In our local newspaper this week is a story about the Bank of Montreal’s purchase of the AirMiles program from a US company for $160M. Quietly, about a week ago, the same company, now in bankruptcy protection, sold the assets of a European company it had acquired about a decade ago, back to its former owner for a great deal less than it paid just a decade ago. With a few pen strokes, and a few years, billions in value were quietly erased. The reasons are complicated but since I watched it happen from close-up, I witnessed that the core reason was an attitude we might call “short-termism.” My friend David Beatty, a founder of Canada’s premier governance program, defines the problem thus: “Short termism means that your shareholders are only interested in how your company performs in the next quarter. For these ‘quarter-to-quarter’ investors there is no long term. Or if there is one, it’s what lies two quarters ahead rather than one year.” If you read his regular insights on governance, you will find that David thinks this a critical root cause of a great deal of corporate failure. After more than 30 years on many boards and many management teams, I agree with David’s assessment. “Success” today yields failure tomorrow.
In the uncomfortable “parable of the talents” that Jesus tells in Matthew 15, which even the Economist magazine cites as a reference on the subject of corporate ‘short termism’, there are two observations that I find most disturbing. The somewhat simplistic lessons of being a good investor of talents are all very well and seem obvious. But what is less obvious are the attitudes of both the master and the servants. First, the master is gone for ages—this is no short-term trip—and he gives more than ample opportunity for whole habits to develop, before the master takes the initiative to return, and not by invitation. The master is clearly acting out of some unknown agenda. Jesus, in telling the parable, provides no indication of why he left and nor why he chose the time to return. Something else, quite unrelated to the local activities of the servants, is clearly taking place. They are part of something much, much bigger about which they are largely clueless.
As each servant is evaluated, they have different results to show for their choices and in some small ways, those results matter only inasmuch as they get more responsibility. What gets criticized, in the story, is the inadequate attitude and mindset of the poor servant that then leads to what is essentially selfish action—saving their own hide. In recent years, I have been involved in a number of start-up businesses. In one, the driving force comes from a CEO who wants to prove to an industry that he is capable of leading a radical transformation. I expect the business to fail unless something changes. In a second, the president is personally animated by creating a company that he is building for the next generation— we call then ‘the kids’. Both have viable business premises. Each is animated in quite different ways. Time will tell.
In many churches, falling attendance and declining income is forcing many to attend to this year’s budget as the measure of success. I saw a recent note suggesting that the need for roof repairs was a good incentive for evangelism! This is short-termism on steroids. Numerous theological colleges are trying to survive by broadening their offerings, often far from the core of their faith. They may make it through the next few years, but what then? Our challenge is to realize that we are not the story, that our propping up of what we treasure is not helping the bigger story of which we are a part. The gospel story spans millennia—a creature rebels against its creator and through first the law and then grace, the Creator acts, through time to redeem all. Our mission is not to frantically try to make our parishes survive this year, but to lay down the foundations for what is still to come, to be ready when the Master decides to return.