Infrastructure in Imperative

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“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” - Proverbs 29

In the final episode of the West Wing, a drama about life inside the White House circa 2006, the character CJ Cregg is wrestling with what to do with her life after the administration she has worked for ends. In the episode, she is approached by a well meaning billionaire who offers to give her $10 billion to solve an important world problem and asks what it should be spent on. Her response is interesting; she suggests building roads in Africa. She goes on to explain that development projects in that part of the world often fail for a lack of basic infrastructure to get resources and people where they are needed. It’s not glamorous work, she explains, but it’s important.

Several years after that episode aired, I found myself in the African country of Angola, contemplating the drive from the populated western coast to the rural interior where we would be staying. We were warned it would be a long and bumpy ride, hours on a dirt road. So, when we all piled into a small front wheel drive hatchback, I was a bit surprised. What we discovered was the road was actually newly paved, and it took far less time to get where we were going than expected. It may even have been a comfortable drive if not for the large amount of luggage we were carrying on our laps.

Turns out the road was paved to aid in the extraction of oil from eastern Angola. There were all sorts of new roads, paved by Chinese companies, to help move equipment around the country. Nearly all of Angola’s oil exports go to China. The roads were also benefiting the country in other ways because, of course, roads can carry all sorts of things. They were an economic boon for many, not just the oil and gas industry. They made all sorts of new opportunities possible and average people were very grateful for them.

This was a living embodiment of what the fictional CJ Cregg was talking about. And it seemed to be working. Or, was it?

Road from Luanda to Malangje
Several years later I was hosting a Angolan missionary in my home and we were talking about several things, including these roads. What I had been told was the Chinese government had built the roads, which was true. However, what I did not know was that the Angolan government had paid China to build the roads and they were built with almost all imported Chinese labor, despite large unemployment among native Angolans. And, where did they get the money to pay for the roads? They borrowed it from China.

Infrastructure, a valuable tool that should benefit everyone, was co-opted into something that actually furthered unhealthy dependency.

Infrastructure is both boring and insanely impactful. Those who control the infrastructure of an organization wield a large amount of power that often goes unseen. My first career was in software development for large corporate HR systems and this is just as true for software and technology as it is for roads. Whether the organization is a whole country, a city, a school, a company, an industry, or a church, those who control how work is done have great, often unnoticed, influence. Also, nothing will hamstring an organization like a lack of proper infrastructure. Proverbs 29 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Certainly vision is critical. But I would add that where there is no infrastructure, the people go nowhere.

I am part of a denomination that is struggling to find a vision for who we will be in the future. It is important work. Real and lasting harm is being done while we continue to wade through the mess we made for ourselves. My heart breaks over it constantly. At the same time, I’m also painfully aware that all the challenges outside the wedge issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion are all still there. For more than two decades, a slow-moving crisis of local church vitality has been unfolding. Lately, while we are focused on General Conferences and Judicial Councils, that crisis is speeding up. Our local congregations are increasingly isolated from their communities and treated as increasingly irrelevant. Not just around human sexuality, but in almost every arena of life. Our pews are emptying and those who remain are increasingly anxious.

At a recent meeting of pastors in my area, as we discussed bold new ideas, one person shared her greatest issue was just getting the bills paid. Her 80 year old treasurer was no longer able to keep track of all the checks and things were getting lost. Worse, nobody was stepping up to fill the gap and, even if they did, there were no system in place to train a replacement. It was all up to the church to figure out on their own. When I held the congregational development job for my conference I was initially surprised by how basic so many of the requests I got were. People needed help because their organist had retired and they couldn’t find a replacement. They couldn’t staff all the required committees with people able to do the jobs. Larger churches had no intentional systems for making disciples or even language to understand why it was important. When the most basic of tasks aren't being done well, how are you supposed to focus on the larger adaptive changes? Looking back, I wish I had spent my years focused more on the basics. I may have done more good.

In several places people are simply abandoning the work of trying to revitalize existing congregations and instead shifting their investments toward new faith communities. Processes like Healthy Church Initiative and its variants (including the one I developed, Whole Church) have never lived up to the expectations. Recent data shows continued decline in every jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church in the United States. We are now competing over who is declining more slowly.

