Saving our Institutional Souls
A familiar folk axiom is as follows, “institutions are designed to serve the needs of people, but before long those people serve the needs of the institution.” In my experience, this truism is evident in a variety of settings and across every organizational type.
Let me affectionately pick on a category of institutions I value and have come to know rather well – theological schools. Seminaries are established by religious denominations to teach, prepare leaders, develop resources, and do research. A midwestern seminary, with which I am very familiar, recently invited me to join a “video conversation” scheduled for the evening of February 22, 2023. A “select group” of us were asked to learn about exciting initiatives of the field education program. I opened my calendar to add the date, stopped, double checked, and laughed out loud.
The event was scheduled for Ash Wednesday evening, when most congregations I know will be holding a worship service. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent leading up to Easter. In many Christian traditions it is among the more significant days in the liturgical calendar. The scheduling of this event was an unforced error; more, it was a sign of disconnection. Since then, the date of this seminary’s video conference was rescheduled. To repeat, seminaries were begun to serve congregations and denominations, but… well, the seasons and gifts of congregational ministry, are sometimes missed in the planning. This was a failure in awareness as to who was serving whom.
At another seminary where I was in leadership, I visited a gathering of interfaith congregations in Tucson Arizona. It included a wide range of faith traditions who engaged in regular, innovative joint gatherings. A young faculty member was with me on this visit. A few days later, back on campus, a faculty committee shared their plans to “teach congregations how to do interfaith work.” Sadly, this committee had failed to explore what was already taking place among congregations in places like Tucson. I waited before speaking, expecting my young professor friend to share her experience. Later she confessed she didn’t want to challenge the plans of more senior professors. Instead of discovering the gifts already evident in the ecology of existing congregations like those in Tucson these well-meaning faculty folks had seen their role as being the producers of knowledge, the source of innovation. Sadly, the connective tissue, the patterns of reciprocity and mutuality were missing.
I could write of dozens of other examples where institutional expectations and design missed the mark. Denominations often exhibit this blindness as to gifts already present at their own seminaries or their own congregations. I think of denominational efforts to establish in house “leadership training” or “research programs” when the very schools they started and support, offer some of the best resources in the nation. To be fair, we shouldn’t miss the reality that congregations themselves are too often quick to start projects without knowing the gifts in the neighborhoods or cities where they are located.
A very different example is evident as a “new denomination” is being formed among dissidents from the United Methodist Church. Who is serving whom? Are some seminaries and powerful caucus groups misrepresenting the denomination’s institutional practices for their own purposes? Have congregations been being encouraged to disaffiliate based on the needs of institutions who have little or no awareness of the context and neighborhoods where the congregations are in ministry?
At the outset I suggested our world is full of similar examples of this disconnection. In government, health care, education, law, agriculture, economics and on and on we see it. The Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams was built around such institutional blind spots. I have no sympathy for anarchy; I do not suggest all institutions inevitably fail and should be abandoned. To the contrary we have seen the tragic results of the “deep state” myth and conspiracy nonsense in our local, state, and national governmental institutions. I am arguing that sometimes basic linkages and necessary relationships are lost. Not all institutions should be saved. Slavery is an example. Institutions designed to exclude other humans of basic rights should be ended.
I am suggesting that the connective tissue allowing for mutuality and dialogue needs to be exercised, like the muscles of a human body. Our human institutions need to be continually, evaluated, strengthened, and open to democratic reform. In the process, a complex web of reciprocal teaching and learning is essential. All healthy institutions will seek democratic renewal and will be attentive to what can be learned from the gifts and assets of those at the grass roots of society.