Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“Some Paradoxes of Modern Institutionalism”

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An institution indeed has value when it gifts the community it serves. The hallmarks of institutions are the organization and dispensation of power, the development and use of organizational structures which harness human capital and galvanize material resources to realize goals and objectives for the common good and the betterment of society. It is the nature of institutions to preserve and perpetuate themselves over extended periods of time; to create adaptive mechanisms, promulgate knowledge, and consolidate interests to ensure long-term stability and viability.

Noted Christian theological ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr observed that institutions often begin as organic movements that rise up and break off from their parent institutions. In the formative phases of organizational development those entities retain a measure of pliability but must adopt by-laws and rules of management to survive and grow. Over time those rules can harden into “sacred” practices that resist any forms of organic change preventing them from acclimating themselves to changing times in a rapidly changing world. The result can be what United Methodist Bishop William Wilke calls in his book “And Are We Yet Alive? “institutional dry rot.” The structures which initially preserved organizational heritage and identity and once gave them vitality, can create their own roadblocks to future sustainability. In the words of Speed Leas, “their successes can become their excesses.”

The potential schism in the United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations over the ordination of LGBT persons may well be case in point. Will it spit the church? Will another church emerge and break off from its parent because the two entities cannot reconcile their views on this issue?

The inherent  dilemma may be due not only to issues of theology and ecclesial tradition, but the manner in which regimes of knowledge and standardized organizational  practices create their own structural and operational limitations.

Institutions must adapt and change if they are to live and grow, but institutionalism is often the nemesis preventing such progressive change. Institutions are life giving while institutionalism creates the systematic, codified rules that allow those organizations to achieve some measure of stasis and equilibrium. The problem is that the very same institutional regulations which cannot adapt can hasten the demise of the very organizations for which they were originally conceived to preserve order and continuity.

According to Clayton Christenson, it is precisely the inability of businesses to accommodate models of disruptive innovation in sustaining profitability that thwart their continuity. With non business or non profit institutions, institutionalism may ironically view any form of innovation as disruptive and threatening to the organization’s future.

An additional paradox is the manner in which organic movements also evolve through what German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber called “routinization” and Emile Durkheim called “mechanical solidarity” by morphing into organizations with obstinate, obdurate and intransigent practices that yield a modicum of spontaneity and thereby over time easily lose vitality. Thus, what once was organic is now organizational, once fluid now frozen and formal, once amorphous and creative now unimaginatively restrictive and lacking in the dynamics of innovation.

Instead of remaining open systems, birthing new ideas, they become closed systems addicted to organizational practices that are unyielding to progressive change, says Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel. When dysfunctional norms set in through a dogmatic resistance to change by people who serve those institutions, it is difficult for them to overhaul or transform those structures because they are entrenched in world views or time-honored versus time proven practices that hinder their growth capacities.

This is also true of some religious institutions. Their structures and hierarchies of power seem, at times, to be rigid replicas of their secular counterparts. Their theological and ecclesial claims to authority and absolute power in conducting business and managing people is often compassionate but can also be brutally pre-emptive, iron-willed and short-sighted. Their organizational philosophies appear at times to be more inclined towards preserving order, brand-identity and increasing their bottom lines. The choice is sometimes between a theology of power and the power of theology which are not so easily discerned in actualizing their overall mission and navigating the labyrinths of power allowing them to achieve their organizational objectives. Like all other institutions, the problem of power and how it is used often tells the real story of those institutions and the people who staff them.

While the institutional church is called to lead the rest of society in modeling the virtues of humanity within the dominance of hegemony, it is often this hegemony that overrides humanity. To be sure, those serving the institutional church believe in a greater good, a higher cause and a nobler purpose. In the transactions of institutional life however, those in critical decision-making roles must often make “life and death” decisions that turn out to be more unilaterally aligned with preserving the systems they serve than the best interests of the people they are called to serve.

Such decisions do not always reflect best practices rooted in their core values or give impetus to life-changing theological witness, fervent moral leadership, and transformational engagement in society. At times they include what scholar and culture critic Henry Giroux would call the rules of disposability buttressed by cultures of cruelty enacted toward those whom it can no longer commodify and must thus discard.

