Why we shouldn’t always aim for ‘efficiency’

So, I have been asked whether I disagree with the Holy Father. I never thought this day would come!

No worries – this is not regarding anything doctrinal. In fact, I do not disagree with the Holy Father; I do have something to say which could be controversial. Let’s get to that…

How This Started

A blogger whom I know as New Media Catholic recently wrote, “How to be ‘Efficient’ in Social Media Church Advocacy.” He brings up some solid points. In fact, I support his main message, which is to publicly voice your support for your local bishop and diocese. Amen!

When I finished reading, however, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of upholding “efficiency” in such high esteem when it comes to Catholics’ new media usage. A combox conversation ensued:

Me:  [...] I don’t know if I would call efficiency one of the top new media ‘virtues’ that we should embrace as Catholics. [...]

New Media Catholic: Please keep in mind that the word “efficient” is taken from the Pope’s quote. I’m only echoing what he said and adding some commentary. Do you think the Pope is wrong on this point? If so, how?

Also, I’m not sure that we disagree. When we are “effective” we need to be sure that we are using our limited resources to create a maximum amount of change in the world. Being proactive is one piece of it, but most of what I get into is how to be an advocate for the Church online. [...]

A Matter of Translation

Full disclosure: I have no Italian blood and have never studied Italian. However, you can look up the Holy Father’s original 44th World Communications Day message. The Pope’s word in Italian, “efficace” – might be better translated as “effective” over “efficient.” I truly believe that we should aim for effectiveness over efficiency, and I now mean to distinguish between the two because they are not always the same.

Extraordinary Communication

Now, I could get myself into hot water with some people by saying this: the example I can’t shake from my mind which causes me to maintain a distinction between “efficiency” and “effect” is…the distribution of Holy Communion.

In the United States, it is typical for a parish to have several Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion at Mass. This is what I think of as “efficient” – because without the EMs, it would take much more time to distribute Holy Communion. Thus, efficient: doing more in less time.

Having experienced Mass in other countries, I’ve also seen the custom to have only clergy distribute Holy Communion.

Speaking purely from personal, interior observation: Walking up to a priest and receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord from one of His ordained clergy, a man who has given his life to act In Persona Christi, is a different experience than receiving the same Precious Lord from a fellow lay person. I can’t be the only person in the world who would admit that, seeing a priest hold up the consecrated Host and declare, “The Body of Christ,” is a different experience than seeing a fellow layperson do the same.

Efficiency in Digital Communications

Being efficient is certainly not intrinsically ‘wrong’ or ‘lesser’ than taking the longer route to accomplish a task. In fact, efficiency can be very good. (You can read all about what Pope Leo XIII thinks about efficiency in Rerum Novarum, for instance.) I’ve even included efficiency as a reason why ministries should consider engaging in social and new media usage.

That having been said, “efficiency” does not always positively affect. We need to consider this as we communicate the Faith through digital media.

Altar where we celebrated Mass. (No stealing photo, please.)

To further illustrate my point: On my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we were privileged to have celebrated Mass in the Tomb of Christ. What a blessing beyond words. There, where He was buried and rose, I received Holy Communion from the hands of a priest. Had we been anywhere else, maybe there would have been Extraordinary Ministers present. We were on an extremely tight schedule; the Sepulchre only “belongs” to Catholics for a few hours a day, and we had a few minutes from the moment we walked in to the moment we left, to squeeze 40 pilgrims into the sepulchre, to celebrate Easter Mass, whilst allowing each pilgrim a chance to squeeze in and out of the inner chamber where Jesus’ body had been laid. Efficiency in distributing Holy Communion could have been a priority. But it wasn’t.

Why Efficiency Is Not Always Best

Before you break out your GIRMs, please listen. My point is not to spark another thread of seemingly endless debate about the distribution and reception of Holy Communion. Nor am I saying that receiving the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord from anyone other than clergy is less efficacious. Our bishops know better than I do on these matters, and I trust and obey them.

What I wish to convey is the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness. I would argue that, when we choose to use new media as Catholics—for whatever purpose, but especially when speaking on behalf of our Faith—we should remember that when we focus on being efficient, we sometimes sacrifice effect. How can we afford to sacrifice effect when that effect is the effect of the Gospel? Of God’s grace—and love?

