walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 14, 2010
The Holy Crap Must Go

Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  There’s no doubt that a lot of serious prayers were prayed and good sermons preached in the Castle Church where Luther posted his theses.  But over the years a lot of holy crap had collected there: by 1518 there were more than 17,000 ‘holy relics’ in the church, including such treasures as the body of one of the babies Herod had killed in Bethlehem, straw from Jesus’ manger, a piece of Moses’ burning bush, a sample of the milk of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a set of the swaddling clothes she used on the Christ child.  If you visited each relic and prayed the appropriate prayers, you could knock more than 125,000 years off whatever time you were expecting in Purgatory.

Martin Luther understood something very important about the Castle Church:  the holy crap had to go.  There might have been a time when a vial of the Virgin’s milk would connect the peasants with the story of the first Christmas and remind them both of the dignity of women and the awesome presence of God on earth.  The brutal knights of an earlier day might be terrified into honoring their oaths if sworn on one of the 35 pieces of the True Cross lying in various reliquaries and altarpieces at the Castle Church. But that time was no more; if Castle Church was to play its part in the great changes on foot in the world, old ideas would have to go, and once-treasured relics be accepted as frauds and cast aside.


That’s a pretty good description of where the American church is today: there’s a lot of holy crap on the premises, and it is long past time for a good housecleaning.  The American church is staggering under the burden of a physical plant that it doesn’t use and can’t pay for; it staggers under the burden of dysfunctional and bloated denominational and professional structures that it can no longer carry; and it is crippled by outdated ideas about what it needs to do its job.  All these buildings, bureaucracies and assumptions may have been holy once, may have played a real part in advancing God’s work, but for a lot of them that time has passed.

I don’t mean for this to be a blanket denunciation of every seminary, every parish or local church, every judicatory (diocese or other administrative and territorial division found in a particular denomination).  There are noble exceptions and the United States is a big country.  And I’m talking about mainline Protestant churches mostly here, though I think others may recognize that some of these problems are shared.

The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth.  The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today.  They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination).  Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners.  And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year.  The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try.  People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices.  When my dad was a young priest in the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina back in the late 1950s the bishop had a secretary and that was pretty much it for diocesan staff.  These days the Episcopal church is in decline, with perhaps a third to a half or more of its parishes unable to meet their basic expenses and with members dying off or drifting away much faster than new people come through the door — but no respectable bishop would be caught dead with the pathetic staff with which Bishop Baker ran a healthy and growing diocese in North Carolina back in the 1950s.  (Bishop Baker was impressive in another way; he could tie his handkerchief into the shape of a bunny rabbit, put it flat on the palm of his hand, and have it hop off.  I was only six when he showed me this trick, but it was clear to me that this man had something special to offer.  Since that time I’ve traveled all over the world and met bishops, archbishops, cardinals and even a pope — but none of them made quite the impression on me that Bishop Baker and his jumping handkerchief did.)

Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are.  And it isn’t just Anglicans.  Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell.  Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking.  Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors.

There’s another parallel structure: the seminary system.  Peter, James and Paul didn’t have any degrees or professional training, but that is not good enough for us today.  Our priests, elders, ministers or whatever we call them must be professionals.  They must have graduate degrees from an accredited institution with a tenured faculty and, best case, a large grassy campus.  These schools are expensive; students need to take out very large student loans, which must be paid back out of the salaries which, increasingly, shrinking congregations can’t pay.  The tenured faculty, like tenured faculties everywhere, is generally less interested in teaching than in ‘research’ into various arcane but no doubt highly interesting ideas that can be published in peer-reviewed journals.  Science!  Progress!  When it comes to theology, they are more interested in academically hot new ideas than in that boring old stuff that has been around forever.

Of course, like almost all academics, seminary professors must sometimes put their research aside and trudge into the classroom, but when they do (like their colleagues and peers in so many universities and colleges across this great and dysfunctional country of ours) they often want to teach recondite and abstract subjects rather than the dull, pragmatic bread and butter topics that church pastors actually need to understand.  There are glorious exceptions: but we have somehow built ourselves an unsustainably expensive and cumbersome system which is geared to produce and support dysfunction.

Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively.  Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ).  Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.

