numbers of people identify themselves as either spiritual but not religious or as an atheist. With respect to this trend, a comparison of denominational restructuring to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic might seem a more apt metaphor. Like the Titanic, if the trends toward atheism and spiritual but not religious continue, eventually no souls will remain in the Church, the ark of our salvation. That extreme seems unlikely, but the metaphor underscores the urgency of focusing on mission instead of structure.

Fourth, a diminishing proportion of the population is biblically literate. A generation ago, regular Sunday attendance connoted missing no more than one Sunday per month. Today, a regular attendee is someone who attends worship as infrequently as once a month or maybe once every six weeks. Preachers tend to concentrate their sermon on the gospel reading, no longer able to presume that their hearers know the biblical stories much less are familiar with the Bible's historical and literary context. Many worshipers mentally tune out during the reading of the lessons, cherishing a few moments of self-directed thought in the midst of an otherwise hectic life. Our liturgy, rich in biblical allusions and quotations, increasingly falls on ears, unable if not unwilling to listen.

Fifth, ever fewer people make their own music. Instead, moderns listen to music made by professionals. For most worshipers, congregational worship is the only time that they sing – unless s/he is singing to her or himself, perhaps while in the shower or accompanying a recording when driving a car, confident no one else is listening. Similarly, many vocalists now perform to recorded music, rather than live accompaniment. Our rich tradition of hymnody is foreign, not only in its theology and biblical allusions, but in its implicit expectations that worshipers both know how to read music and want to sing.

Every time that I write a column on this or a related topic, a handful of people responds by vociferously defending TEC and its worship. That's great. I'm thankful they like TEC and its worship. I also like our Church and its worship. However, myopically focusing on personal preference completely ignores the overarching problem. TEC is in trouble. Twenty years from now, and God willing I hope to be alive then, I want to be part of a vibrant expression of Christ's body engaged in vital mission, not a scattered remnant struggling against the odds to survive in overly large, unaffordable buildings.

Tinkering with TEC structure will not change that future. Decreasing numbers of people identify with our music, understand the fullness of our liturgy, and want to be part of organized religion, much less belong to a small congregation focused on survival instead of mission. And among people who do want to be part of TEC, discouragingly few invest their time and energy in the institution on a diocesan or national level. For example, out of almost two million Episcopalians, fewer than 200 responded to the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) request for input (some of those responses may have been collective, representing a still insignificant response rate in a Church with 5000 plus congregations). If the prospect of restructuring has failed to excite and to energize our committed constituency, only the naïve or foolish would think that restructuring will reverse declining numerical trends.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Listening for echoes


Almost fifteen years ago, after a visit to the former Church of St. Etienne (constructed in the 11th century, it is now a museum), in Beaugency, France, I wrote:
 

Echoes of voices

Resounding from hard walls

Hard floors,

A space full of echoes of life.

 

An unsmiling woman,

Proud beauty weighed with the cares of years;

Ripe fields, bright flowers –

Echoes of life,

Refracted from eye and hand of artist.

 

Built for echoes,

Echoes of the unseen,

Heard in water and bread and wine and light,

With a voice that echoed across the centuries

And echoes even now.

 

Few if any

Hear the ever so soft reverberations,

As they see and feel these new

Echoes of life.

 

Lent is a time to listen for the echoes, to hear a word (or music) of life in the spaces of our lives that seem empty, perhaps even deserted, spaces that we preserve museum-like, unwilling to fill them but unsure of why we keep them. And in those echoes, one can sometimes experience anew an elusive love, a force that draws us more deeply into the elusive mystery at the heart of life.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ukraine and the Crimea


The political situation in Ukraine is politically and morally more complex than listening to the news media and politicians would suggest.

Politically, Russia wants to protect important national interests. The United States invaded both Grenada and Panama with less at stake (alleged concern for the well-being of a small number of U.S. citizens, mostly medical students, justified the invasion of Grenada to keep a pro-Marxist popular regime from power; trying to reduce drug imports justified the invasion of Panama) than Russia has at stake in the future of Crimea. Russia's concern include the well-being of Russian citizens and Ukrainian citizens who are ethnic Russians living in Crimea, the security of its major Black Sea Naval port, and the uninterrupted flow, through pipelines that cross Ukraine, of natural gas and oil exports. The United States arguing that Russia should not act assertively to protect its perceived national interests appears hypocritical, revealing that the U.S. perceives its national interests lie in keeping Russia weak and surrounded by unfriendly powers.

For similar reasons, the U.S., NATO, and the European Union badly miscalculated when they sought to incorporate former Eastern European nations into western alliances after the fall of the iron curtain. Those actions are akin to Russia or China seeking to incorporate Mexico and Canada into alliances as a way of limiting U.S. influence. The U.S. would, to say the least, feel threatened and respond aggressively, perhaps more aggressively than Russian has in the Crimea.

