April 6, 2013

Things we can learn from Pope Francis (and the business world)

Pope Francis

Ethan Hahn wrote and chided me on no having written anything on Pope Francis. I'm guilty, but the problem is that the perspective I want to take is rather off the world's main line of thought. People will surely think me weird. But here goes...

As I have written before, we see a multitude of failing institutions all around us, and I think this is due to their clinging to Industrial Age "mental maps" and practices when we have long since entered a new age, commonly known as the Information Age. [Link to other posts on this.] The Catholic Church is among the dysfunctional institutions. It is the great frustration of my life right now that I have utterly failed to even start any sort of conversation on this. Nobody wants to hear it.

I use examples from the world of business here because that's almost the only sector of our world that has transitioned to Information Age thinking. Our religious leaders ought to be reading business books for clues. A concept I have not managed to make popular!

Anyway, my initial impression is that the new Holy Father is very promising in this respect. I'm not saying he exactly "gets" the new age, but many things he does have the right flavor. The quotes below are from a very interesting article by John L Allen Jr, who is always worth reading. He is interviewing Cardinal Bergoglio's former press officer in Argentina...

What was Cardinal Bergoglio’s core aim in Buenos Aires?
He wanted to promote the idea of a missionary church, a church that gets out into the streets. His vision was for the church to reach out to those who have been tossed onto a sort of existential garbage heap. He was especially concerned for those about whom society didn’t seem to care, such as single mothers, the poor, the elderly, the unemployed.

In this new age you have to be FOR something. In the past an established business could just continue to exist. You could assume any Fortune 500 company would be around for the rest of your life. Levi Strauss sold blue jeans in complete stability for 100 years. Then found themselves in a world where the numbers of blue denim products probably is in the millions. No one in business expects long-term stability now, yet that remains the Catholic mind-set. I'm sure most of my fellow parishioners think what we are "for" is just continuing to exist. We just expect this to happen. Which is fatal in this age. There's just too much else going on to make an impression on minds without a clear message and non-stop marketing. Everyone in Bergoglio's diocese knew that he and his people were doing something compelling and real. (No, I'm not suggesting my parish become a slum parish. SF's problems are very different. But we desperately need to stand for something exciting.)

Concretely, how did he do that?
He was fond of saying that we already have plenty of theory about what the church should do, so let’s put it into practice. He formed a large network of people who were already working in the areas that were his priorities. For instance, he’d take a priest and move him into the shantytown areas so he could get to the schools, the soup kitchens, the churches, all of the major institutions serving the people there. He’d send the priests into these areas to be a resource for the other people who were already working there. He wasn’t interested in theory, but in concrete practice...

Successful Information Age organizations just jump in and DO things. This works because everyone can exchange information easily. The results of an experiment can be disseminated instantly to all, and all can contribute thoughts and suggestions and criticisms. Problems can be fixed on the fly.

They tend not to have experts plan everything in detail, in advance. That's too slow, the competition will race past you. Successful businesses often use the motto: "Ready. Fire. Aim." This does not mean you don't think, it means never letting thinking paralyze action.

...He used to joke that we need to learn from the model of the Evangelicals, meaning that we have to knock on doors and talk to people. He also wanted to make the church visible outside its buildings, which is why Buenos Aires developed some very interesting outdoor events. For instance, the Via Crucis procession during Holy Week moves through the entire city, going on for miles and miles. There are also lots of open-air Masses. The most important Masses here don’t take place inside the cathedral, but in the square.

Don't worry about the specifics here. See it as a different way of thinking. For one thing, an Info Age organization does not have "thick walls." My parish is like a castle, with a small door. Right now every parishioner has contact with probably thousands of people outside the castle walls. But that information can't get "inside." Most info goes through the hands of priests and staff. They couldn't possibly handle so much stuff. That's typical of an Industrial Age organization. Information processing was always a bottleneck, so they always "throttled back" the flow. Only a few people in the company dealt with the public. That sure doesn't work in business now, or anywhere else.

Where did the laity fit in to this vision?
It wasn’t just about priests doing the job. He was also concerned with getting the laity active inside these movements, and letting them take charge. Priests were just one leg of the stool, along with the religious and the laity. He felt that if you didn’t do it that way, you end up with a church that’s too focused on itself, and it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not just about what priests do, but above all the laity.

Because the Church has long been focused inwards, the position of the laity has long been odd and awkward. The job of the Church is to save the world, and that's primarily the job of the laity! Not the bishops and priests. Once the Church gets back on task, clericalism will tend to fade away. Everyone will have more than enough important work to do.

Posted by John Weidner at April 6, 2013 8:27 PM
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