Customer Quicksand

You may have seen the recent article about the musician whose vintage guitar was destroyed by the Delta Airlines baggage handling system.  His attempts to contact Delta about it were simply disregarded.  They vanished into the quicksand of the corporate bog without a trace.  There is nothing like being ignored to enhance customer satisfaction.  Almost as bad is to receive a computer generated response that makes it abundantly clear that your letter, email or phone call was sorted into slot A to be answered by response B.
The story ended well for Mr. Schneider, the musician in question.  He received apologies and compensation from Delta, but only after the event became well publicized on the Internet.  In other words, only after the matter ceased to be just another customer annoyance and became an issue of corporate image damage control.  It should not have to be that way.  Events should not have to escalate to viral status on the Internet before they generate a response that bears the mark of understanding authenticity.
It would not be fair to dump on Delta Airlines alone for the corporate sin of disregard of the individual in favor of aggregate numbers defining performance in the market place, which are likely to skewed by staff to please or appease top management.  It’s a characteristic of most bureaucracies, and an organization does not have to be all that large to behave bureaucratically.  The matter is complicated by the advent of email, which makes it easy to dash off a quick note of complaint about some triviality that one would never send if it required the cost of a first class stamp.  Being flooded with them leads to dumping most into the disregard pile.  Government agencies, congressional offices, corporations, and even church organizations are guilty in equal measure.
The solution is a simple one, or should be.  Assuming that an organization is one of overall integrity, the course of daily business will always generate events that evoke some level of customer dissatisfaction.  The majority of them are predictable, mostly a function of the normal variation that occurs in the life of every system.  To be sure, some systems are sloppier and/or greedier than others, more tolerant of behavior that is likely to generate complaints.  But assuming that a particular organization has higher standards and tighter systems, the lowest level of staff possible should be fully authorized to respond with clear, honest communication and compensation if appropriate, on behalf of the entire organization, and trained and encouraged to do so.  Any event that falls outside the predictable majority should be quickly flagged and immediately attended to by whoever is designated to do so in the like manner.  Outliers demand at least some attention to see whether the “way we do things” needs to be changed.
Will that happen?  Probably not, except for temporary spurts engineered by the PR department, or some outside consultant, because the CEO publicly announced that he/she would see that something like this “will never happen again.”  It’s possibly the single dumbest thing that any CEO could say, but often does.  Parenthetically, the second dumbest thing is to treat every event as a unique requiring a unique solution.  That can only end up creating such a tangled mess of standards and procedures that the entire organization grinds to a slow, halting circular dance in which vertical motion is mistaken for forward progress (Churches are especially prone to that).  The third dumbest thing is to be paralyzed by paranoid nitpickers in the legal department.
Will we cease doing these three dumbest things?  Probably not.  Why abandon what we do so well, and for which we are so richly rewarded by the executive compensation system?

Thoughts on Retirement

As I approach the fifth anniversary of my retirement, I’m becoming more aware of the some of the losses others before me have talked about.  
I am more acutely aware that younger people absorbed with important responsibilities for the care and management of their congregations share a community of interests that bind them together.  It’s a community of interests I used to take for granted, but am no longer a part of.  They are happy to share their gatherings with us retired clergy.  After all, many of us are still quite active in ministry, but the stark reality is that as we age we become warmly befriended guests who do not and cannot share in the immediacy of issues confronting them.  At some point continued failure to show up at a gathering of active clergy will simply go unnoticed.  
In like manner, while I retain a spot on at least one diocesan board, leadership has passed on, as it should, to younger persons whose gifts and energy will benefit the church for years to come.  Still, it seems like only moments ago that I was one of the younger leaders, and I find myself a little surprised to discover me as an elder whose “wisdom” is usually welcomed and appreciated, but often unneeded.
I haven’t always been an Episcopal priest; earlier in my career I had been well educated in organization development and the social psychology of the workplace, enough so that I could teach courses and offer consulting services to a wide variety of groups in many parts of the country.  It’s dated knowledge now, thirty or forty years old, and dreadfully behind the times.  I still think it’s good stuff, but there are new authors, new books, new presentations and a new generation providing congregational development guidance.  They do excellent work.  No doubt they would be happy to let me help out, but I would have to go through their training and do it according to their way, and I am just enough of a stubborn old curmudgeon to object.
On the other hand, it is also true that retirement offers one more freedom to choose when and to whom one is willing to make commitments.  We have chosen to travel as much as we are able to places we have always wanted to see now that we are not bound by obligations to children and work.  There is a cost to that.  It takes us away from engagement with important local issues, and from gathering times of fellow clergy, diocesan leadership, and community events.  While we eagerly go off to explore the world and enjoy our adventures, we also lose touch with the world of work that defined our existence for many years.  It’s a sort of ungluing.  It’s a question of whether they are leaving me behind or I am leaving them behind.  One way or the other, it happens.
Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the world would little note nor long remember what was said there.  He was wrong about that, but he was right about a central truth for most of us.  We trust that by God’s grace our lives will have made a difference for the better in the lives of others around us and for generations yet to come, but to expect that the world will note or long remember, that is more than we are entitled to.