Morally, people have a right to self-determination. How granular is that right, i.e., at what level of disaggregation should people be able to form an independent state? This is not an abstruse philosophical question. Some communities in the United States would like to withdraw from the union because they feel disenfranchised by the federal and/or state governments; other communities in the United States want to secede because they wish to form homogenous ethnic or religious enclaves.

On the other hand, disaggregation can make the world a more dangerous place, result in the creation of a state that lacks the resources and population base to provide essential public services for its people (let alone defend its people and territory against aggression), and result in more rather than less prejudice (think of the racial cleansing that apartheid South Africa attempted).

Putin is not Hitler. Russia does not have plans for global conquest – those died when Communism did. The West lacks the wherewithal to stop Russia from annexing the Crimea without great loss of life – perhaps more loss of life than the Crimean population. Whether one views the problem through the lens of history, political realism, or ethics, the view is muddied.

The United States may object to Russia annexing the Crimea, may protest that action, may take diplomatic action, and perhaps even impose some sanctions, but the U.S. and its allies will do well to remember that in the final analysis stopping Russia would carry far too high a price tag to justify a war (for more on Just War Theory, cf. my book Forging Swords into Plows). Bellicose language is therefore inappropriate and unhelpful.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The "fall," temptation, and growth

In the sermon that I preached the first Sunday in Lent, I consider the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a story that twenty-first century, scientifically literate people find problematic and suggest an alternative interpretation. Perhaps eating the forbidden fruit represents a step forward in human development rather than a fall from an idyllic state of grace. If so, we owe women thanks for having had the courage to go where no man had gone before!

I also offer some reflections on sinful temptation based on Jesus' experience of temptation in the wilderness. Sinful temptation has three key elements: the external, internal and eternal. Follow this link to read the sermon.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rethinking publish or perish


College and university faculty usually experience the defining dictum, "Publish or perish." Faculty progression toward tenure – for the fortunate few hired in a tenure track job instead of as an adjunct (cf. my previous Ethical Musings post, Supply and demand in the PhD labor market) – depends upon the individual successfully publishing peer reviewed articles and books.

Peer review, when it works well, entails a blind review of the draft of an article or book by peers, i.e., acknowledged, reputable scholars in the same discipline. One purpose of peer review is to prevent the publication (or rejection) of material based on reputation (or lack thereof). Another purpose of peer review is to promote the use of current data and the best available scholarly methods. In general, peer review is not the problem.

The problem with publish or perish is, first, the presumption that every faculty member is a skilled researcher whose new ideas will significantly advance her or his field. That presumption is obviously false. Yet the presumption is deeply embedded in institutions of higher learning and has resulted in a proliferation of scholarly journals filled with articles that make marginal (or no) contributions to the authors' discipline, contributions more accurately characterized as chaff than substance. This assessment is especially true in disciplines other than the hard sciences, but even in those fields, some scholars conduct research of little or no value in order to publish the results.

The second problem is more serious: faculty members have little incentive to teach well. Promotion and retention is contingent upon publishing, not teaching well. And once awarded tenure, some faculty members focus on researching (many times, this was their original preference but in many fields there are no jobs that pay for research without some teaching). Other faculty members use the free conferred by tenure to do perform at a minimally acceptable level, teaching poorly while doing little or no research.

Incidentally, the purpose of tenure for college and university faculty members is to give individuals the economic security, and hence the freedom, to teach what they perceive is correct, able to ignore political correctness, social pressures, etc.

Two hundred years ago, before the proliferation of PhD programs, much college and university teaching was done by individuals who held a Master's degree, i.e., by individuals who had mastered their discipline but not contributed to advancing that field through the research that culminated in a doctoral dissertation. As the supply of PhDs increased, individuals with only a Master's degree filled fewer teaching positions. The greatest cost of this shift has been a precipitous drop in the quality of pedagogy at even the best institutions of higher learning.

Degree inflation has become widespread. Large corporations routinely insist that many new hires have a college degree, regardless of whether the position filled requires the skills (e.g., writing well, problem solving, or working well with others) or the knowledge (e.g., of biology or math) that the degree supposedly signifies.

Society and individuals would come out ahead if our public school system (K through grade 12) emphasized giving people basic life skills and then preparing people either for low skill jobs (but keeping this track narrow!), decent paying skilled work (e.g., many of the trades, lots of positions in healthcare, first responders, etc.), and college/university. Persons in the latter track would face greater expectations (no more teaching of basic skills in college!), have better teachers, and in the four years of college, supplemented by however many years of graduate school a particular profession might require, truly master their field. Ideally, we would no longer have PhDs unable to write a grammatically correct sentence (I once had one with this level of grammatical ability work for me).

