the importance of being … institutional?

November 9, 2007

Red-tape.  Bureaucracy.  Layers of paperwork over layers of committees (over layers of toxic-people).

These were my (only) connotations surrounding the institution.  Then I went to work for one; (namely, the church).

Now I’m not sure what to think.  In addition to the aforementioned vexations (ad nauseum) — it seems there may be larger considerations.  Like why & how “red-tape, committees, and toxic people” get there in the 1st place.  Might it be because the institution — whether church, government, corporation, or school — (with all its warts and warbles) yet stands as the only entity where an organized-people is empowered to truly affect change?  (Sterile study-environments are never actually where the meds make a difference; maybe we ought to expect a little “nauseum.”)

My own vantage-point (from a small seat inside institutional leadership) coupled with recent rumination on (what seems to be) a compelling sociological case for the institution keeps me pondering.

My idealistic (Christian?) aspirations for robust-redemption in our world force the question: is there a better (non-institutional) way?  But Jean Monnet’s quippy little quote — though potentially trite — yet rings true in my ears: “Nothing can be achieved without people; nothing can endure without institutions.”

On the days and weeks (like this day and this week) when I’d like to consider seriously ditching the institution, there remains an anchoring pause.  I’m not saying I buy-in (yet), but my conscience won’t let me opt-out.  Your thoughts?


3 Responses to “the importance of being … institutional?”

  1. Alamanach Says:

    You ask for thoughts but nobody’s commented, so I thought I would.

    “In addition to the aforementioned vexations (ad nauseum) – it seems there may be larger considerations. Like why & how ”red-tape, committees, and toxic people” get there in the 1st place… My idealistic (Christian?) aspirations for robust-redemption in our world force the question: is there a better (non-institutional) way?”

    As I see it, this gets tied up with an individual’s calling. America’s greatness comes (at least in part) from its dedication to the individual. That’s a good thing, because it gives people the freedom to be the best they can be. The downside is that there is a risk that people won’t be their best, that they will selfishly turn inward and not strive to grow. More than a risk, this is in fact what usually happens. These days I work in international development. There’s grand intentions, lots of bureaucracy, and a lot of selfishness. Good ideas don’t get implemented because bureaucrats in Washington offices have political games they need to play. Bad ideas get pushed into the field because it boosts somebody’s career. It can get discouraging when you realize how many people are just in it for themselves. These are people who are positioned to perform incredible acts of charity, and yet they pass this up and stay mired in their patty personal concerns.

    Just last night I was chatting with some white southern Africans who were marvelling at the generosity of the local people here. We know a man who is supporting three entire families because his brothers died, and they were amazed that someone would go to such lengths. One of them commented that the blacks back home tended to be the same way, supporting hordes of distant relatives on a shoestring. They marvelled at this because they doubted they would be so unconditionally supportive of their own extended families.

    Now, early in the Bible, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It takes most of the rest of the book to find the answer to that question, but the answer is yes. Our brother’s welfare is, in part, our responsibility. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. That a man would be willing to support his brothers’ wives and all their extended family should not be remarkable, it is exactly what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to support strangers this unconditionally, how much moreso then would we support our family.

    It has been said that the things you own end up owning you. I think this may be the root of the trouble. Most people actually believe that they own their stuff– and not just in a superficial, property-rights law kind of way. They seem to think that they are entitled to continual gain and bona fide possession. Trouble is, none of what we have is actually ours. Everything is on loan. And when people go around thinking otherwise, they become excessively loss-averse and charity dries up. They are afraid of losing possessions, of losing time, of losing rank, of losing prestige. They think their positions within institutions means something, and so they refuse to act as their brother’s keeper.

    What people need to be doing is to be willing to suffer loss, and even pain, in the course of serving others. There is a higher good that is served in doing this, though you can’t see that good if you focus only on your personal well-being. You have to die in order to live.

    That can be a frightening prospect, bacause you can be faced with a person who is under tremendous burdens, and it can take courage to reach out to such a person. I had a tough lesson in this recently, someone here got injured in a permanently disfiguring way. She has a tough road ahead of her, and it’s going to be tough for the rest of her life. There are two things to be aware of here: 1) people will donate money to a cause like hers so that they can feel good about themselves without having to actually deal with it or think about it anymore. This is the mentality behind most charitable organizations and development work. it’s also little different from bribery. 2) the burden is inalienable. She’s the one who is disfigured, and that’s not going to change. God has given her a mighty peculiar road to walk, but it’s hers to walk, not yours or mine. That means that you and I have nothing to lose by keeping fellowship with her and helping her out however we can. It doesn’t cost us anything that is actually ours. People concerned about their own careers never seem to see it that way.

    I am prone to the illusion of ownership just like anyone, but when I’m able to see things from the selfless angle, interest in “empowered people truly able to affect change” disappears. Maybe that’s just me. But it seems to me that the world I need to focus on changing is the one within arm’s reach. The moment I join a cause or something, I’m dealing with stuff I don’t know about first-hand and I’m getting drawn into that illusion of social rank and status and stuff. The real change I need to affect is right here in the staff house. It is with the people I deal with day-to-day on a personal level. Don’t need an institution for that.

    That’s just me, maybe other people are somehow called to deal with problems that require institutions. How that could possibly work, I don’t know; an institutional mission and individual calling can never be identical. But there are my thoughts for you.

  2. jt Says:

    Wow; great thoughts. (I’d like to spend a little more time w/them before logging in with anything official!)

    Your second to the last paragraph (“That can be a frightening prospect …”) reminds me just a bit of Dr. Perkin’s, Beyond Charity. Have you read it?

    More later.

  3. Alamanach Says:

    Never heard of it, but I’ll keep an eye out. (Ouch!) 🙂

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