An inevitable result is a further hardening of rules and the homogenizing rather than the humanizing of humanity. Persons within institutions can have their creative imagination curtailed or can be frustrated in the full-flowering of new ideas. Dissenting opinions that will enable institutions to adapt to changing peoples, times, templates and cultures are often discouraged. A recurring challenge which, according to British sociologist Anthony Giddens, is a salient feature of modernity itself, and is, according to Canadian author and essayist John Ralston Saul, a terminal dilemma if not a chronic bane, may be due in part to the recent rise of corporatism in America.

The philosophy of corporatism is taking hold, it seems, like a vast juggernaut which runs willfully and discriminately over people in society which ultimately leads to the displacement of the citizen, the disintegration of democracy and the subordination of the individual. In a culture of homogenization, the ultimate goal is the politics of elevating the power of the uber group over the value of the individual by preserving at all costs the rules of the organization over the rights of persons.

This homogenization of humanity means that while we are God-made individuals with varying expressions and outlooks on life, we must always subordinate all personality and individuality, even our “divine spark,” in the words of Meister Eckhart, to the interests of the aggregate. All must therefore virtually think and act alike, wear the same colors, speak in the same tones, share the same common goals and dreams, sing the same songs, march to the same drummer and replicate the same understandings of the world and of God. While such fervor quickens the soul and raises the esprit de corps, it can ultimately suppress vitality, harden the arteries, and quench the human spirit; a creative spirit so essential to personal and organizational resiliency.

While upholding and pursuing unity amid diversity and cultivating a unilateral vision among the multiplicities of competing world views are important, the categorical objective should not be only our homogenization – it should also include and encourage our continuing diversification. It should not mean silencing our human potential and quashing our intellectual capital for the purposes of robotically reinforcing the conventional codes of bureaucratic, boardroom and behavioral decorum. Nor should it sponsor our complete domestication, but should also require the freedom to see and express things differently, which is the capacity to view, shape and live them upside down, right side up, outside in and inside out, which can also benefit the organization.

As Dr. Chandra Scott so incisively points out in the book “Diversity in the Work Force,” which she co-edited with Marilyn Y. Boyd, the word “diversity” is the manner in which we “value the myriad ways in which varieties of people are commonly viewed as similar and dissimilar to one another in a work environment.” Scott lists a whole compendium of characteristics included in this word ranging from knowledge and skills to eye color, hair color and how we manage stress. This definition of diversity provides a more comprehensive view of the assorted universes and views of reality.

While the normative cognitive configurations and conventional cultural inducements have their place in organizations and institutions, the challenge is to not only think and do alike but to think and do differently. To envision, embrace and celebrate those measures as means to nurturing the organizational vitality which ultimately thwarts its continual fossilization and avoidable obsolescence. Dry bones in the valley can live again, but not without divine resuscitation and re-fertilization of the valley.

Moreover, as modern institutions, “celebrate” diversity, people can co-intentionally sit and drink coffee and have true friendships and community together. They can share cultural, familial, spiritual and psychological spaces. They can harmoniously co-exist by expressing racial, gender, ethnic and class differences, yet beneath that veneer do they reveal who they really are or do they wear the mask and simply go along to get along? Are elements of their unique gifts, personalities and character truly valued by the organization they are privileged to serve or are they simply organizational mannequins window dressing equal opportunity employment?

Furthermore, many organizations represent diversity in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity and culture but do not diversify the true integration of power from the centers of their true human capacities as different persons of God, or not of God, in shaping the future of those institutions. Institutions often speak of the importance of diversity and many do welcome and celebrate it, but how many people within their ranks are diminished in value simply because they speak or model variant ways of being and seeing the world? How many people are glossed over and subordinated because their perspectives don’t fit into the predominant norms of thinking? Are such persons accepted in their diverse expressions of being and thinking or just tacitly approved by a world which sometimes over values uniformity and conformity and appears to be increasingly enthralled by the swish and swirl of the flood tides of corporatism?

Moreover, can we talk and think beyond our talking points within the institutional structures? At what point can true and beneficial changes be made within the organization from divergent thinking but cogent points of view?

