The escape of two Upstate New York prisoners, with the eventual killing of one and apprehension of the other, has nearly gotten lost in the midst of many other high-profile news stories. However, it certainly has received a decent share of media attention. After all, how do two men escape from maximum security prison? I am sure that the entire story will be recounted for us in a made-for-tv movie at some point. In the meantime, officials are still putting all the pieces together. The escapees certainly had some help. However, as pointed out in a recent New York Times article, their escape may have been aided by some basic lapses in security.
No one had escaped from the prison in decades. And, never during the history of the 170-year-old prison, had anyone escaped from maximum security. According to some sources, complacency had set in at the prison. Some routine procedures were no longer followed. For instance, the catwalks and underground tunnels the prisoners used to escape were no longer being inspected on a regular basis. Also, hourly bed-check procedure had gotten lax with guards no longer using flashlights to confirm that there was an actual a person sleeping in each bed. Apparently there was no one in the guard towers of the prison.
I know nothing about running a prison. I can’t even imagine how difficult it might be. The point of this post is not to investigate or criticize prison guards. This is a post about complacency. Most organizations start out to do something with excellence. However, time and success quickly become our worst enemy. One of the ways prisons judge their success is the simple question of whether or not anyone escapes. (Trust me, I realize there are a lot of other factors in prisons that need attending. Just stay with me for a bit.) If no one escapes, it is very easy for complacency to set in. Airlines make it a central goal not to crash any planes. When nothing goes wrong for a long time, it is easy for complacency to set in. Maybe one additional safety check that is no longer taken seriously. Manufacturing plants make it a priority for no worker to be injured on the job. After years of an accident-free workplace, complacency can set in. Perhaps that monthly safety briefing gets moved to an annual one or supervisors stop double checking the equipment. Some of these procedures can get pretty boring. When they are skipped, and nothing happens, it gets easier to skip them again.
Churches make it their business to lead people to Jesus Christ. I want to focus on young churches at this point, churches that have been started or re-started in the last ten years. I believe that most of these churches begin with a clear sense of that purpose. They design themselves around creating systems and an environment for bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Churches certainly do other things. The members care for one another, they worship, they study scripture, they reach out in service to the world. And still, they are about introducing people to Jesus. When a church is young, the church is usually amazing at this. They have no choice. They won’t ever take off if they are not about bringing new people into the fold. I imagine it is some blend of a true spirit of evangelism and a little bit of survival instinct that drive these churches to excellence.
These churches do intentional evangelism. They walk neighborhoods with flyers and pray with people. They hold events and invite the community. Their members invite their friends, family, neighbors and strangers at the supermarket. They create excellent, inviting websites. Every Sunday, they are ready for those people to come with radical hospitality.. They have signs, even if they have to put them up and take them down every week. They train greeters to be welcoming and sensitive to the new-comer experience. The members wear nametags, so new people don’t have to be embarrassed about forgetting a name. They have easy to find information about the church. Worship leaders introduce themselves every week.
With all their hard work, the church grows. New people are introduced to Jesus and people who had wandered away renew their relationship. But then, sometimes, complacency sets in. It may be because the church just continues to grow. Or maybe fewer new people show up but the church is large enough to keep itself busy with the people it has.
Then, there aren’t so many neighborhood walks. There are still community events but not so many members of the community there. Members feel like they have invited everyone they know, so they stop inviting people. The website falls a little out of date. Greeter training doesn’t happen much anymore. Some of the signs wear out and aren’t replaced. Most people have lost their nametag.
People and organizations don’t set out to become complacent. It just happens. It happens in nearly every organization. And it is hard to see from inside. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes or an unfortunate incident (like a prisoner escape) to bring things back into focus.
But it doesn’t have to happen. There are proven ways to avoid the trap. Churches can invite “secret shoppers” to come and visit and write a candid review of their experience. Churches, like other organizations, can also avoid the trap by just constantly rehearsing their vision and values, constantly reviewing their systems and practices, constantly retraining their volunteers, constantly reminding themselves of why they are there in the first place.
Sometimes church work can be hard work. Perhaps another way to avoid complacency is just to give our people some time off. Pastors and church staff need vacations and sabbaticals. Volunteers need a break from their regular duties as well. It is amazing how a little time away helps us remember what is important and what it is we love.
I think it would be safe to say that no one is going to escape from Clinton Correctional Facility for a long-long time. Every last procedure is being updated. Everyone is being retrained. For some time, every last checkbox will be checked.
Will we do all we can to make sure no one misses a chance to meet Jesus?