Catharsis of a sort

The Chick-fil-A issues has been much commented on, so I might as well wade in along with the others.
The first thing that should not need to be said is that Mr. Cathy has the right to speak as he pleases whether or not I agree with what he says.  The second does need to be said, and that is that the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco also have the right to speak out, but not the right to announce a preemptive ban on a business that otherwise meets all legal requirements to exist in their cities.  A vindictive Mr. Cathy might open a restaurant in each city just to make a point, even at the cost of losing a lot of money.  
Moving on, having listened to news excerpts of his speeches and writings, I’m terribly disappointed to learn that Mr. Cathy has little understanding of the bible, and easily confuses custom with exegesis.  Marriage is often mentioned in scripture, and in such a wide variety of settings that I don’t think one can draw any kind of line that defines what God says marriage is.  The church hierarchy in the Christian west has tended to accept and enforce, in the name of God, whatever the cultural norm was at any given time, and there have been many changes in that norm over the centuries.  As for my denomination, the Episcopal Church, I think our recent ten or twenty years of study was probably the first time that we have taken the time and invested the energy to do careful and prayerful theological study on the question of marriage.  Even now, our recently authorized rites of blessing are for same sex unions, not marriage per se.  Going against the cultural norm is not easy, even if we are convinced that it is the Godly thing to do, and the direction in which cultural norms are changing. 
That aside, I have not given much thought to Chick-fil-A for many years, but this episode brought to mind a men’s prayer breakfast in New York City that I was invited to attend sometime around 1996 or ’97.  Mr. Cathy (the elder, I presume) was the featured speaker, and had been described to me as an upstanding Christian man who was unafraid to run his business by Christian principles and speak boldly for Jesus.  The only thing I knew about Chick-fil-A was that I had walked by its outlets in the Atlanta airport many times.
The prayer breakfast seemed to revolve around two themes: first, to thank God that we successful (or wannabe successful) men (mostly white) were especially blessed – thank you Jesus; second, to assure one another that God looked favorably on our desires for the kind of people we believed ourselves to be,  the kind of country we lived in, and the way we did business.  What soon became clear was that this Christian testimony was nothing more than a reactionary political agenda wrapped in an American flag to which the name of Jesus had been affixed as many times as possible.  It was patronizing to the nth degree, self laudatory, and indeed he did speak boldly for Jesus, which is to say that he authorized himself to speak authoritatively on Jesus’ behalf.   For what it’s worth, I don’t recall that he had anything to say about homosexuality or marriage.   
I was dumfounded.  I had never heard such condescending, self serving hubris in all my life.  At the same time, it was equally clear that he was a true believer.  Whatever else he was, he was no phony.  He really believed everything he was saying to the last syllable.  That meant that, for at least a part of the audience, he was a most persuasive salesman.  Not for all.  New York City is a place where skepticism flourishes.  As for me, I left with an unpleasant sense that the patriotic, mercantile Christianity he was selling had little to do with the Christian faith that I had been a part of all my life, and now served as ordained clergy. 
What I did not know then is that he spoke, if not for Jesus, for a great many others who believe as he did, as his son does now, and that troubles me.  They are free to say whatever they like.  It’s their First Amendment right.   They do not have the right to stand unopposed by others exercising their First Amendment rights. 

Can We Do Better Than That?

