The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


When giants fall

Businesses fail every day. So do films, industrial parks, hospitals, churches and marriages.

Dreams and hard work don't always win the gold. But when giants fall, the earth trembles.

The agonizing travails of an arrogant auto industry that was determined not to learn from experience took its largest victim recently, when the Motor City itself filed for bankruptcy.

Watch for other cities to follow suit. Big Auto isn't the only large industry to lose its way through hubris and mismanagement, and Detroit isn't the only city held captive — and rendered dysfunctional — by greed in high places.

The earth shook in Seattle, too, as longtime tech giant Microsoft showed how difficult it is for a successful enterprise to question the ground of its success and to adapt nimbly to changing conditions. It's so much easier to wring another quarter of profits from an old paradigm — until that paradigm is bone-dry.

Microsoft isn't the first tech giant to implode and it won't be the last. The symptoms of earnings tanking, new products failing and the innovation instinct made cautious are not unique to one of the world's biggest computer companies. Still, the passing of an era is disconcerting to those who grew that era and, no less, to those who are riding newer waves. Their days also could be numbered and for the same reasons: Innovation and reliable profits rarely share the sandbox. Dreamer-builders and "suits" don't get along. Google had a bad quarter too.

The "young and restless" inevitably become the "mature and settled." It isn't an erosion of capability — some say older innovators accomplish more than youth — but rather an aversion to further risk, a visceral need for a steady paycheck, a desire to enjoy the harvest of success rather than save it for seed.

Hierarchies of power replace loose teams of energized collaborators. Fresh ideas collide with committees and, as at Microsoft, massive over-management. Leaders in the growth spurt conclude (quite wrongly) that growth was about them and not about luck, convergence and an entrepreneurial spirit that mixed hard work, high risk and delayed gratification.

On the one hand, the problem of maturing is nothing new. Count the casualties, from the men's hat industry to corner hardware stores. You could add in the so-called "founder's dilemma," when the builder of an enterprise realizes his children have no "fire in the belly," just an appetite for the good life.

Yet on the other hand, the withering of a Microsoft seems surprising and dreadful because of what it says about any permanence of success. You see this in churches, where even the healthiest congregation can be just one avoided risk from decline.

It doesn't take much to stifle momentum: All it takes is one caving to settledness, one older cadre denouncing further change, one pastor who chooses to be a manager and not an entrepreneur.

When a startup is young, pioneers fear nothing. Hard work — bring it on. Lack of resources — we'll make do. Failure — great learning opportunity.

In time, settlers take over. They deal with danger, not by embracing it but by minimizing risk. No more delayed paydays. I want my $1 million wedding now, or, as Detroit found, my never-ending pension untethered from funding.

In their aversion to risk, they cease rigorous self-examination, but prefer to see today continuing forever, or at least until they get their due.

No enterprise can survive getting too comfortable. Serenity comes from living on the edge, in constant transformation, not from eating well. 


Maurice Clark

Maurice Clark

Posted at 2:02 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/6/2013

Pastor Ehrich, Far be it from me to offer suggestions to an ordained man of the Cross, but when you mix the metaphoric batter, you risk the cake falling flat. And you also risk a "Failure to communicate" So, after reading your article, my opening question is: "Huh"? 

I think your point is that the church needs to be able to change to be relevant in changing times, but I am going to question your metaphors one at a time.

Not only has the car industry survived, and changed, it largely abandoned its Detroit base in order to do so. Was it easy? Absolutely not! but the failure here is not the automobile industry, the failure is Detroit.

And Detroit failed because it COULD NOT change! The city was saddled with fixed labor costs, pension plans and a diminished tax base. Its leaders, and citizens (who remained) could not imagine that the then current city model was no longer viable. AND both the industry and its citizens, who could change, went elsewhere.

The resulting metaphor to churches might be to recognize a changing neighborhood, and then face the challenges of that reality, or lose both members and relevance. It would thereby bankrupt itself because it was unwilling to accept reality. A capital "C" Church that no longer meets the needs of the people, and that says "This is who we have been for 600 years, you are the ones who have to accept us as we are" risks modern day Martin Luther coming along to do the job that is needed.

OK, what about the Microsoft comparison? Microsoft is hardly a metaphor either for a failed corporation, OR a failed Church. It isn't even a comparison to Detroit, or corporate entities such as American Ice, which did not change when refrigerators became common. American Ice failed because it could not change its entire reason for existence.

Your comparison of Detroit to either Microsoft or the Church is (charitably) inept. Is Microsoft a failure with $77 BILLION in cash, banked as a life preserver allowing it to change as customer needs evolved? I would argue that the company has not failed, it is YOU as a shareholder who has failed, by holding on to expectations based on unrecognized conditions that HAD changed.

I would suggest that your metaphors are nearly valid, but for the wrong reasons, and that the conclusion drawn is at best fuzzy.

My suggested conclusion is this: The capital "C" church, as well as local congregations in a changing world, will need to change the way that they DELIVER an unchanging message, or risk irrelevance in a new world.

After listening to Presiding Bishop Hanson, and Bishop Chris Boerger at the Northwest Washington Synod Assembly in May, I heard the call to change the delivery, but keep the message! Not because failure was inevitable, but that failure was already upon us.   

Note: Maurice Clark edited this post at 3:09 pm on 8/6/2013.

Linda Worden

Linda Worden

Posted at 6:25 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/6/2013

This column left me feeling a little confused as well, but I think that space constraints prevented full development of the comparisons between the church and other organizations.

To my way of thinking, the institutional church is better compared to a city, as they both are communities established for the common good, at least in theory.  The comparison between the church and Detroit makes more sense to me than the comparison between the church and a profit-driven enterprise like Microsoft. 

Microsoft needs to innovate to gain or maintain market share, but does the church need to innovate for the same reason?  Should the focus be on increased membership and giving, or is that exactly the issue?  Shouldn't innovation in the church be based first on faith, hope and love?

This isn't the easiest thread to tease out of the tangle of issues facing the institutional church.  There is an urgent need to change the church experience so that a broader community can relate to it.  On the other hand, this can turn into a fairly superficial process that is ultimately doomed to failure.

I think there is also a great danger that innovative Christians end up frustrated with the institutional church and simply move on.  We need the spiritual equivalent of venture capitalists who are willing to incubate new Christian enterprises. 


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