Out Of Business?

Michael Metzger

Lenin said “there are decades in which nothing happens, and there are weeks in which decades happen.” The last few weeks tell many leaders that the business they were in no longer exists.

The pandemic has accelerated trends once predicted to take decades to unfold. The decline of malls has accelerated. No one’s going to a mall. A few months ago, it was believed Macy’s would shed 140,000 jobs over the next decade. They furloughed 140,000 in one week. The coronavirus has triggered many steep declines. The list includes auto dealers, furniture stores, bars and restaurants, sporting goods, and electronics.

That’s not all. In 2013, researchers predicted an avalanche in higher education. Tier 1 schools offering online courses would overwhelm Tier 2, 3, and 4 schools. The pandemic accelerates this. Lower tier schools (including Christian colleges and seminaries) have begun cutbacks and layoffs.

Many lower-tier jobs, often held by Millennials, have long been in decline. In a few weeks, 52 percent of Millennials lost their job, were put on leave, or had their hours reduced. Waiting this out is not a plan, as economists say it might take the labor market 5½ years to fully recover.

The pandemic has accelerated other trends predicted to unfold over the next few decades. One is the rise of religious “nones.” They are are the fastest-growing percentage of the US population. Few churches recognize this. But now, with the pandemic closing church doors, nones who were on their way out the door are now likely gone for good.

The same goes for exiles. They’re believers who were slowly sliding out the door of churches. Again, few churches recognize this. They will when their doors open again. They’ll find a great many exiles got used to not attending church and stopped for good.

Not everyone is out of business. Zoom. Amazon. Online retail. But most businesses (economists guesstimate 80 percent) are effectively out of business.

Now we see a second wave of job loss hitting those we assumed were safe. Corporate lawyers. Government workers being furloughed. Economists believe 14.4 million jobs will be lost in the coming months.

Only a small percentage of enterprises recognize that the business they were in no longer exists. Office furniture makers are making workspaces that maintain six feet of distance. Starbucks is designing stores with seating that maintains six feet of distance.

No one knows the future, but highly effective organizations exhibit the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality. I think a recent paper by Praxis confronts brutal reality. The authors have rather some strong recommendations for the faith community.

“From today onward, most leaders must recognize that the business they were in no longer exists. This applies not just to for-profit businesses, but to nonprofits, and even in certain important respects to churches.” The authors say most are “effectively out of business.”

Tough diagnosis. They say this because the model for most churches and ministries is based primarily on gatherings. Corporate worship. Bible studies. We have no idea when such gatherings will again become routine, but it will not be in a matter of weeks.

The Praxis authors feel few ministry leaders recognize this reality. “The top priority ought to be to set aside confidence in their current playbook as quickly as possible. It’s time to write a new one… the underlying assumptions that sustained these ministries are no longer true.”

For most churches and ministries, the underlying assumption is that we can wait this out, hoping to return to the old normal. This is not a plan. We don’t know when this crisis will end.

And we’re not returning to the old normal. The new normal might require gatherings of no more than ten. And six feet of distance between people. This is why the report’s authors believe “an organization’s survival in weeks and months, let alone years, depends far more on radical innovation than on tactical cutbacks. This is a time to urgently redesign your work.”

How many ministry leaders feel this sense of urgency? I don’t know. Praxis does. They’re rethinking their business model, pursuing projects that are feasible in the current conditions.

So is Clapham Institute. Like Praxis, we’re a 501(c)3 that depends largely on donors. This past month we’ve seen a drop in donations. Simply waiting this out is not a plan. We’re reworking our business model, becoming more of an online resource.

I’m all for redesigning for radical innovation, but I doubt most understand what it entails. Radical is returning to our ancient roots. Innovation is renewal (c.f. Col.1:18-20). Both require outside voices, a role Clapham has played for many organizations. If we can help yours, let us know.

Lenin was right. There are weeks in which decades happen. We’re living those weeks. Read the Praxis report and get moving on your organization’s best course of action.

Be sure to check out the latest Clapham podcast: https://claphaminstitute.podbean.com/


The Morning Mike Check

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  1. Mike, thanks for pressing the Praxis article. That and Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership (Leadership Without Easy Answers) has been directing my leadership in this crisis. It would be good to reconnect.