The Israelites of Samuel’s day wanted a king.  A king they got.  They also got sectarian strife that led to harsh dictatorial rule that led to rebellion, that led to a cycle of repetition. 
We humans have a confused relationship with authority.  We want it.  We value it.  When we get it, we rebel against it.  We clamor for someone to lead us with unerring certainty as long as their certainty agrees with our certainty, and then we rebel against their authority the moment they try to exercise it.  As with the Hebrews of old, we send our own versions of Moses up the mountain to find out what God wants of us, and then argue with what is said on God’s behalf, preferring whatever golden calf is nearby.  A few of us contend that we are Moses with God alone is our authority in everything, but ascribe that authority to a five hundred year old edition of the bible, or worse, to whatever we claim has been “laid on our hearts,” which we then feel free to impose, if we can, on others. 
The authority of parents vs. the rights of children.  The authority of the law vs. personal freedom.  Bosses vs. subordinates.  Coaches vs. players.  Popes vs. nuns.  We just have a hard time with finding a comfortable place to live with authority.  Today’s Tea Partiers want as little government as possible, and would happily endorse autocratic rule to get it.  We contradict ourselves at every turn.  
I am way out of touch with contemporary research, but in the early 1970s O. J. Harvey produced a study in which he claimed that 65 – 70% of the U.S. population were most comfortable in authoritarian environments, divided, it seemed, between those who were more comfortable as active order givers, and those who were more comfortable carrying out orders.  That quickly leads to competing realms of authority with members in each camp almost certain that everyone else is wrong.  No doubt they need some form of corrective action to set things right.  He also asserted that another 10-15% could be labeled as anarchists rebelling against authority, either actively or passively, just because.  A perfect recipe for constant turmoil.  
It was a long time ago, and I’ve probably left out important variables, but the point he tried to make then was that we cannot assume that the majority of the population is interested in, or capable of, responsible self direction.  Was he right about that?  I’m not so sure.  If so, it’s pretty demoralizing.  The prophet Samuel, looking at the people of his own time and place, seemed to go along with Harvey.
I prefer to think that there are more of us who are capable of something better than that, although these last few years of political nonsense have left me in doubt.  Moreover, in retirement with more time to listen to a wider variety of people as a fairly anonymous bystander, I have become more aware of how many think in black and white terms, terribly uncomfortable with the grays of life.  Some are attracted to the certain authority of the Catholic Church, or the fundamentalist teaching of conservative Evangelicals. Some reject all authority, yet search endlessly for something to believe in.  Some are scared to death to question their own political, religious or social views on the assumption that, if they are not firmly, inflexibly held, they will collapse altogether.  Perhaps, for them, they are right.  How very sad.  Just the same, collectively I think we can do better than that. 

May. Bah!

Eliot declared April to be the cruelest month, but I think May is a worthy competitor, at least where I live.  Here, May brings weather that unpredictably gyrates from sunny and hot to rainy and cold.  In between it’s just overcast.  Newly manicured lawns and patios are trashed with locust seeds and other tree generated detritus, while garages are filled with cottonwood tufts, and both are dragged muddily through the house by pets and people alike. 
One day I’m in my summer uniform of shorts, tee shirt and flip flops (slippers).  The next I’ve got on winter clothing that needs to be put away, and soon.  The fireplace may not yet have seen its final blaze until fall.  But it is possible that the air conditioner could get an unexpected workout. 
It’s the fickleness of the whole thing.  Whatever happened to the romantic ideal of a seamless, gentle transition of spring into summer?  I thought May was supposed to provide that.

Beware The Jabberwock My Son, and also the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is preparing for its regular triennial convention this summer.  The House of Bishops will meet in sessions separate from the House of Deputies, which is made up of some 800 clergy and laity.  Either house may propose legislation in the form of a resolution, but each house must agree, in identical language, for a resolution to pass.  Deputies will have received a five pound notebook of papers to help them prepare for it.  Over nearly two weeks they will debate close to a thousand pieces of “legislation” that will have been parsed by committees holding open hearings.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of bureaucracy complicated by arcane rules of order, and the ridiculous idea, solemnly held, that all this so called “legislation” has real meaning for the kingdom of God, the world, the nation, the church and the ordinary people sitting in the pews.  Some of it does, but only some.
What got me going on this was a recent gathering where a several persons who are deeply involved in Convention took great pride in boasting about its size, length, number of resolutions, complexity of process, and the mind numbing endurance it takes to attend the many committee hearings scheduled for the odd hours of early morning and late night as if, somehow, all this exhausting vertical motion represents forward movement. 
That’s just not right!  If egos are well served by such a large, complicated gathering, so be it and God bless them.  But all the essential business of the church could easily be handled in half the time, through relatively simple procedures, culling resolutions to those that actually have something to do with the life and ministry of the church.
Twice I have been a deputy to Convention, and have been dumfounded at the time spent in floor debates about commas, prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs.  Additional time was spent on resolutions by the dozens commending, condemning, and instructing everyone from the United Nations to Congress and the President on a variety of issues, few of which will even be remembered within a week or two.  Grandiose plans for ministry in every conceivable area of interest are worked up with great enthusiasm only to be left unfunded, unheralded and unlamented.  Hearings on very complex and important subjects requiring serious scholarly study become arenas for the expression of personal opinion and emotional conviction testified to without fear of contradiction.
It’s not all bad.  Daily worship in the company of so many brothers and sisters in Christ is an amazing experience.  Small group bible study is always worthwhile, especially since it mixes up people from every part of the communion.  Now and then a genuine spirit of prayerful discernment descends upon the gathered, often through the gifted words of a chaplain.  The exhibit hall is a riot of churchy stuff to tempt even the most miserly, and there are a lot of freebies.  A supply of New York Times crossword puzzles and few good books help keep the mind sharp while interminable babbling issues forth from floor microphones.  New friendships are made, networking between interest groups takes place, and there are abundant opportunities for interesting conversation.  
Just the same, we can do better.  I hope we do.  I bet we don’t because we won’t.