In other words, let's restore integrity to teaching at all levels and ensure that diplomas and degrees are worth the paper on which they are printed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday


This year, I'm not offering anything new for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I hope you will take a few moments to read two previous Ethical Musings posts. The first, entitled Ash Wednesday, discusses the basic ideas behind the imposition of ashes and the other, Getting Ready for Lent, examines the practice of choosing a Lenten discipline.

The challenge of Ash Wednesday and Lent is not in finding something new to say (after preaching and writing for forty years, I don't worry about that!), but in hoping that people will take themselves, their spiritual lives, and their connectedness to God, others, and the world seriously.

May your Lent – the forty days of preparation between Ash Wednesday and Easter – be a spiritually beneficial time in which you strengthen your awareness of those connections.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Some musings about welfare reform


Recently I have been mulling the problems of welfare, just social safety nets, and Christian perspectives on economics. Coincidentally, a friend sent me a link to Nick Spencer, ed., The Future of Welfare: A Theos Collection (London: Theos, 2014). Theos, for those unfamiliar, is a Christian think tank in the UK. The anthology is a reasonably quick read, bringing together a dozen essays on the British welfare state, the need for reform, and principles that should shape reform. Most of the essays are written from an explicitly Christian perspective; one, very informative essay, is written by a Muslim who offers an Islamic view on the problems of the welfare state.

Concurrently, I also stumbled across an article in the Wall Street Journal that reported wealth inequality in the United States is now slightly greater than the inequality that existed in Britain in 1929 between aristocrats (like Lord Grantham) and the working poor (like his servants at Downton Abbey). Every time that I watch an episode of Downton Abbey, I am struck by the long hours servants work and their need to work and the idle lifestyle that the Earl of Grantham, his family, and other aristocratic families can adopt if they choose.

On the one hand, I want to live in a society that ensures everyone has access to life's basic necessities (decent food, drink, shelter, healthcare, and education). It was William Temple, when Archbishop of Canterbury, who coined the phrase the "welfare state" to describe our obligation we have to care for one another.

On the other hand, every adult also has a measure of responsibility for self. Denying this element of individual responsibility demeans one's personhood, reducing the person to a dependent, i.e., living as a child rather than an adult. Work is important because work affords people an opportunity to contribute to the common good, individuals the opportunity to function with at least some degree of autonomy, and afford individuals a sense of self-worth and dignity.

Welfare states, like the US and UK, in which families subsist on government aid for multiple generations, have struck the wrong balance between individual and mutual responsibility. Conversely, welfare states like the US, which spends more on healthcare than any other nation in the world spends for worse outcomes, has also struck the wrong balance – for the opposite reason – between individual and mutual responsibility.

Among the ideas in the Theos document that I found intriguing and provocative are:

  • Conceptualizing the welfare state in terms of reciprocity and risk-pooling, i.e., taxes that support entitlement programs are analogous to insurance payments that one makes, hopes never to need, and that make providing for potential catastrophe (e.g., a house fire or car cash) affordable. What people who contribute by paying their taxes but who never directly benefit from the scheme receive is (1) peace of mind from knowing that if calamity struck, they are covered and (2) the right to feel good from helping others. Calamity can strike all of us, whether in the form of unexpected disease, disability, economic collapse, or another hardship that individual cannot reasonably anticipate let alone prepare to meet alone. The welfare state expresses our concern for one another in ways that should expect all to contribute and that is reliable.
  • One of the weaknesses of the current welfare state is that too many people do not contribute; another weakness is that top earners do not bear their fair share of the burden.
  • Three key, overarching ethical values that should shape the welfare state are: fair, generous, and sustainable. Fair connotes a system that inclusive and treats all equitably. Part of treating all equitably is that the system should have incentives to encourage those who draw benefits to become self-supporting rather than indefinitely dependent upon the largesse of others. Generous connotes benefits that do not require people to live at a subsistence level. Sustainable connotes that the government must be able to afford the benefits its pays, generating sufficient revenue through taxes as well as having controls in place to prevent fraud and other abuses.
  • Contributors to the Theos collection divided over whether benefits should be means tested. Means testing can help to keep the welfare state affordable and seems appropriate for insurance schemes (lack of means is equivalent to a house fire or car accident in other insurance schemes).
  • What was not clear to me was how the welfare state can creatively and constructively address the issue of strongly encouraging, even requiring, both parents to support children. The UK, like the US, has experienced in the last half century a sharp rise in the percentage of children raised in single parent households; the nonresidential parent often contributes disproportionately little to the expense of raising the child(ren). Procreating a child entails responsibilities and expenses that both parents should share, regardless of the status of their personal relationship.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom can benefit from welfare reform. The welfare state, as found in both nations, is not only increasingly expensive (this, sadly, often appears to be the primary driver in calls for welfare reform) but also fails to provide adequate benefits for all (think of the growing numbers of beggars in our cities) while encouraging dependency rather than promoting healthy self-reliance in the context of mutual interdependence. As the Theos documents repeatedly insists, we can do better.