The Bible and outsourcing

Sunday, September 16, 2012

With about 50 days or so until Election Day, both presidential nominees will continue to have plenty to say about one another, little of it complimentary. If we've not made up our minds already, we wade through the rhetorical muck in the hope that something worthwhile will emerge between now and the first Tuesday in November.

One mudslinging topic is outsourcing, defined as "the practice of contracting out a business process, which an organization may have previously performed internally but which now is purchased as service." It is my earnest desire to avoid the partisan politics of outsourcing for the purposes of this column.

Here's my thesis -- outsourcing is clearly an approved biblical concept. Read on for further exposition, please.

I checked out a 2012 book from the Cape Girardeau Public Library, "The Outsourced Self." Here's the main complaint of author Arlie Russell Hochschild: Americans are paying experts today to do things they've previously always done for themselves. Hochschild, who is a sociology professor in California, writes with gleeful derision about such services as "The Heart Bandits," a marriage proposal service. That's right. You hire this company to help you figure out how to pop the question.

A self-defined "wantologist" helps people, for a fee, decide whether or not they want a larger home. My wife and I once succumbed to the outsourcing trend. Some years ago, we paid a "dog guru" to help us figure out how to make our dog like me better. (It didn't work, partly because I didn't take it very seriously.)

It seems to me there's a difference between a legitimate effort to get outside help and what I call "silly season." Hiring someone to give you the words for a marriage proposal seems the very definition of silliness. Yet the company I now work for -- and the last church I served, both have used targeted and legitimate outsourcing to great effect.

The church doesn't use outsourcing enough. The expectations on paid pastors and staff to do all the ministry of a congregation (e.g., "This is what we pay the preacher for.") means the church hasn't learned the lesson. Consequently, congregations are far less effective forces for change in their communities than they could be.

Too few people are involved in the work. Some very bright people whom I've served in my previous life in the pastorate have a blind spot when it comes to outsourcing. They believe the phrase "equipping the laity to do ministry" is a sort of code -- a code that translates into laziness on behalf of pastors and staff. With all due respect, this is ignorance of the biblical witness.

Moses was underappreciated and overburdened leading the Israelites in the wilderness. He was trying to do it all as leader, including acting as arbitrator in petty disputes. His loving father-in-law, Jethro, in what may be the first words we read in the Bible about outsourcing, tells Moses he can't handle everything by himself: "Select capable men appoint them as judges. Have them bring every difficult case to you. The simple cases they can decide themselves." (Exodus 18:21-22)

Lest it be said that outsourcing is merely an Old Testament notion, we find the following from the Book of Acts: "[The] widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." So the 12 apostles made the same decision their ancestor Moses made. They outsourced some of the work.

Food distribution would be the responsibility of Stephen and six other men. Later, these men would be referred to as deacons. The 12, with the necessary job of food distribution effectively outsourced, could concentrate on what the fledgling Christian community really needed of them: prayer and preaching. (Acts 6:1-7)

Outsourcing is not a word used in the Bible but for communities of faith, it is a practice that is legitimated in both testaments.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is assistant director of marketing for Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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