In the spirit of Martin Luther, let me post a provocative thesis on the wall:  If virtually the entire regional and national staff of every mainline denomination were to be called home to heaven overnight in a mainline version of the Rapture, leaving only the equivalent of Bishop Baker and his secretary in their place, I am sure that someone somewhere would notice a difference, but the effect on either the spiritual state of American Christians or the health and well being of local congregations throughout the United States would be hard to detect with the naked eye.

Maybe that goes a bit far, but it’s much too close to accurate for comfort.

Those bureaucracies, institutions, and assumptions:  It’s holy crap and it’s got to go.

What would we do instead?  Scale down and build a mission-centered church.  Perhaps instead of the large dioceses stretching over several counties or in some cases whole states, a ‘diocese’ should consist of a collection of house churches or other congregations in a single town or urban district.  A bishop might oversee half a dozen house churches — and hold down a day job in the secular world.  Paul did.

In this model, few or no priests would attend anything like the formal seminary programs that now exist.  Education for ministry would be less formal, and more ‘hands-on’ — apprenticeships rather than graduate school.  Candidates might work under the direct supervision of an ordained priest or bishop, take correspondence or internet courses to meet some basic requirements, and then be ordained — without any expectation that ordination would lead to a life’s work as a paid full time religious professional.

Freed from the crushing financial burdens of maintaining large physical plants, expensive and unproductive regional and national bureaucracies, a professional establishment and a network of professional schools, the Christian congregations of the United States might actually be able to accomplish something.  Who knows?  They could concentrate on nurturing the spiritual lives of their members, reaching out to the unchurched, and serving their communities and the world.  They could operate charter schools, teach English to immigrants, develop cooperatives for day care, and reach out to the aged.  The laypeople would no longer hire professionals to carry on the life of the church and to lead it.  The gap between ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ would diminish; initiative would pass from structured positions of authority to the people at large.

I don’t know exactly how all this would work.  It would be new; there would be many experiments.  Some would not work, others would, and the successful models would spread. But this is what is happening in society at large; the churches should be a source of innovation and creativity, not the last lingering bastion of a dying way of life.

The crisis of the clergy in the churches is tied up with the broader crisis of professionals in American society as a whole.  An increasingly well-educated and independent minded society doesn’t need as much guidance from professionals as it used to.  Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line — just as Americans are turning to other sources for answers to legal and medical questions.  And just as Americans are less and less willing to accept the leadership of professional politicians, journalists and labor leaders, they are less willing to accept (and pay for) the leadership of the professional clergy.

However irritating and uncomfortable this shift is for professionals, and however costly the mistakes people inevitably make, on the whole this process is a necessary and good one.  It is part of the small ‘d’ democratization that means real liberation for ordinary people.  Thanks to the rising general level of education and now the wide dissemination of knowledge over the internet, the average person is becoming more and more free to live without the guidance of social and professional ‘betters’.  For the very large majority of people around the world, that kind of empowering freedom is what progress is all about.

The era of long, genteel decay among the mainline churches is drawing to an end.  Years ago my father tried to warn the mainline churches that their gradual financial decline would one day lead to a crisis.  Now seminaries, the weakest link in the chain financially, are beginning to close in significant numbers.  National and diocesan budgets, shrinking for years with staffs increasingly demoralized, will soon reach a crisis point when the resources simply don’t permit the current structures to limp on.  Every year in most denominations sees the list of endangered churches grow; fewer and fewer can do more than simply keep their heads above water — and more and more can’t even do that.  There is no prospect for turnaround, friends.  This cake is baked.  Radical restructuring is coming; the only question is whether people actively work to shape and embrace it, or whether they huddle together like turkeys in November, telling each other that Thanksgiving isn’t on the way.

The ax is laid to the root of the tree, guys; the holy crap must go.

show comments
  • Busterdog

    In other words “Back to the Future!”

  • AndaO

    A very thoughtful piece. The core spiritual ideas of the Society of Friends would work very well in the kind of local, people centered approach.

  • JasonH

    I think this kind of restructuring is well underway and occurring outside of these types of mainline churches when ever a new non-denominational church starts up and is successful. The rise of non-denominational praise and worship churches has a lot to do with the decay of mainline churches. I for one have noticed a big difference in the level of concepts taught in sermons from mainline churches and sermons given in praise and worship churches. So for my time on Sunday morning I hope some seminaries will stay open in the future.

