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Why institutions matter

Reflecting on the book, “On Thinking Institutionally,” Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones says Christian wisdom illustrates our need for institutions to shape and form us.

March 2, 2009

We love to hate the institutions we need. We grumble about them, malign them as lifeless bureaucracies, and create comic strips and TV shows about their dysfunction. Even if we recognize institutions are necessary -- necessary evils -- we would rather ignore them than engage them or serve them. We despise institutional leaders as self-serving careerists or as interchangeable bureaucrats. If I had $100 for every person who told me I had left the ministry or teaching when I became a dean, I easily could retire.

Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world.

What do we need to overcome to change the conversation? Heclo suggests that the headlines about corruption -- clergy sexual abuse, corporate financial misconduct, military torture and the list goes on -- give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some institutions are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life.

Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. “We moderns have a culture-based distrust of institutions both because they get in our way and also because we cannot get out of their way,” he writes. “In the modern mental landscape, institutional distrust goes with the territory.” Heclo describes this deep distrust of institutions as a “modern impasse.” Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.

One would think Christians offer a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for institutions to shape and form us -- as well as the vulnerability of institutions and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood paradigmatically as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfillment. And our persistent capacity for sin points us back to the significance of institutions, revealing our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.

Unfortunately, many American Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism and have eaten persistently at the trough of anti-institutionalism. Karl Menninger’s question of a generation ago, “What Ever Became of Sin?” is as relevant today. Not that sin has disappeared and we have become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus. Even those Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to community as an alternative. Yet communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.

Heclo suggests we modern people suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why institutions are crucial to flourishing human lives and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” institutions as an observer or critic. Heclo notes that institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of institutions, but with “respect in depth.” Institutions are not only “houses” for faithful practices; caring for institutions -- and so thinking institutionally -- is itself a practice.

Christian institutional leaders -- those of us entrusted with creating, preserving and extending Christian institutions as bearers of tradition, incubators of leadership and laboratories of learning -- model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our organization serves and when we embody Christian virtues. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our organization’s, capacity for sin as well as redemption. We inevitably exercise power in our leadership; do we do so in Christ-shaped ways?

Heclo’s diagnosis of the modern impasse and his prognosis for cultivating institutional thinking are profoundly important and insightful. Even so, both the diagnosis and prognosis call for more robust theological development. We need a richer Christian account of vibrant institutions that is cognizant of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. For, as Heclo notes, “institutional thinking has to do with living committed to the ends for which organization occurs rather than to an organization as such.” And Christians should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.

In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling even strong institutions, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.