Rethinking Institutional Life

Institutions are formed to serve specific purposes — often very important ones. 

So we organize ourselves in many different ways — creating these numerous institutions in which we become involved to varying degrees. Except for an occasional hermit here and there, institutions are a significant part of most of our lives.

If we are going to be so engrossed in organizational structures, it seems wise to give adequate attention to some regular rethinking of institutional life. Without doing so, institutions can be coercively reshaped or unknowingly morph into something other than first intended and currently assumed. 

Such brave but needed rethinking may reveal how an institution— created to be the means for achieving a particular end— ends up being primarily the protector of the means. 

That is, the intended and stated purpose gets pushed down or out by efforts to keep the institution going. In some cases, the preservation of the institution — or its leadership — becomes the organization’s primary or only goal. In doing so, the means becomes the end.

I’m not anti-institution. In fact, institutions have been good to me— churches, colleges, seminaries, church-related organizations and many more. 

However, the goal is often missed when success becomes primarily defined as retaining the organization in a particular form. The ultimate, even stated mission can get sacrificed out of fear of losing support for the institution. For many Christian organizations (including churches), keeping the mission above institutional preservation is particularly challenging. 

Pressures mount in a time of high organizational maintenance costs— amid deep divisions resulting from the wide evangelical embrace of a right-wing political ideology with little semblance to the attitudes and actions of Jesus. 

Rather than asking how best to be expressions of Jesus in a hurting world, many institutional leaders are asking what can or cannot be said to avoid losing the support that undergirds the organization.

The term “mission drift” commonly refers to an organization moving intentionally or not from its stated purpose to a secondary one. It helps to take a fresh look at the organization’s stated mission and then see how much attention it is actually getting. 

Organizations can be helpful and harmful. They are as imperfect as those persons who comprise them. In the same way that individual reflection is helpful, so is introspection of the organizations to which we belong. 

I find myself being increasingly sympathetic with those who find less restrictive— and sometimes less formal— spaces to feel safer and more meaningful. There are fewer expectations and less clutter to cut through. 

Community— while not described in a particularly detailed form— is a part of what it means to live in faithfulness. Jesus told his early disciples that “where two or three are gathered in my name,” he is present among them. Since early on, the church has been described as “the body of Christ,” with its various parts functioning together for the good of the whole and for the common good of humanity.

As Jesus modeled, there are times for pulling away in solitude and silence. Yet, often, we are better together. Like with almost every other aspect of life, balance is the key.

More important than the particular ways we engage organizationally is ensuring that those organizations— whether small or large, formal or informal— stay on mission.

Many years ago, I read a somewhat corny but applicable story about a large, rural family named the Littles. It seemed that everything they tried came out better than their neighbors’ efforts. It became the talk of the community— expressed with intrigue and jealousy. 

Curiosity finally won out, and a man in the community was charged with finding the Little family’s secret to success. He struggled with what to say when he knocked on the old farmhouse door and Mr. Little appeared.  

So the man began by noting that the Little family’s garden produced more than any other in the community. Their fence rows were straighter, he pointed out, and the paint job on the old house looked better than any other for miles around.

“We want to know,” the man finally stammered, “what is your secret?”

Mr. Little scratched his head and searched for an answer. Finally, he replied: “Well, I guess it’s because every little Little does a little.”

The whole idea behind institutional life is that we bring our hands, hearts and resources together for purposes we could not achieve— or achieve as well— on our own. 

Mr. Little may have hit on the secret of everyone pitching in their unique gifts for a common purpose. 

The larger, more defining question we must ask is whether our churches or other institutions are fulfilling a mission greater than the organization’s own stability or perceived success. 

Mission statements were the rage a few decades ago. Everybody had to have one. 

Now, we must ask, what are we doing about those— and for whose benefit?