And what does it mean to employ and disseminate the word “multiculturalism” as an expression and hallmark of diversity? Does it simply mean that one group hogs all the conversation where there is no genuine dialogue from others, which often means “talking at” rather than “talking with” people? Does it sometimes means talking at them to confirm what they already know about themselves and their own world as opposed to talking with them to discover what they do not know about the others and their world? Does it also mean talking at them to covert them to one’s own world view because that perspective is superior to all other viewpoints? Those doing all the talking are not often listening.

When society forces people into categories of “different or other,” if can often obviate their rights to truly being genuinely heard and valued as persons. It often blocks one’s capacity to really hear, and learn and understand and really know. “To know and understand are two different things,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.

Physicist David Bohm says that it all begins with genuine dialogue which is mutual, reciprocal and not monolingual.  “Nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if everybody wins. There is a different spirit to it. In a dialogue there is no attempt to gain points or to make your particular point of view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody, everybody wins. It is a common participation.” Everybody wins because everybody is listening to learn and grow and know from the other. Everyone is a person who has intrinsic value first as a person and then to the organization or institution. Such diversity can begin with genuine listening to others and valuing their persons and ideas in a world that is attempting to singularize variant forms of thought.

Is it not the true coalescence of power in ways that will develop new models and systems of thought and action that will truly enhance the whole? The amalgamation of ideas, cognitive structures, assumptive worlds and cultural dispositions into newer, fresher, paradigms and ways of thinking and knowing can help institutions both religious and secular override the paradoxes and paroxysms of institutionalism.

Moreover, the culture of decision-making in some institutions often remains black or white; still dominated by intransigent either-or cognitive structures and thought frameworks, meaning that usually means having things completely your way or  my way, rather than a synthesis of views. This frame more readily reinforces the position of the existing regimes of knowledge rather than organically meeting the dynamic demands and current realities of emerging ideas and cultures in a so-called melting pot society. The incubation of ideas can follow circular and linear forms of logic. The challenge is not only what we think but how we think, which has to do with not only the substance of thought but their varieties of forms.

If privileged to ascend the ranks of institutional leadership, value is often assigned to those who support and reinforce the dominant paradigms of thinking, or do not always, which is the way it is supposed to be. Confidence is placed is persons who have firm grip on the status quo but can envision a world beyond it. If failure is permitted, leaders must find ways of helping institutions “fail forward,” in the words of John Maxwell. The cognitive structures and assorted ideas that can best benefit the institution can be tossed aside due to entrenched patterns of thinking. What may not make sense to one individual may make perfectly good sense to the group corporately as well as its opposites.

There is something wholly liberating in the mutual discovery of those modes of consciousness, thinking and doing that will surprisingly benefit the whole because in the words  of Alfred North Whitehead, they have value and power to preserve change amid order and order amid change. This should be the goal of all institutions and societies.

Social and religious institutions are products of a world view but are also called to transform it, says Mechal Sobel in her book “The World they Made Together.”

Perhaps paraphrasing Wade Davis captures it best with these thoughts. “The world in which we were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being us; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” In valuing those other models we can create newer more dynamic practices that give new life to those institutions.

If institutions are to be resilient and grow, they must be more than organizational mirrors of the larger society. They must find ways of to maintain their organicism, currency and relevancy by nurturing the life giving and life sustaining elements that make for the positive transformation of those institutions, people and society.

They must value the role of conformity, but also prize the importance of non-conformity, resiliency and innovation, not only in their capacities of doing and thinking cooperatively, but also in the ways of creatively doing and thinking differently to strengthen the whole. The homogenization of being and thought has value, but history attests the humanization of humanity is often more significant in order to create and sustain more vibrancy and meaning for institutions and society. The fundamental goal is not to make us all alike in every aspect of our lives, but to forge common goals and objectives that reinforce our diversity as we strive for common ground and understanding.

It means valuing the uniqueness of all persons as we build and shape a new world together through genuine dialogue, continued humanization and cognitive and cultural diversification that will make the qualitative difference over the long haul. By doing this we forge newer and more creative models of institutional life and ultimately a more vital, inclusive and resilient society.


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