Paradox Bound
The economic downturn calls the faithful to live into the future as a people of hope

By L. Gregory Jones, Dean and Professor of Theology

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end  —  which you can never afford to lose  —  with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Stockdale Paradox was introduced into the leadership lexicon by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Named for Admiral James Stockdale, who used this strategy to survive his POW days in Vietnam, the paradox points to a central tenet of effective and faithful leadership — especially during times such as these in the United States. Indeed, it is a phrase rooted in theological wisdom.

We have to face the brutal economic facts before us. Millions have lost jobs in recent months, with hundreds of thousands more people forecast to become unemployed this year. The Dow Jones index has declined by half, from over 14,000 in April 2008 to as low as 6,550 in March 2009. The net worth of many individuals and foundations has declined precipitously as well. And many endowments, including Duke University’s, have suffered significant losses in market value.

The news has been so unrelentingly negative on personal, communal, institutional, national, and global levels that few of us are likely to avoid the brutal facts — at least in the short run. Yet I worry that we will only focus on the brutal economic facts, and not face some larger “facts” as well.

Among the most important is that many of our institutions have relied on inadequate, outdated economic models because the country’s economic growth allowed us to do so. As a result, we have too often lost our vision. Many churches and church-related institutions are facing significant challenges both because of the economic downturn and because we have not been attending to economic models as we should have been and need to be.

There is another brutal fact we need to confront: many of the challenges we face are the result of failures of character, and in particular the sin of greed. It is a judgment on Christians that we have not been more willing to preach and teach about the centrality of character, to confront the greed in our own hearts as well as others, and to talk directly about the role of money in our lives as both a resource for faithful witness and a temptation to sin. Brutal facts, indeed. Yet we cannot and should not lose hope. Hope is a central Christian virtue. Optimism is grounded in what human beings are; hope is rooted in who God is. As Christians, we should be confident in the hope to which we have been called (Ephesians 1).

This does not mean that we can ignore the facts, nor that we can simply remain passive and naively trust that “God will provide.” Our hope does not mean that any specific organization — whether a local congregation, college, judicatory, seminary, social benefit, or other faith-based organization — is definitely going to survive. Some have already closed in the wake of the downturn; others are likely to follow.

What, then, does it mean not to lose hope? If we hope in God, then we can have confidence that the institutional purposes for which our organizations have been founded — for worship and catechesis, for education and training, for healing and wholeness, for feeding and clothing — will continue to need to be fulfilled. God will continue to work in and through institutions to bless human life and to form us as disciples of Jesus Christ. But what form they take may be quite different from those to which we have grown accustomed, and that might be just what the Spirit is pushing us toward.

What does this mean for Duke Divinity School? We are grateful that we are currently relatively stable and healthy, thanks to the faithfulness of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and effective leadership for more than 80 years. We are fortunate to be part of a great university, and to be connected to the United Methodist Church.

Yet we do have our own brutal facts to face. It is costly to do full-time, residential education as part of a large university. We face significant losses in our endowment income, perhaps as much as $1.5 million less in fiscal year 2012-2013 than we had this year on a core operating budget of about $24 million. Many of the external sources of funding on which we depend are likely to decrease in the coming years.

Clearly, we need to face these economic challenges, and also review our basic economic model. But hope will be our watchword, our orientation, and our commitment. Duke Divinity School has strong momentum on which to build, and we have a remarkable heritage on which to draw. We have strong financial support from alumni and friends, support that we are confident can grow if we are truly focused on God’s mission.

We will be seeking innovative ways to live into the future as people of hope, bearing witness to the life-giving and creative work of the Holy Spirit. We will do so grounded in the traditions that give us strength. God is not through with Duke Divinity School, even as we remain open to discerning the transformation to which we may now be called.

The Stockdale Paradox is relevant to all of us in our various positions of leadership and responsibility, whether as those appointed to chief responsibility, or as trustees, board members, or people personally and financially committed to strengthening Christian witness in and through institutions.

These are difficult times, but this is not the first or last time we will be challenged to face the brutal facts and also be a people of hope. May we all be faithful, courageous, and imaginative as we live in the dynamic tension of the paradox.

Read more about Duke Divinity School's efforts to meet economic challenges as well as the needs of the church in the 21st century.

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