The Communal Life in Acts

Our lectionary study group took less time than usual to get off the track this week.  The culprit was the very short episode in Acts 4 that describes the communal life style of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem.  
No one ever seems to notice that this brief moment of utopian communal life did not last long, and was not replicated in any other place where early Christians gathered.  So the first departure from the track had to do with the common assumption that it was the general rule in the life of the early church, and is prescriptive of the way we should live, at least as a romantic ideal.   It’s evidenced by a sort of collective sigh accompanied by a vaguely expressed thought about how sad it is that the Church has drifted so far away from that ideal.  Of course we have not the slightest interest in living like that, and are content to point at, but not get too near, various Amish and Mennonite communities as living in the way we should if we had any desire to do so, which we don’t, and wouldn’t even if given the chance. 
That is not to dismiss the value of that early communal life style.  No doubt it really was an earthly moment in time reflecting a little something of the eternal life in community that awaits.  It could endure for a while because of the overpowering presence of the resurrected Christ whose reconciling love cascaded over and through the early believers.  That reconciling love is still ours to share in the already but not yet between times in which our earthly lives are spent.  But it is ours only in part because we remain a work in progress, complete with the human weaknesses of Ananias and Sapphira, the grumpy apostles who had to wait on tables, the hellenistic faithful who were not treated well by native Israelites, and all the rest of them who were unable to maintain that communal way of life for very long. 
As for me, I’m delighted that they were able to give us a foretaste of the feast yet to come.
So much for theology.  The other way we got off track with such ease was the temptation to compare the communal life in Acts to communism and socialism. Most people have very little idea of what either actually is, but that doesn’t keep their very little idea from being firmly held.  The one thing they are certain of about communism is that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were all Russians committed to world domination and the destruction of the American Way of Life.  As for socialism, it’s the junior cousin of communism largely responsible for the nanny state excesses of Europe, and the demise of the Christian faith everywhere.  Beyond that, there seems to be little interest in knowing more about the political theory and practice defining either one.
If nothing else, it would be helpful to be reminded that the people of Acts never heard of either one, and would be dumfounded to discover that they were being held up as an example of them.  Nineteenth and twentieth century political theory and practice need to be kept where they belong and not transferred back to the first century.  It would be even more helpful if those with strong opinions knew what they were talking about before they started talking.  
Just to be fair, it is equally true that, regarding the American Way of Life, far too many, skeptics and true believers alike, do not know very much about capitalism, private enterprise vs. free enterprise, the principles of republican democracy, or, for that matter, the differences between the various types of democratic systems of government.


I ran into a local acquaintance the other day, a very conservative Presbyterian certain that his denomination is going down the tubes because it no longer respects the authority of scripture.  What it’s really about is homosexuality.  It’s a sin.  He’s against it.  The Church should not tolerate it.  It’s been a driving issue in his conversation for at least ten years.  His arguments were tightly formed, legally impressive, academically well researched and morally certain, at least to him.  I say were because the tide of theological opinion seems to be turning against him, and I’m guessing that a tide that is turning, in spite of his unassailable arguments, must be driven by heretics.
Indeed, said he, a majority of the Presbyterian leadership are followers of Bultmann.  They all studied him in seminary, and now they are following him down the path of extreme demythologizing to the point of denying the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Bultmannia has consumed the Presbyterian Church.  It’s not really about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture, and this is the proof.
I had no idea Bultmann was a Presbyterian, or even a Scot for that matter.  We Episcopalians certainly read bits and pieces of Bultmann in seminary, but I don’t recall him being the center of our studies.  I guess Princeton was different.  Oh well, I hear much the same from some Anglicans.  It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the authority of scripture.  
I asked my acquaintance if it could be that the other side takes the authority of scripture just as seriously as he does, but hears the Spirit speaking through it in different ways.  Not if you’re following Bultmann was his reply.  
We wished each other a blessed and merry Christmas as we said goodbye.

Are Ya Ready for Some CHRISTMAS!

