The US Postal Service Goes Missional... Sort of


One of the more frequent addresses that shows up in my GBOD inbox is that of the head of GBOD's mailing services department. Alice does a fantastic job telling us what's happening with the mail service in both of the buildings we occupy, as well as keeping us up to date with what's going on in mail services nationally. Sometimes, I admit, it's more information than I think most of us might care to know.

But in yesterday's Mail Services update email, Alice noted that some big news was coming from USPS about changes in postal delivery. She "teased" that USPS might move toward a five-day delivery model, excluding either Tuesdays or Saturdays, though the final decision wasn't made. We'd get the official word today when all the documentation was to be posted on the USPS website after a press conference this morning.

Well, the news was actually bigger than that. And the title of the web page that gives that news, and lots of other resources, is pretty big, too. Especially given that, well, this is the US Postal Service we're talking about. Not exactly the model of flexibility and "getting out on the leading edge" if you know what I mean. But in "Envisioning America's Future Postal Service" they really sort of do.

To get the best overview of what USPS has been up against, where they see future trends in physical mail going, and how they plan to address those trends and eliminate the escalating red ink they portend, I suggest reading their PowerPointTM Presentation. Really. It's pretty enlightening stuff. No kidding!

And when you do, you may be surprised to discover a variety of ways in which USPS is "going missional."

Now, at least etymologically, USPS has ALWAYS been missional. They're all about sending mail out, right? Well, yes-- and that would be your typical "user experience" if you have spent your life in cities or suburban areas of the US for the most part.

But if you've lived out in more rural areas, or if you needed to mail something other than a letter, you've known you had to get out at go TO the post office to get your mail and send whatever you had to send. And there you know what to expect. Lines. Sometimes long ones. In small towns where the Post Office is also a community gathering place, the lines don't feel like as much of a problem. It's good to catch up with neighbors. But in cities and suburbs, forget it.

But it's not just lines. It's also rules. Lots of them. No, you can't put that kind of tape on that side, you have to use this kind. No, we don't sell it here, you'll have to go somewhere else to buy some. No, you've mis-metered your bulk mail stamp by 5 mm, and we changed the bar code restrictions last week, so we can't accept that. You'll have to go back and reprint them all because you can't put a label over this one. Oh, and that staple-- it's got to go. It doesn't matter that tape will ruin the paper or that labels are expensive and you can't recycle the "wax" paper they come on. You have to do it this way or we don't mail it, got it?

Now to be sure, rules aren't a bad thing. Some of them are there so the automated mailing systems can be used more efficiently, which allows more people to get mail more quickly and reliably. And I'm convinced a lot of them are there so they can actually handle the massive customer and mailing piece volume they have to handle every day. Even in a declining volume base (estimated to decline another 15% by 2020!) we're talking nearly half a billion pieces of mail per day.

So it's not really the rules I've minded. It's having to go to a Post Office (especially in cities and suburbs). It's often not open when I CAN get there. And once there in the long line, well, it's the "P.O. attitude." Even that, though, I think I can understand. If I'm on the other side of that counter, and I see that long line, and I see the stuff piling up for delivery behind me-- I think I get how that happens. They're probably doing better than I would under the circumstances. It doesn't make the experience any more pleasant, but I think I get it.

But now a lot of that is going to change. In addition to a variety of other initiatives (including changing the payout of health care benefits to a Pay-as-you-go model and moving to a five-day delivery model, Monday-Friday), the biggest change is going to be a dramatic expansion of the number of places where you can do get basic postal services. There will be way more automated kiosks buildings (we have one near the family's home in Fishers, IN, and it's worlds better than going to the PO in town, and don't get me started about the PO in Nashville, TN where I'm a resident!). And there will be way more access through "corner stores" such as pharmacies, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Here's the language from the slide in the presentation where they talk about that.

The Postal Service will
expand customer access where it is
convenient for
them, online and where they shop.

▪ Post Offices are often less convenient for customers in terms of
hours of operation and accessibility, and cost two to three times
more than alternative channels

▪ Access can be expanded through new partnerships with retailers
and with other medium such as kiosks. Requires:
– Elimination of the statutory limitation that prevents the closure of
Post Offices solely for economic reasons
– Reduced political interference in the decision making process
– Changes to the regulatory review process

Do you see what they're doing there? They're going to move more access to postal services OUT to where the people being served, their customers, actually are. And, as it turns out, this will save them billions of dollars in higher operational costs and employee costs for post offices and their workers. Better service, lower costs. Everybody wins. And the mission is served better-- not by being attractional (trying more and more gimmicks such as special stamps to lure people IN to the post offices) but by being missional (sending their services out, both through their own kiosks AND through partnerships with others who can deliver them just as effectively but at far lower costs).

This isn't outsourcing. This doesn't take jobs away from Americans and put them in other countries. This is ReThinking Postal Service.

They're not proposing closing all the post offices. They're also not talking eliminating all their employee base and going solely for contracts with outside groups (pharmacies, grocery stores, etc). Reduction in traditional post office locations and increases in partnerships with others who can deliver their services more efficiently to more customers in more places is part of the mix, but it's not the only part.

Some have observed that the structure of the United Methodist Church looks a lot like the structure of US government-- three branches of "top level" governance (General Conference, Council of Bishops/Connectional Table, and Judicial Council), regional governing authorities (conferences) and local governing authorities (districts and congregations). It's a fairly appropriate analogy, except we don't have a bicameral legislature to give us gridlock like the US Congress has experienced for the past decade or two.

Given that history and heritage of "follow the government" for polity, maybe it's time, right now, for the UMC to wake up and follow the Post Office.

Maybe it's time for UM congregations to give up not on congregations per se, but rather give up on the notion that the mission of the church is best served if we get as many people INTO congregations as our goal, and get many more of those folks OUT into the world "offering them Christ" where they normally go-- whether online, or in their neighborhoods, or where they work, shop and play.

Maybe it's time, too, to loosen up our "congregation equals church" approach to things and recognize that other formats of Christian community are "out there" that could help people become disciples of Jesus accountably deployed in mission far more efficiently that congregations can expect to-- and start partnering with them to do just that.

To do that, we have to make some legislative changes, yes-- as does the Post Office to do what it needs to do. But more than that, we have to "loosen up" our thinking, abandon the models that are likely only to continue to produce downward trajectories of performance in this country, and start forming the partnerships that will get us all on a greater number of trajectories far more likely to achieve their targets-- our stated mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Hey, if the Post Office can go missional, why not the United Methodist Church?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards