(Brooke’s generosity Blog)
May 19, 2019

Just saying the word “institution” makes me want to yawn. Many people today, are suspicious of institutions. Certainly, trust in institutions is much lower now.

Declining trust in government has spread across almost all advanced industrial democracies since the 1960s/1970s,” writes political scientist Russell Dalton. “Regardless of political history, electoral system, or style of government, most contemporary publics are less trustful of government than they were in the era of their grandparents.”

We haven’t simply changed our attitudes. We’ve voted with our feet, walking away from the institutions we supported for generations.

For instance, historian Martin Marty describes a “seismic shift” in religion. “The churches now called mainline Protestant used to grow with every census or survey,” Marty wrote. And then the pews started to empty. Since 1968 the decline in church affiliation has been reduced by more than 60% while the general population increased.

This is the new reality. Wendell Berry once asked an incisive question: “What are people for?” Berry posed this question to make the point that the shifts from country to city that were redefining the demographics of America (and of the world) were not an obvious advance in the human condition.

It is only a small step from Berry’s question to this one: “What are institutions for?”

We live almost entirely within institutions of one sort or another. Marriage and family are institutions. Today these are defined in a more inclusive way than in the past.

Some institutions make grand claims about themselves. But we rarely pause to ask ourselves about their purpose.

Peter Drucker once defined an institution as “an instrument for the organization of human efforts to a common end.” Drucker came to this definition when reflecting on his time working as a consultant for General Motors during World War II.

The online dictionary, definitions.net defines institution as “the act of starting something for the first time; introducing something new.” Indeed, this dictionary lists “innovation” as a synonym for “institution,” challenging our tendency to equate “institution” with those things already well-established.

Every time we celebrate the Last Supper or Communion, we speak the words of institution. The words that Jesus said when he started this gift to his followers. We are using the term in this sense of innovation. At that table in Jerusalem on the night that his ministry took its decisive turn toward the cross, Jesus was starting something new, and two decades later, so was Paul. Before the church was an institution, it was an innovation.

It is not enough to say that institutions are for organizing human efforts to a common end. They are for the generative creative organization of human efforts. otherwise we have done little more than define a bureaucracy.

At it core, the church, and all institutions, are about relationships. Relationships that are life giving.