Hugo Heclo in a recent book entitled On Thinking Institutionally (published by Paradigm Publishers, 2008) challenges the current primary focus on the self as the sole determiner of value and meaning. He explains and argues for the value of “institutions” such as the legal system, health services, education, government, family and marriage, and philanthropy. “They can be “enabling constraints that make it possible for us to live out and further develop our humanity”(43). Human beings as moral agents have to consider “what it is to think as moral agents within a framework of institutional values”(79).
He argues that “thinking institutionally” requires the following mindset:
i. to “be committed to the ends for which the organization occurs rather than to an organization as such”(90). The mission and values of the institution require the loyalty of those involved, not necessarily its current forms and functions;
ii. to live and act “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world”(97). Decisions and actions reflect the organizations vision and values, accumulating to habitual responses demonstrating a certain kind of intelligence;
iii. to be “in a position primarily of receiving rather than of inventing or creating”(98). There is a sense of rootedness in the legacy received that has shaped the institution. An indebtedness to carry forward the vision and values in “faithful reception” shapes the consciousness of this involved;
iv. to embrace “value diffusion as well as infusion. Institutions diffuse values by connecting a person to something that goes beyond the self-life”(102). People personally are shaped by these values and the life of the organization in turn more or less incarnates those values;
v. to attend to precedent and “to stretch your time horizon backward and forward so that the shadows from both past and future lengthen into the present”(109). We work with what belongs “to predecessors and successors”(110), guided by a deep sense of stewardship.
Sometimes leaders in the church shy away from regarding it as an institution because many voices urge us to see it only as family or community. The word ‘institution’ breathes hierarchy, authority, bureaucracy, and rigidity. However, if we apply Helco’s definition of institution to the church, we can agree that the church does constitute “enabling constraints that make it possible for us to live out and further develop our humanity.” Of course, it is more than this, embodying as it does the mission and values of the Messiah himself. However, it demonstrates institutional traits and so it is important for its leaders to be able to “think institutionally” about the church.
The board chair is one of those leaders. What might be some of the implications of “thinking institutionally” about the church as Heclo would enjoin? I would suggest the following:
i. the current shape of the church as institution is only an imperfect representation of its vision and values as defined by the Holy Spirit in Scripture. While there may be culturally conditioned reasons for doing certain things certain ways in a particular church setting, a board chair must be able to think more fundamentally, i.e. to be asking how the vision and values embraced by the congregation can best be expressed in policies, systems, programs, facilities, use of resources, etc. The means are important, but not as important as the ends. For example, the fact that your board has never required an annual evaluation of the lead pastor does not mean it should be implemented. The more important question is whether such an evaluation will enable the board to achieve the ends or goals that the congregation has established. If the board does not require this, will it be delinquent in its stewardship of the congregation’s resources and leading towards vision fulfillment?
ii. a church board chair has the responsibility to become so imbued with the church’s vision and values that he or she habitually guides the board in its decisions in ways that embed these values along with their corresponding vision in the fabric of the church. There is an exercise of spiritual intelligence that consistently shapes the church’s life as its leaders make decisions, inter-relate, and act. Not every proposal brought to a church board aligns with its mission or its vision or its values. The chair will help the board members to discern this and act accordingly.
iii. a church board chair realizes that he or she stewards a legacy, one created by predecessors and faithful stewardship requires attention be paid to this heritage. This does not mean that tradition rules, but rather that significant change occurs carefully and prayerfully, so that essence of the church continues even as its forms and functions ebb and flow. One practical application of this principle would be the realization that the vision and values of the church are more important than the particular desires of any particular individual or small group. As much as we desire in Christian organizations to be sensitive to the needs and desires of individuals, at the end of the day no one person is more important than the whole. As chair you model this principle in your leadership of the board.
iv. the life of a church board represents the continual diffusion and infusion of values. The board chair and the other board members are moral , kingdom agents acting individually and collectively to carry forward the congregational mission. The values of the church must diffuse through their deliberations and decisions and in turn infuse the life of the congregation. In this sense everything a church board does has spiritual implications because it reflects the values of the congregation.
v. a church board chair leads with a deep consciousness of time – both past and future, as well as present. Decisions must be made with consideration not just for present stakeholders, but for the congregation as it will be in five or ten years. Often this becomes evident when planning a new facility or renovating and expanding current facilities. The planning has to consider what the congregation will require in ten years, not in the next twelve months. This long term vision should be operating in the case of all major decisions.
Thinking institutionally forms a key part of a board chair’s perspective as he or she facilitates the church board’s work. It is a practiced set of habits that improves with attention to and thoughtful engagement in the mission of the church.