  2. The proof is in the pudding as they say and we shall see the relevance of the church in our lives. Sitting six feet apart in church does not seem appealing. We better figure out a way in which to remain the salt. Proximity is vital for that. I don’t believe in virtual salt. New normal does not make sense to me. This is some sort of ill conceived social experiment. Especially for those without the benefit of wifi. I am interested in a coherent narrative and have not heard it yet. Viruses have been around and I doubt that the viral biome has significantly changed. This is not a medical problem. This is a social problem. The church better figure out it’s position. Letting the elderly die alone in some nursing home surrounded by people in masks is not the answerer. Virtual funerals also seem perverse. Social distancing is an oxymoron and reminds me of german practices in the late 30s and early 40s. I am very keen on a narrative which will continue the Christian tradition. One way in which the church spread was during times of REAL epidemics which killed a significant portion of the population. Why, because Christians were willing to NOT distance themselves but provided food etc. Looks like for now the prince of the air rules the airways…

  3. Mike,

    Everyone’s affected. Our new orders are down 50%. But at least we have 50% . Our glass is half full. We are fortunate for that.

    Didn’t our world go through this in 1918-only worse? Yet the roaring 20’s hit and everyone came back to ” normal” –until the great depression that is. It seems like a lot of what happens cycles in and out. History repeates itself–the good parts and the bad.

    We will have huge adjustments for a few years but it may all come back to close, if not precisely, to where we were before COVID-19 only things that were not needed will stay closed (things you reference).People will find better ways to get things done.

    People have short term memories more than not. In time this may go the way of 1918.

    What are your thoughts on that?

    Thanks for a good post.

  4. Hi George:

    We’re actually closer to 1932. We see this in William Manchester’s sprawling history of the US – 1932-1972. The first chapter is titled: “The Cruelest Year.” 1932.

    I urge you to read this chapter. You’ll see that what took four years to transpire (1929-1932) happened in roughly one week in March 2020. As Lenin noted, there are decades when nothing happens and weeks in which decades happen.

    What comes out of this? No one can say for sure. But note: In 1932, the entire federal government operated out of what is today known as The Old Executive Building. One building. One outcome of the cruelest year was the beginning of a massive expansion of government.

    This expansion has occurred in every administration since, Republican and Democrat. It now mediates these crises in terms of creating systems to address these problems.

    I write this, George, because the church was once considered a meditating institution. https://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-2-number-3/mediating-institutions

    Not anymore. City leaders today rarely if ever see the church as a mediating institution. We are instead asked to help with remedial work (i.e. feeding the unemployed). Necessary work, but another example of how the church in America is an outsider, exile, in terms of creating systemic solutions for what are systemic problems.

  5. PS I read the referenced article and it is full of assumptions, many of which are unlikely to happen. First of all, and this the authors grant, talk about a vaccine as a solution is a reach. The first permutation of this SARS Corona virus (SARS CoV-1) had extensive vaccine trials in the murine model. DYSMAL failure, with an “enhanced immune response” which killed the mice on second challenge with the virus via the cytokine storm. So the idea that there will be a vaccine in 18 months is fanciful. I am also unclear why we need a vaccine for a flu virus with an average age of death around 80. The overwhelming majority of infected healthy adults have no or minor symptoms. This has happened to friends and patients I have seen. This sort of talk that this is a winter is irresponsible at best. If an alien made this assertion we would certainly be talking about a hostile act given the devastation the virus has caused on the world economy. The idea that this is anything approaching the spanish flu is absurd. In fact minus the extreme media coverage we would have a late flu season surge period NO shut down none of this drama.
    The major problem with this virus is, timing placing it in the middle of what otherwise would be furious American election season. And it is.
    The church has to figure out what her position will be if A the virus is serious and needs precautions ABC (I don’t think this is the case but ) or B the virus is similar to other flu viruses. Let’s start there. I can not remember a time when the church needed a functioning church more than now and we are practicing social distancing. The Christian church will revealed through this virus. You can not be relevant while you distance yourself and hole up in your hovel.

  6. Thank you Dr. Jenkins! I have become gradually but ever so incresingly convinced that the coronavirus and its impact on the health of our society is in line with how you have described it.

    It is not to say it does not have devasatitng effects on some, but the degree to which we are reacting does not seem to be in keeping with the overall damage it is bringing to our world.

    Exception–Italy. Can you explain why so many have died there?

  7. I couldn’t agree more with Dr Jenkins. I love Italy and am so saddened by what has happened there. I hope and pray they get their country back and re-establish their unique culture. Italy spends 6 % of it’s GNP on health care. It is a socialized system. America spends 20 % of its GNP on health care. Our response is not as burdened by bureaucratic inertia. We have some excess capacity and capital goods, vital in a crisis. We can and did tap into the private sector to respond. We will not run out of ventilators. ( it is not even clear they are indicated except for the patient in extremis).

    The Italians often live in multi-generational families. This may have exposed the elderly to the virus at a higher rate. Viral load to the society may have been an issue too, as many workers and tourist in Italy are from the epicenter of the Virus.

    The press should reveal the numbers of Covid deaths to a typical flu season, to keep the numbers in perspective. The Press can, and will fan the flames of anxiety to control a herd of panic animals, rather than allow dignified, rational men to respond to the challenge.

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