Anthony B. Robinson: Lessons from GM's failure. And scripture.

Paul Ingrassia’s new book shows us what we should already have known. And models how to write plainly.

I don’t generally look to the "Wall Street Journal" for inspiration or sermon material, but I found both there recently in an article by the Pulitizer-prize winning author, Paul Ingrassia.

Ingrassia took the occasion of the one-year anniversary of GM’s bankruptcy and federal bail-out to reflect on “The Lessons of the GM Bankruptcy.” In an admirable instance of employing straightforward English rather than insider economics jargon, Ingrassia sees three lessons:

·         Problems denied and solutions delayed will result in a painful and costly day of reckoning.

·         In corporate governance, the right people count more than the right structure.

·         Appearances can be deceiving.

    Each of these is readily transferable to many other areas of life, including the church. But before exploring those implications, a further word about how each lesson arises from the GM Bankruptcy.

    As for “problems denied and solutions delayed,” everyone knew that a host of GM practices were not sustainable, including paying workers not to work, offering gold-plated pension and health-care benefits, and maintaining unprofitable product lines, like Saturn and Saab. But over a thirty year period no one did anything about these problems.

    As for “the right people” mattering more than “the right structure,” Ingrassia notes that GM’s structure, on paper, was a model of good corporate governance, while Ford’s was a mess. And yet Ford fared far better because the people at Ford faced their problems and put progress ahead of personalities.

    Finally, by “appearances can be deceiving,” Ingrassia points out that the federal support hasn’t fostered moral hazard as many alleged it would. Shareholders, creditors and employees have paid a stiff price, despite the bailout.

    So what about applying the lessons of GM bankruptcy to the church and for church leaders?

    You’d think that “problems denied and solutions delayed” would hardly need to be learned by the church from business. This is a consistent theme of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament and especially the Prophets. Yet maybe the business folks have something to teach the church folks? We’re pretty good ourselves at denying problems and delaying solutions. For too many churches, maintaining the building has become the mission, capturing a disproportionate share of the budget. For others, the numbers have long been saying something, but no one seems to be listening.

    I was particularly taken by Ingrassia’s second lesson as I find many congregations and denominations operating on the assumption that if they just “restructure,” and get the right structure in place they will have solved their problems. Structures and their constituent parts, like offices and boards, policies and procedures, do matter. But in the end what matters more than the right structures are the right people. The right people are the ones who have the ability to see problems and risk solutions (see lesson one).

    Finally, “appearances can be deceiving” is as Biblical as Samuel’s “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearances but the Lord looks upon the heart,” or Paul’s, “God chose what is foolish in the world . . . to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Igrassia has in mind the way people rushed to judgment, claiming that shareholders and employers in the auto industry were getting a free ride.

    What might this mean in the church context? Well, the obvious, that we ought to be cautious in our own rush to judgment of others or a too quick assumption that someone else knows no suffering or challenge in their life. But another thought: in the age of marketing, there’s a temptation to think that by changing the logo or the look, by jazzing up the graphics or the website, we’ve really done something significant. In my experience real change is neither so easy nor so quick. It’s slower and deeper and often painful.

    Perhaps I can add a fourth lesson for the church and its leaders, not from GM’s bankruptcy per se, but from Ingrassia’s article itself. Speak plainly. Speak clearly. Speak in language that is accessible. Use words that mean something. Ingrassia’s piece isn’t dumbed-down, but it is clear. His words do not hide, as too much church-speak does. They reveal. Should you want more, Ingrassia’s latest book is, “Crash Course: the American Automobile’s Road from Glory to Disaster.” I’m recommending it to denominational leaders.


    Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.