January 24, 2013

What Shouldn't We be Doing?

For the past few years at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), the pendulum has been swinging in one direction only. Since 2009, ECF has been expanding its programs and services; we developed ECF Vital Practices, launched our series of web conferences, funded two pilot programs, took on Fresh Start, and funded additional Fellows. In short, the past few years have been an exciting time of growth, expansion, and of pushing ourselves to full capacity (and beyond).

As the first month of 2013 draws to a close, however, it seems that the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction. I’ve noticed that more and more of our conversations are about focusing our efforts on what we can do well. They are about recognizing the limits of our resources and staff capacity and asking the tough question, “What shouldn’t we be doing?”

If you have ever participated in a similar types of conversation in your congregation, you will know how anxiety-inducing this shift can be. Although we may not like to admit it, it’s hard not to become personally invested in particular initiatives, especially if we have made significant personal sacrifices to build and sustain them. With all this in mind, I’ve started to look for thought-leaders and terminology that will help us negotiate the difficult parts of this terrain. Last night, for instance, I went to bed reading a section of Peter Drucker’s classic text Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Principles and Practices.

Drucker makes a variety of salient points on this topic throughout this book, but I think that one of the most helpful distinctions he makes is between “moral” and “economic” causes, especially as they relate to the desire for results:

Non-profit institutions generally find it almost impossible to abandon anything. Everything they do is ‘the Lord’s work’ or ‘a good cause.’ But non-profits have to distinguish between moral causes and economic causes. A moral cause is an absolute good...The absence of results indicates only that efforts have to be increased. This is the essence of a moral cause. In an economic cause, one asks: Is this the best application of our scarce resources? There is so much work to be done. Let’s put our resources where the results are. We cannot afford to be righteous and continue this project where we seem to be unable to achieve the results we’ve set for ourselves.

The difficulty, of course, comes in distinguishing between ‘moral’ and ‘economic’ causes and I don’t believe that there is any particular term or process that will make that conversation easier. Nevertheless, as someone who is now engaged in these conversations, I find it helpful to be able to distinguish between the moral cause an initiative is seeking to address, and the economic means by which we go about doing so.

What do you think about this distinction? Do you think Drucker’s point applies to the congregational context as well?