  • Dennis Sanders

    This was a very good, but hard post to read. I’m an ordained pastor in the Disciples of Christ. I’m an associate at an urban congregation in Minneapolis, but I work bivocationally. It’s funny because people tend think that because I work in two jobs, I am not a “real pastor.” But the fact is, I am doing ministry and to be honest, the church could not afford me full time. Very few churches could these days.

    While I think a lot of what you said makes sense, there is one thing that bothers me. I come from an evangelical background and while there was much that was good about that, there was a climate of anti-intellectualism among some. How do we make sure that leaders whether or not they are ordained are not just made pastors willy nilly?

    Again, thanks for the post.

    • Michelle

      My pastor also has a day job, and our deacon is, I think, a volunteer. Their commitment and effectiveness is orders of magnitude more profound than the old model “professionals” I knew as a young person. A lot of the work of the parish is done by us as part of the faith commitment, and it seems to me that this is how churches ought to work. I agree with another poster that the Mormons are an excellent example. Faith is among other things an on-going and highly personal spiritual learning experience, not a prescriptive event like seeing a lawyer or a surgeon. There’s nothing wrong with having an advanced formal degree on the university model, but the education world is now stuffed with more effective ways of acquiring a solid grounding in a subject. I don’t think it is the degree that makes a good shepherd.

  • Glen

    Agree with the piece.

    Like with most institutions which are decaying, if people have the option of exit, then they will exit. The rise of non-denominational churches is the response from churchgoers to these problems.

    I’m a fairly recent christian in my mid-20’s, and my only church experience is with nimble, non-denominational churches. I think that will become much more common, with the mainline churches not a viable alternative.

  • Paul

    There is much truth in the post and in the responses as well.

    I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who was raised in a mainline denom (UCC), was born-again in my twenties, and have attended only non-denom, evangelical churches ever since. Our churches, as well as the non-denom seminaries, are thriving…jammed with people like me.

    There IS an element of anti-intellectualism in some evangel churches but my sense is that it is fading.

    I would also say that there is a strong and growing anti-intellectualism in the mainline denoms of the sort that causes or is caused by political correctness.

    People come to church to learn the eternal verities. Not hearing them, they leave.

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  • Emil

    Interesting post.

    Having recently moved to the Bible Belt, we looked at a number of churches. One with ministers holding non-church jobs tended to have evangelical preaching that really involved the very same sermon every time—the text was different, but little specifically about that text was mentioned.

    Others were small with trained clergy, but the sermons were not very interesting. Some focused on loud music. We stumbled on a church with a highly educated leader, highly educated members, extraordinary music and very conservative. That is where we go—I feel that the members do not realize how unique this place is.

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  • Joseph A. Cannon

    What an interesting and thoughtful post.

    I have no desire to offend or alienate friends of other faiths, but a good, existing, model for Mead is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

    Except for the leaders at the general Church level, all leaders are lay and hold other daytime jobs. The local congregations (wards) are led by bishops (like pastors or parish priests). Groups of local congregations (stakes) similar to dioceses are led by stake presidents. Each of these leaders is assisted by two counselors and serve, respectively, for approximately five or ten years.

    This service is voluntary. These local congregations also fully staff with volunteers, children’s, youth, women’s and men’s auxiliaries. Each ward may have five to seven Sunday school classes which are also staffed by volunteers.

    The “volunteer” thing may sound a bit messy. One doesn’t actually volunteer, but the local bishop or auxiliary head prays, and in response to inspiration, calls a ward member to the particular calling such as Sunday school leader, youth leader, etc.

    There is no formal training for any of these callings except what is provided by manuals and on the job training (and a lot of prayer).

    Though the Mormons have a very significant investment in chapels, there is little or no expense for formal seminaries and salaries at the local level. (The Church does provide an early morning and, in some places, released time seminary/religious instruction for high school students and the teachers there are paid.)

  • William L. Harnist

    It is not only the “mainline” denominational churches, but also the so-called “non-denominational,” sometimes callled “evangelical churches that are suffering from the same maladies.

  • Wendy Laubach

    I also wonder about all that national admin staff, but I have to say that my little local Episcopal Church is not a bloated, expensive, overstaffed physical plant. The building is simple, old, and dignified, suitable for holding eucharist services for a fairly small congregation. Our annual budget is modest. No doubt our rector went through a good bit of formal study, but we appreciate the grounding it gave him in the Church’s teachings over the last 2,000 years.

