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What Kodak Can Teach the Church

There are lessons to be learned in Kodak's "long, slow slide"


The following is from the January 9, 2012, edition of Patheos. The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt Jr. is Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at SMU.

January 10, 2012

By Frederick Schmidt

Analyzing what he describes as "Kodak's Long, Slow Slide," The Wall Street Journal's John Bussey writes,

Was it a failure of imagination? Was it entrenched convictions and provincial thinking? Was it one restructuring too far? For Kodak - -perhaps the iconic American brand of the 20th century—it was all those things. . . . When a company starts to sell its intellectual property, hacking off an arm here and a leg there, you know the end is near.

I am old enough to remember Brownie Cameras, Instamatics, and rolls of 35 millimeter film in those famous yellow boxes. This is a company that did not just produce products that preserved personal and historical experiences. It branded them as "Kodak Moments." So, it's hard to believe it's all going away. But it is.

There are lessons to be learned here that have application far beyond Eastman Park in Rochester, New York. According to Steve Hamm and William Symonds, there are five lessons to learn:

One, don't let a ruling elite and a closed culture cut you off from criticism and contributions from outside.

George Eastman was an extraordinary innovator and a life force at Kodak for decades. Unlike some other entrenched leaders, one could argue that he was such an asset to the company that he rightly dominated the firm that he created.

But his dominance also fostered a culture that foreclosed on criticism and contributions beyond the executive office in Rochester, New York. Antonio Perez, Kodak's current CEO, complained that the situation was so bad that he could not even get people to differ with him on his assessment of the weather.

Some time ago I asked a bishop when he thought that the church might begin to have strategic conversations about theological education and the needs of the church. Without hesitating, he responded, "We don't have strategic conversations and there is no way to get an issue in front of the church's leadership."

One surmises that another closed culture and ruling elite deluded the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church into thinking that it could handle sexual abuse cases behind closed doors. The result, of course, is that the church endangered thousands of others and encountered a predictable and richly deserved firestorm of criticism.

There are good practical and spiritual reasons for breaking down entrenched cultures that resist criticism—particularly in the church.

A second engine of Kodak's demise was its own success—and the corporate conceit that followed hard on its heels.

There are a lot of business enterprises out there and innumerable products. But it is a rare thing for a company to brand not just a product, but also an aspect of our lives. "A Kodak Moment" became not just the moment in which you reached for a Brownie or an Instamatic. It became a way of describing a memorable or important experience.

That's quite an achievement. But it's seductive as well. It is not just hard for those of us who grew up with Kodak to imagine that it is going to disappear from the American landscape. It was hard for Kodak to imagine. And because Kodak couldn't grasp its own mortality, the company fueled its own demise.

That really should not have been news at Kodak. But it is the same conceit that you can hear in the phrase, "Too big to fail." History is littered with empires and institutions that clearly illustrate that nothing is too big to fail. But in the moment there is nothing like conceit to hide that fact from us.

Those of us who occupy churches that branded the Christian experience should take note. None of us are too big to fail. In fact, a lot of us are well on our way to doing just that. There is nothing about what we have done or accomplished that can't one day be captured in a footnote describing something that happened a long time ago and far away.

The third problem at Kodak was that when the company finally did recognize the need to change, it chose the wrong kind of innovation.

When Kodak discovered that the film business would no longer sustain them, they announced in 2000 that they were going into the digital camera business. Contrary to predictions, they actually succeeded in selling no small number of them. In fact, by 2005 they had moved to the number one position in the sale of digital cameras. Unfortunately, the profit margin on digital cameras is so small that their achievement could not sustain the company.

The church should be so thoughtfully wrong. What we have are seminaries whose strategy is to not offer a Master's degree; judicatories without leadership in the development of ministry to youth, young adults, and families; and leaders who have announced that any global expression of our unity with churches in the more conservative southern hemisphere is probably just a non-starter.

It is not hard to imagine what the "profit margin" will be on such imaginative initiatives.

The fourth mistake that Kodak made was to underestimate the extent of the change that faced them.

While Kodak pivoted to digital sales, it bet that the company could sustain itself on the sale of film products in China. (Sound like a familiar gambit?) But, unfortunately, for Kodak, the Chinese market embraced digital products as fast or faster than other parts of the world.

The nation and the world are becoming more, not less Christian. But the church will be non-white, Catholic, Pentecostal, Pentecostal-Catholic, and Fundamentalist.

The church can ill-afford to underestimate the change. And, yet, the leaders of many denominations are opting for a smaller church, shaped not just by national boundaries, but by their own interpretation of the Gospel. Difference is a ________, isn't it?

But we have a bigger obligation to acknowledge it than simply issues of market share. The nature of our message is, in and of itself, one that is universal and unifying in its message. And if it becomes something fit for only a single brand of interpretation east of the Hudson and south from New York to Washington, then whatever it might be, it is not the Gospel.

The church is what it is today, not just because it acknowledged change, but because it actively embraced it, spreading from culture to culture and country to country.

The fifth and perhaps most basic mistake that Kodak made was it confused what it does with how it was done.

Of all the mistakes that Kodak made, perhaps the biggest one was that it failed to realize that film was just one way of being in the image business. That slowed its innovation. As a result, the company that drove the development of the camera business in the United States became a caretaker of the past. And, arguably, when Perez began leading it in a new direction in 2000, it was already too late to turn things around.

The church never asks itself often enough why it exists. The conversations among clergy are all too often about managing the bureaucracy, nonsense, and dysfunction that are a part of its life. The programming in churches is far too often focused on therapeutic and political topics.

Issues of "ecclesiology"—that dimension of theology that is meant to answer the question, "What is the church and why does it exist?"—have been relegated to the backwater of our conversations. As a result, we have confused what we do with how we've done it.

There is nothing more difficult than letting go of the past. And there is nothing more likely to ground us in letting go of it, than grounding in our God-given purpose. There are a lot of good things that a church can do, but if it is not focused on making it possible to encounter the living Christ, there is little about the way we do things that deserves to endure—or needs to, really.

There is, of course, one last lesson to learn from Kodak.

As hard as it will be to see it go, the need to capture and preserve images will still be met. It is a need that marked the human experience before George Eastman began his work. It is a need that others already meet. And it will be an effort that others will continue to make.

Similarly, people will continue to need God and God will continue to find God's people, with or without us.

Frederick W. SchmidtThe Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as the director of the Episcopal studies program. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).

Schmidt's column, "The Spiritual Landscape," is published every Monday on the Progressive Christian portal.

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