Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Getting rid of clutter

Two of my previous posts, Post-industrialization and Excess ecclesiastical infrastructure, prompted some additional musings about getting rid of clutter, both institutional and personal.

A series of questions has helped me to identify clutter, to assist others in doing likewise, and to evaluate institutional structures and resources:

1.    What is presently useful?

2.    What do I realistically anticipate be useful in the future?

3.    What has genuine aesthetic or unique sentimental value?

4.    What is irreplaceable or difficult to upgrade at a reasonable cost (all costs, not just financial) to improve performance or satisfaction?

Dispose (sell, contribute to charity, recycle, or, as a last resort, trash) of all items that do not satisfy one or more of those conditions.

Here are the principles behind the questions:

1.    Keep that which is useful in the present. Get rid of surplus quantities (these always entail some costs, e.g., storage, maintenance, etc.).

2.    Keep that which one can reasonably anticipate using in the foreseeable future (if the cost of keeping something exists the replacement cost, err on the side of disposal).

3.    Keep that which has significant aesthetic or unique sentimental value (this requires honest analysis; as with all possessions/structures, hanging on to items for their aesthetic or sentimental value entails costs that may far exceed any benefit).

4.    Replace items (and dispose of the old!) when a better, affordable alternative exists, i.e., practice continual improvement by seeking to improve or upgrade the status quo. Change is endemic to life and, no matter how good an item may be, improvement is always possible. Newer is not necessarily better; sometimes refurbishing the old (as in renewing a relationship) trumps replacement.

Get rid of everything else – structures, possessions, etc. Economists and ethical utilitarians will recognize that this approach to getting rid of clutter is a functional cost-benefit analysis.

Applying this analytical method to ecclesiastical infrastructure, the questions become:

1.    What buildings, congregational structures, and diocesan structures actually contribute to building God’s kingdom in the present? For example, the U.S. population is increasingly urban, leaving many once thriving rural congregations with small numbers that struggle to maintain a building and programs, perhaps meeting their own needs but doing little to advance the kingdom beyond their own lives. Similarly, some groups within a parish, such as a men’s or women’s group, that once met real needs may today be a burdensome legacy, marginalized by changing cultural patterns. I made a similar point in my post on excess ecclesiastical infrastructure, pointing to a 38% decrease in the number of Episcopalians without a corresponding decrease in the number of congregations or dioceses, which has resulted in increased per capita administrative overhead.

2.    What marginally used buildings, etc., will, within five or ten years, again be situated so as to become vital assets for doing God’s work? A building that can easily accommodate 100 people but hosts only 40 for three hours per week is a very costly way to provide space for those 40 people. But, if located in an area likely to quadruple in population because of urban sprawl, keeping the building may cost less than obtaining a new facility when needed.

3.    Experts can determine aesthetic value. A Tiffany window, for example, is clearly valuable but by itself insufficient to justify the expense of maintaining a building. An unused or underused facility represents not only a cost in terms of maintenance and operations but also an opportunity cost: if sold, the funds gained could perhaps advance the kingdom in more effective and efficient ways; if donated to another congregation or organization, the donation is itself a mission work. Not all items that have sentimental value have unique sentimental value. To preserve the past in total would be to make the church a historical preservation society rather than a human transformation organization.

4.    The switch from outhouses to interior bathrooms poignantly illustrates the value and necessity of facility upgrades. Yet plumbing fixtures, along with heating, air conditioning, and ventilation equipment, are among the few aspects of ecclesiastical architecture in most places that have changed substantially in the last 150 years. Chairs, for example, provide more flexibility, intimacy, and sense community for small groups than do rigid pews. In an era when God seems too distant, remote altars reinforce that impression rather than an altar situated in the midst of the worshipers. Two centuries of experience have proven Sunday Schools, once thought the ideal approach to evangelism and formation, less effective than hoped. Yet many congregations carry the expensive burden of large, seriously underutilized religious education facilities, rarely exploring alternative uses for those spaces. In an era when community exists virtually and informally, the extensive committee structures that characterize most congregations and dioceses are anachronisms that consumer precious volunteer hours and do little to advance the kingdom.

One major difficulty in disposing of clutter is that people become emotionally attached to possessions, buildings, and structures for a variety of reasons, many of them unhealthy. These things, for example, may create the illusion – but never the reality – of security. Clinging to the past may prevent one from moving boldly into the future that God intends. Clutter may be emotional as well as physical.

When was the last time you sought to de-clutter your life, congregation, or diocese? What clutter prevents you from living as fully, boldly, and productively as God intends?


Chuck Till said...

One of the questions is what to do with disused church structures in towns where no TEC congregation is viable. In many of these towns there is little or no demand for these disused properties from other denominations, commercial redevelopers, governments or non-profits. The disused properties essentially sit and rot. In a very few cases it might be cost-effective to relocate these structures into a rapidly growing metro area, but in the majority of cases it won't be cost-effective to do so. Does anyone have a suggestion?

George Clifford said...

Good question, Chuck. In England, some redundant churches (as the English term such buildings) are sold to people who use them for other purposes; the Church, then utilizes the funds gained for mission.