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  • Joshua Hill

    some good thoughts here, but….


    I offer that the problem is not our model (which is not crap,but a statement of faith and expectation) so much as our lack of faith. This is reflected in the fact that almost none of us take tithing seriously.

    In a nation where money is sacred, there’s no more effective a way to learn Christianity than tithing. We must stand firm behind the tithe as our goal. We must create tasteful incentive structures in our parishes to reward tithing.

    The church should be big and powerful in order to stand in for those with no power. Let’s not give up on the vision of the kingdom, for Christ’s sake.

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  • DriveByLutheran

    Pastors should have at least a masters degree. The Hebrew term for “pastor” is “rabbi” or teacher. I would want an articulate and educated pastor for my church.

    However, it does not make sense for a seminary graduate to have $40,000 in student loans. If there were only a way to have seminary grads enter the ministry debt-free. Is this realistic?

  • J. Steadfast

    “Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line — just as Americans are turning to other sources for answers to legal and medical questions.”

    …but do they perform the procedures themselves?
    …act as their own legal council?

    just because they go and do some research, that just makes them better informed patients who can ask better questions…

  • JP Blickenstaff

    Thank you for speaking up. For my two cents: if a congregation is not led by the Holy Spirit and exhibiting the love of Christ, it is dead and full of dead works. Intellectualism tends to smother the Spirit with Man’s ideas and therefore the anti-intellectualism in people. Worshipers are seeking to worship a High and Holy God not some tinplated PC liberal idea. They are looking for the Awesome not the commonplace. If the leadership at whatever level does not seek to know God and does not lead that search, the seekers will leave and only the comfortable will remain in the pew.

  • Don Loritz

    But what will become of the non-profit tax exemptions churches enjoy? Should the government make tax-exempt every priest who has not attended seminary and every home that hosts a service on the Sabbath? There may be something to be said for this plan, but at the heart of both Luther’s churches and our churches is the fact that church and state have never been all that well separated. As a result, churches are often repositories of wealth (whether gold or holy cadavers of Bernie Madoff junk bonds). All this “holy crap” has monetary value, and that (often to our shame) has, in significant measure, made our churches what they are.

  • rev gene

    all these things must happen as we approach the last days until HE returns. ” having a form of Godliness yet denyning the power thereof”, seems to be at the heart of the issue. There will always be a holy remnant in the old structure calling prophetically to look out the sky is really falling. The form is tending to deny the power of it’s reason for existance. I recently left the employment of one of the most successful non profit Christian orgs in the world and their organizational structure exactly mirrored the US gov. in DC. They spent inordinate amounts of $$$ flying staff all over the country and never accomplished zip. The problem with all this crap is that it stinks because it is dead! Men, to the ministry and the word of God we don’t have much time left till all the angels come.

  • Arthur Sido

    Great thoughts. Much of the religious trappings that surround the church are no only not helping to advance the mission of the church, they are in many ways impeding it.

    BTW, regarding the comment from Mr. Cannon:

    “a good, existing, model for Mead is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).”

    That would only be true if we were willing to abandon the Gospel. Plus, the mormons may not pay their clergy but they invest enormous sums in ornate “temples”, cattle ranches and shopping malls in Utah.

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  • Doug Kings

    I think what you are describing is happening already and the process will only accelerate. I also doubt denominations are capable of making the changes needed because what’s happening is basically the end of denominations–who works themselves out of a job? I have more thoughts at my blog:

    Thanks for this post!

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  • John

    So much in this article truly resonates with me, however, I have one reservation. I believe that our culture has over-democratized wisdom and education. The wisdom tradition of the Bible does and the university tradition of the church supports the need for a well educated leadership as well as one well formed morally and spiritually. Although I think we fail on the later, we do still try to do the first. Fundamentalism is a “flat” version of faith. This could vision of where religion should go could also become very flat intellectually, spiritually, morally.

  • Garth

    I agree with you on the over-professionalization of churches. One does wonder how people in the past managed to do so much more with (allegedly) so much less.

    However, I have to call you on one of your statements. If you’re going to take swipes at someone else’s religion, it would behoove you to get your facts straight: The ‘years’ attached to indulgences had nothing to do with the amount of “time off” from Purgatory. Rather they were a reference to years of penitential practice in the early Church. (Nowadays we’ve ditched ‘years’ to avoid this point of confusion.)