Countless millions have been spent at all levels of the connection on programs, consultants, strategic plans, and inspirational speakers. To say nothing of special General Conferences. Yet our church continues to function in an analog and disconnected way while the wider world is exactly the opposite: digital and hyper-connected. The basic infrastructure we operate on is a collection of static books like the Book of Discipline, Hymnal, and Conference journal. Sure, there was a time when this may have been enough, but that time has long since passed. My local congregation pays hundreds of dollars each month in apportionments to the wider church. On top of that we pay additional fees for our church management system (Yay Breeze!), website hosting, live streaming, and worship presentation software. All of which we had to find and deploy on our own and all of which are critical for us to function.

This may be an uncomfortable analogy for some, but bear with me. If you are part of a franchise business one thing you expect to receive in return for your franchise fees is access to the basic infrastructure you need to run your business. There is no national franchise restaurant that doesn't include a point of sale system tailored to the needs of its franchisees. I’d argue that modern church management systems and communications tools are the equivalent for us. Training in the core tasks of the business is also a central part of any franchise. Five Guys Burgers has well developed tools to make sure people know how to make the burgers right.

So while we continue spend precious time, energy, and money fighting among ourselves, the infrastructure that runs our churches and wider connection continues to age and decay like the roads and bridges of our country. Local congregations are now burdened by working around this decay by identifying and deploying their own solutions or, if they don’t have the ability, simply going without. This leads to a fractured environment where we can’t support each other with knowledge and best practices because we are all using different tools. When a pastor moves from one church to another, they often have to learn completely new systems. And, in a final affront to my personal sensibilities as an engineer, the same data often must be entered multiple times into different systems run by different levels of the organization, by hand, because the systems don’t talk to each other.

If we want a connectional church for this century, we need to send in the engineers. We need user focused tools that are simple to use and address the needs of our local churches. It will be very tempting to let the needs of the Annual Conference office or general agency drive this work as it has in the past. They, after all, are the ones holding our collective resources. However, those resources all enter the system in the same place: the local church offering plate. The needs of those who pass and fill those plates must come first, which only happens when they are put in charge.

It is also tempting to look at the current system and claim that it is a good thing that each congregation has the ability to choose the tools that best fit their needs. Perhaps. However, how many churches have the time or expertise to honestly evaluate the options available and make an informed choice? One advantage of being a connectional church is that, on many things, we all function in very similar ways. This makes it easier to tailor tools to meet our shared needs and makes the possibility of doing it collectively even more beneficial.

Widespread problems don’t go unsolved for long. There are already countless for-profit vendors who will happily sell your local church a solution. While the idea that we can all pick what we want may sound like an advantage, a fractured ecosystem is quite the opposite. In fact, most organizations have learned that the more distributed you are the more critical it is that folks are using the same tools. You’d be hard pressed to find an organization more distributed than the United Methodist Church.

Please hear me, I’m not diminishing the struggle happening in the church right now. I am deeply concerned about where we end up and I pray constantly for a fully inclusive church. I also know that someday the fighting will cease. At that point we may be one denomination, or two, or more, and we had better have a plan for what is next. One of the biggest sins of the Iraq war was there was no plan for what happened after the invasion was over and because of that the basic infrastructure of the country failed, leading to even greater harm. We need to be realistic and recognise that if a time comes when congregations are made to choose who they want to affiliate with, their ideals around inclusion will play a part, as will their belief about who can keep the lights on and the water flowing.

Finally, let’s not forget the lesson of the Angolan roads. Those who control the infrastructure have tremendous influence that can be used for either the wider good or more self serving purposes. I’m the last to say we need to reinvent the wheel, but I wonder what it would look like for a conference, or several conferences, or a whole (new) denomination to partner with existing vendors and invest in developing the tools we need tailored to us. This is how large organizations solve these types of challenges. In many ways, we are at least a decade behind in doing this. It’s not glamorous, it won’t make headlines, and best case is it becomes something we take for granted, like the roads leading to our churches today. But imagine for a second, what if that road wasn’t there? Or the pipes to carry the water? Or the wire to carry the electricity? What if you had to find your own solutions to each? It’s time to send in the engineers and start laying a shared infrastructure for our future. - Jeremy W. Scott

Dear Father God, Thank You for Your unfailing love for me, Your blessings, and goodness. Thank You for Your faithfulness to guide me and see me through times of uncertainty, for lifting me up, and setting me on high. Thank You for Scripture that comforts and reminds me of Your promises, plan, and provision. Thank you for taking away my fears and worries, the what-ifs, and reminding me that my help comes from You. Help me be a good steward and to sow wisely. Amen.
May 16 2019