If one of our Facebook friends, for instance, posts an article about the Catholic Church which is clearly divisive, we have several choices:

  1. Offer this in prayer.
  2. Respond with a short remark.
  3. Launch into a discussion / debate in the comboxes.
  4. Defer / refer to someone who might have a better response.
  5. Comment with something thought-provoking, but later engage this person in a private, personal dialogue.
(etc)

Each of these responses could be the wisest, depending upon so many factors: the subject matter, its seriousness, its potential for scandal, the frequency with which this person attacks the Church, their personal background / attitudes, and our own talents and abilities.

Prudently Proactive

That’s why I offer to our Catholic new media discussion table this phrase: prudent proactiveness. It’s clear that we are called to defend our Faith, to engage our cultures and societies in dialogue over the day’s issues, and to bear witness to the Gospel. And yes, we are also called to use God’s gift of time and the new media tools with which He provides us, in the best possible manner. But this does not necessarily mean that we should uphold “efficiency.”

My years researching and using new media have led me to believe that efficiency can be dangerous without prudence. We can easily become caught up in “digital crusading” that we lessen the effect of our words and actions. We can become focused on defending, making our case, having the last word, or rebuking our ‘attackers,’ that we mistake our fellow human beings for the falsehoods and evils we so despise.

Catholic new media users are called to a heightened sense of prudence. This involves not only discerning how best to use our time, but also our unique talents, and to listen with the ears of our hearts:

  • Might this person’s attack on the Catholic faith stem from a wound in their past?
  • How much does ignorance factor into this person’s anti-Catholic words and sentiments?
  • How much of my response will be an emotional reaction?
  • What are my talents? How is God calling me to respond, given my vocation and gifts? (If I am better at showing concern and being a friend than being an apologist, perhaps my love will soften this person’s hardness of heart against the Church.)
  • Is the medium I am using the best way to respond? Is my message more appropriate in public, in video, in a private dialogue, over the phone, in a letter, or in person?
  • How much do I care about having the last word? Might I refer this situation to someone better suited to handle it?

There will always be people who perpetuate stereotypes, lies, and ignorant claims about our Church and our Faith. While we should witness for Christ, we must also practice this prudent proactiveness. We can’t do it all.

Blessed Mother Teresa knew that most of us cannot feed a hundred people. So, she said, “Feed just one.”

P.S. Also a good read—Matthew Warner on 2011: The Year of Real Relationships

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3 responses

  1. Great article. I’ve long believed that ‘efficiency’ often clashes with the Christian ideal. For example, Jesus was absurdly inefficient in just about everything he did. He focused primarily on just twelve men when he could have been speaking in front of thousands every day. He says he would leave 99 sheep just to find one. He instituted the Eucharist to give us himself when he could have transmitted his grace in so many easier ways. He’s prescribed all of these rituals–baptism, confession, marriage, ordination, etc.–when again, he could’ve transmitted grace in a much quicker, easier, less messy way.

    He is wastefully inefficient.

    One of the Church’s problems is that the efficiency-minded, bottom-line driven Industrial age mentality has seeped into her core. Everything is becoming guided by metrics and numbers. And success is quantified, not qualified.

    But in the way of Christ, meeting intentionally with one person offline can be infinitely more effective than a blog article reaching thousands.

    The Christian life is not about numbers, efficiency, or output but quality, effectiveness, and input. We’re called to give, obey, and serve, not just produce and expedite.

  2. I agree with the sentiment of this article as well as Brandon’s comments:

    “One of the Church’s problems is that the efficiency-minded, bottom-line driven Industrial age mentality has seeped into her core. Everything is becoming guided by metrics and numbers. And success is quantified, not qualified.”

    I offer one caution about “metrics and numbers.” A former Catholic radio manager of mine once told me that it doesn’t matter if a Catholic radio show only has ten listeners. What matters is that you aired a solidly orthodox and faithful program. I took that pious-sounding statement as the radio station’s excuse to air mediocre, poorly-produced programming. Yes, the “quantities” aren’t everything, but we have to be vigilant to avoid laziness under the guise of not exalting popularity.

    In general, it seems that some of our Evangelical and Protestant friends go to the other extreme; judging a ministry’s success by how many people they can put in seats and how slick their production elements are.

    I appreciate Angela’s advice for Catholics to walk a moderate ground being “prudently proactive.” We don’t need to respond to every anti-Catholic screed we see online, and we don’t have to always respond in the same way. Our access to fast/instant technology needs to always be tempered by prudence.

  3. Thanks for letting us understand better where you’re coming from. For me, being effective is a broader and more inclusive term where being efficient usually falls under. Usually, when you are efficient in a task, it allows you to become more effective in your role. However, this may depend on what aspect you are being efficient to. I think it’s more important to highlight other essential virtues as well like integrity and perseverance in this matter.

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