Many people take a pessimistic view of institutions as inherently corrupt and self-serving, and they decry institutional life as a form of soul-sucking drudgery. But for Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Canada, serving an institution can be an important avenue of spiritual formation. In his book, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, Smith makes the case for administrative work as a meaningful vocation. Tod Bolsinger, vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary (and author of Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory), spoke with Smith about the role of institutions in advancing the church’s mission.
You confront the common thinking that institutional service is a necessary drudgery and make the case that institutions and their everyday practices (like meetings!) are actually both exciting and necessary. When did you first start thinking of yourself as an “institutional” guy?
I more or less backed into it. I was a professor who loved my scholarly work but who was asked to fill in as a dean. Because of the challenges the university faced at the time, I hesitantly agreed. Soon enough, I found that not only was I able to make a difference but that there was something deeply satisfying about leveraging one’s efforts and abilities with other people for a greater cause.
But I still had a kind of naiveté about administrative life that is sometimes common amongst faculty. There is a belief that we can just give ourselves to our students and our scholarship without having to take on the necessary requirements of a larger institution. As I took on more responsibilities, I began to realize that even as a pastor, most of my biggest challenges were not around typical ministerial tasks like preaching or pastoral care. Instead, the issues that consumed me were more about governance and the desire to lead well. Soon, I began to experience a sense of calling to make the institutions that I was part of places where my colleagues and I could thrive.
You acknowledge right away that many people are deeply distrustful of institutions. Why was that important for you?
There is no avoiding that people have been hurt by institutions. Even within the Christian community, many institutions have been less than caring places. Many of us have been stung by policies that were developed without consultation, by practices that seemed less than humane, or by ineffective administrators who left us feeling hurt. The human cost of an ineffective institution is great, so it’s a worthy effort to invest in creating effective ones.
Why, in your view, do institutions matter?
Institutions are about identity: corporate, shared and embodied identity. Institutional life is where we recognize the limits of our individual skills and capacities. Somewhere along the way, if we are committed to being both faithful and fruitful to our callings, we have to admit that if I’m going to flourish, I need others. Artists need someone who can run a gallery. Teachers need administration to provide the structure for their teaching. Doctors and other healers need hospitals and offices. None of us are sufficient in and of ourselves. We need others for our vocations, and effective institutions help us leverage our strengths with others.
Institutions are also a way to leverage the potential of communities. When groups of people want to come together to fulfill a shared mission, they need the structure of an institution to help them work toward goals that are bigger than any individual. A community is a venue for conversations, but it needs an institution to begin to move beyond conversations to getting some things done.
In the book, you respectfully push back against some of the most revered pastoral thinkers of the past generation (like Jean Vanier and Eugene Peterson), who thought of institutions as a distortion of Christian communities. What is your response?
I respect both Jean Vanier and Eugene Peterson very much. They both have had tremendous ministries, and their lives have made a great impact on the world. But both Vanier and Peterson often want to pit “community” against “institution,” whereas I believe you need to think in terms of both a community and an institution. If you want to get something done that will last beyond a generation or beyond an individual person, you will need to institutionalize. Institutions are about taking the very best of our missional instincts and creating the structures that will enable them to actually accomplish the goal. Institutions, when they are effective, are about getting things done that will last.
Why do you think so many spiritual or theological writers are so critical of institutions?
This is indeed a theological problem. Many Protestant and evangelical writers fall into a kind of institutional Docetism. There is a failure to appreciate our own incarnational embodiment, let alone the way that our vocations must be embodied in both our own lives and in communities of mission and practice. For a calling to be faithful it must be embodied, but both pastoral theology and academic thinking have neglected the institutional infrastructure, the skeleton of the body. While there is currently an abundance of literature on Christian community, spirituality, and the church, almost no major theologians or pastors have taken up the way community and spirituality are embedded within the institutional church.
Your target audience seems to be millennials and middle managers. Why them?
It’s not just millennials. My generation of baby boomers—like them—were rather ambivalent and skeptical of institutions. Many baby boomers see institutions as a necessary evil, but younger workers and leaders are deeply resistant to even discuss the issues of power, structure, hierarchy, and everything else that tends to come with institutions. Many are creative, adaptive, and highly fluid. They are eager to start new things, to innovate, and to create. But, at the same time, a number of gifted younger leaders also live in the frustration that they can’t leverage their skills with anyone else to actually bring their dreams to fruition. Their ambitions and ideals are thwarted because they get caught in thinking that they have to accomplish them without the structures of institutions.
I want younger leaders especially to know that few things are as satisfying as the experience of accomplishing something together. Indeed, it is one of the deepest satisfactions of the soul. And institutions are the structures that help hold that deep satisfaction.
You describe institutions as having specific “charisms.” Help us understand what that is and why that’s important.
I was intentionally looking for language that allows us to think theologically about the unique diversity and distinctive contribution of an institution. The term “charism” comes from Catholic orders. The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits—all are under the larger umbrella of one Catholic Church, but they each have a different vocation or “gift” to bring. Thinking of institutions as having charisms reminds us that we are stewards of organizations that are bigger than we are and that God has brought them into being.
Charism also provides a way to talk about who we are in light of something bigger than ourselves and unique to ourselves. It allows us to differentiate ourselves from other institutions while also valuing the other institution. It helps us see that our gift and vocation is different from that of our sister institutions (and sometimes competitors!) and enables us to pray for them, support them, and collaborate with them as part of a larger work of God.
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Source: Christianity Today