One of our family’s favorite haunts in downtown DC is an often-overlooked Smithsonian museum: the National Postal Museum. It’s located in the old post office building next to Union Station. The building itself has echoing hallways, grand in scale, and lined with gold post office boxes. Walking in, a visitor gets the feeling of how important the post office was, once upon a time.
You descend an escalator to get to the museum. There are some interactive exhibits using kiosks that show how mail delivery works, and you can create a postcard to actually send to someone.
Another room has those big metal panels you flip through like posters, immortalizing every U.S. stamp ever created. One time my husband was so inspired that he bought me a pair of earrings in the gift shop — showing the “Love” stamps we used on our wedding invitations in 1984. Recognize them?
We dorky Everharts especially love the “back through time” exhibit which features various kinds of wagons which once delivered mail. You can sit in them, then follow windy paths through fake trees and read about the days of rural delivery.
Another favorite exhibit reminds us that the postal workers aboard the Titanic tried valiantly to save the mail, dragging heavy bags higher up the decks as the ship went down. (Yes, much of this could preach.)
The museum is never crowded and full of things to read, a perfect choice for a family of introverts!
Here’s something else: I love the Postal Museum more than I love any actual post office. At this point I could digress into lots of stories about post offices because I have lived in five states, in different kinds of environments, and have found that the experience of a post office varies drastically from locality to locality. You probably have similar stories.
But when I’m at the Postal Museum, all that particularity fades away and I am left with the corporate memory of why the post office was created, what it did, and does, and why we value it. I can get sentimental over the importance of people communicating with each other via the written word. What a good idea!
Do you see where I’m going? The postal service is similar to the church. Depending where you live, local congregations can vary tremendously, and we may not like many of them. But arching over all the specifics is still this grand, unifying thing that people think of as “The Church” and which can make us rather sentimental. After all, The Church is such a good idea, isn’t it? So noble.
With the news from the post office lately, it’s apparent that the US Post Office is in danger of becoming a museum, in its entirety. That article in Esquire is absolutely worth reading — Here’s a quote:
Donahoe talks about steel because it’s a cautionary tale. It is about what happens when management waits too long to make hard but necessary changes. It’s about how industries that fail to adapt die.
“I’ve been the postmaster general now for almost eighteen months,” he says at the end of his keynote address. “They say that you never really understand and appreciate how things work until you try to change them. I think this is true. Change is not easy. It’s comfortable to keep things the way they are. It’s comfortable not to make tough decisions. But our future is not in today’s comfort zone… Your business depends upon a postal service that can reinvent itself. So that’s what we’re doing: We are reinventing the postal service.”
Keep reading, and a whole different perspective emerges. Ron Bloom has a different perspective . . .
Like Donahoe, Ron Bloom lives in Pittsburgh and likes to draw parallels to the steel industry. But rather than framing the collapse of big steel as a lesson in management being too slow to recognize a change in the marketplace and downsize, Bloom sees what happens when management no longer has the stomach to innovate. He focuses on what happened to Bethlehem Steel after bankruptcy, because he’s the guy who rebuilt it. . . .
The NALC feels like it found that fighter in Bloom. No one disputes that first-class mail is in decline, and no one really thinks it’s going to return to pre-2006 levels. But Bloom doesn’t believe that the postal service is in as dire shape as Congress and the media â€” and even Donahoe â€” have portrayed it.
Which vision fits for the church?
Is the church on a similar trajectory as the post office? And which trajectory is that? Are we on the verge of becoming Â a museum, in entirety? Do we need to reinvent ourselves? Or is reinvention not necessary? Can we come together to figure this out?
I wonder. Perhaps The Church, like the Postal Museum, will be known someday for its echoing hallways, grand in scale, and lined with obsolete golden displays.
I sincerely hope not. But it’s absolutely possible.