Something odd happened this year.  Maybe it’s been this way for a while and I just didn’t notice it, but around here stores went from Halloween directly to Christmas.  Thanksgiving was a momentary blink in the sales aisle displays of Safeway.  Christmas music has been playing over loudspeakers since November 1, and I wonder if anyone ever stops to listen to the words of old favorites.  I wonder if they inspire anyone to wander into a church just to see what’s going on.  It could be less than enlightening. 
Some congregations are so intent on preserving the solemn tone of Advent that they not only eschew any hint of Christmas joy to come, but wallow in the awfulest Advent hymns ever written on the grounds, I guess, that a little aural discipline is good for the soul.  Something like self flagellation with whole notes in a minor key.  Others seem to have no idea at all of a season of quiet, reflective preparation for the coming of the Christ child.  They just leap into Christmas along with the stores and it’s all over by noon on the 25th of December.  No preparation, no explanation, but probably a nasty sermon or two about how we get it but Macy’s doesn’t. 
In one church a newcomer discovers that something is about to happen, and whatever it is does not look like a good thing.  In another she finds that it has already happened but has no idea what or whether it has any real importance.
In the meantime, the true meaning of Christmas is explored in depth through a hundred television specials with such a plethora of characters that none can be taken seriously: Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, the Grinch, Baby Jesus meek and mild, the true story of Mary and Joseph (many of them), drummer boys, herds of widowed parents finding new love, Jack Frost, Rudolph of course, and a couple of dozen others bring all down to the lowest common denominator, which is very low indeed.
Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age.  I’m not one to go about trying to get the Christ back into Christmas.  It began as a festive pagan holiday long before we invented Christmas, and has successfully remained so for thousands of years, spreading throughout the world, regardless of religion, without the aid of a single missionary.  
I am interested in the strangers, newcomers or long lost returning “members” who, for whatever reason, decide to step into a church just to see what’s going on.  It seems to me that this is the one season in the year when a loving, gentle hand might be most needed to guide them, not only to the manger, but to the greater presence of God that is symbolized by it.  How?  By special efforts to use simple liturgies, accessible language, adult classes on the history of Christmas and the development of our faith, familiar music of excellent quality, informative sermons and a willingness to live peacefully with the rowdy secular holiday going on outside.  

Flying First Class

The New York Times recently featured an article on the transformation of first class air travel, especially on overseas flights, from roomier, more comfortable seats and better food, to the luxury of flat beds, privacy screens and an over abundance of service.  I have no problem with that, and have enjoyed several flights up front with grateful thanksgiving for the ability to do so.  
What does trouble me is the other end of the plane, especially on domestic flights, where every effort has been made to stuff as many passengers as possible into the smallest tolerable space while removing any sign of hospitality.  I see no reason to treat people like animals, stripping them of almost all dignity.  I’ve heard the arguments about maximizing seat mile revenues while pleading corporate poverty and find them wanting.  One airline marketing VP was cited as saying that coach travelers were only interested in the lowest fare, and creature comforts are costs that can be shaved to keep fares low.  There may be some truth to that, but for many travelers that cheap fare is dear.  Money for it has been saved up for a long time, or it’s been financed by credit card debt that will be paid off over many months at high interest.    Dehumanizing one’s customers with utter contempt for their well being may be a plan for profit but it is immoral, and I cannot help but believe that there is a better way.  
A few airlines have made modest accommodations for their coach passengers.  Hawaiian serves a well prepared complementary hot meal between the mainland and Hawaii.  Alaska offers meals for sale that appear to be nutritious, as opposed to the fat, carb and salt mix of processed junk food sold on some other airlines. We flew coach on EVA to Taipei a few months ago.  The seats were comfortable.  There was enough room between rows to recline a bit without slamming into the person behind.  Food and drinks were more than adequate.  The same cannot be said for many American airlines on international routes, and domestic flying in coach is simply a painful experience to be endured with as much tolerance as possible.  
I’m always struck by the quarterly news reports on airline performance and customer satisfaction.  The criteria are limited to on time takeoffs and landings and how much luggage is lost.  I’ve been on the receiving end of those questionnaires.  Not a single sign of interest in whether my seat was comfortable, was there enough room between me and the guy in front of me, was food or drink of reasonable quality offered at a reasonable price, was I treated like a valued customer or a cow on the way to slaughter.
I don’t imagine that much can be done about it.  Airlines have proved, at least to themselves, that they can be successful without paying much attention to customer comfort, except in first class.  They deal with declining passenger numbers by reducing fleet size and making remaining planes as spartan as possible for the majority of their occupants.  I’m not sure how that can contribute to long term growth in passenger numbers.  As for me, I remain grateful for the ability to fly up front whenever I want to but resent the corporate thinking that makes it so hard for everyone else.