    A few seconds with Google can turn this up.

  • Lizette Larson-Miller

    I’m never sure what positive effect insulting various constituencies in the church actually causes, but the article does grab one’s attention. I would take issue with a number of things mentioned, but I bring two to bear on the “let’s dismantle the whole system.” One is, in spite of an agreement with the criticism of top-heavy administration, I think the last thing we need is an uneducated clergy. “Going on line” is not the answer, many people in current generations have no expertise in theology and related issues and want (and need) to have someone who is contextualized to ask the questions of and dialogue (and argue) with. Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, what is the ecclesiology, the actual theology of the body of Christ, in which these suggestions are to take place? This seems to be the product of a syncretistic and individualist spirituality that reflects not God but only ourselves – where is the prophetic challenge and the theological context?

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  • Ann

    Walter Russell Mead should look at the new models of ministry in Wyoming, Northern Michigan and other places in the Episcopal Church

  • jimB

    It is clear to me that you have a point — the old structure is dying and will be replaced. One look around any major church will I think convince an impartial observer that this is going to be messy. The precise people that should go are the ones running the current structures. In places where the Episcopal Church is moving towards its very exciting “Total ministry” model, the diocese are facing the end of the old road. Everywhere else the professionals cling to the old structure because it is the only game they know.

    Revolution is a bloody business.



  • Morgan Hunt

    As thought-provoking as anything I’ve seen written about the Christian Church in a long, long time.

  • Meggan

    are you serious??? this is the kind of anti christ crap that is going to take us right into the end of days you sir are a known cult member and will not poison my mind JESUS is the one true god, and the only way into the kingdom of heaven your poison will not take my soul to HELL with yours!~!!! you need Jesus and i will pray for your soul

  • The Reverend Canon Susan Russell

    Very helpful, thoughtful and thought provoking — and EXACTLY in alignment with the work our vestry and staff were doing this very weekend on laying foundations now for the church of 2020. And quite the connection with this Sunday’s Gospel on recognizing that that at the end of the day if the tree doesn’t bear fruit, it needs to go. Thanks for the challenge and the opportunity presented by this reflection.

    Lenten Blessings!

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  • Dave Matz

    Interesting piece, but it raises several concerns, chief of which is this:

    If you break your arm, for example, you’d want to be treated by a professionally trained, qualified physician.

    If you need help with your taxes, you’d want to be assisted by a professionally trained, qualified financial consultant.

    If you’ve got a toothache, you’d want to see a professionally trained, qualified dentist.

    But in matters of the soul, you wouldn’t care if your pastor had seminary training or not? As long as the pastor is “on fire for the Lord”, that’s good enough??

    I would not attend a church which was pastored by someone who lacked mainline seminary training, regardless of that individual’s faith statement or people-skills.

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  • Stella

    My blog doesn’t support trackbacks, but I added a blurb referencing this post. Very interesting commentary. I thank you for sharing. :)

  • Johannim

    “IN THE SPIRIT OF MARTIN LUTHER” oh ya the apostate Augustinian monk first and formost was a schismatic that rather than the likes of the gentle Francis of Assisi remained in and cleaned up a corrupt church martin luther rendered asunder the body of Christendom in the West a crime against God, his people and the Church that Christ established “the One, Holy Catholic and Orthodox Church. The worst part of martin luthers nature was his Jew hating rabid anti semitism, his sermons that encited million in their hatred of Jews, culminating in the 20th century Holocaust.If Anglicanism is in the spirit of martin luther it deserves to dissappear, after all was the first anglican POPE notcalled henry the 8th, all four hundred pounds of him and his legacy of murder and tyranny??? IN THE SPIRIT OF MARTIN LUTHER, GOD HELP US.

  • window replacement

    I’m impressed, I must say. Actually not often do I encounter a blog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you may have hit the nail on the head. Your concept is excellent; the problem is one thing that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very joyful that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  • Glenda

    Best article yet that I have read to characterize the church decline. Goes along with the feeling that many people have that “less is more” and “keep it simple”. Instead, church government continues to make religion more expensive and complicated. The marketing, branding, licensing, copyright, publishing effort is a HUGE turn-off. And it’s much more efficient for me to go directly to a charity website to donate than funneling my money through your church budget.

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    that i find it difficult to waint to look glastonbury 2010, the nation’s about to function as a preferred festivity ever.

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