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The Deep Satisfaction of Accomplishing Something Together

A Christian college president defends institutional life—even the meetings!—as a high calling.
The Deep Satisfaction of Accomplishing Something Together
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Many people take a pessimistic view of institutions as inherently corrupt and self-serving, and they decry institutional life as a form of soul-sucking drudgery. But for Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Canada, serving an institution can be an important avenue of spiritual formation. In his book, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, Smith makes the case for administrative work as a meaningful vocation. Tod Bolsinger, vice president and chief of leadership formation at Fuller Theological Seminary (and author of Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory), spoke with Smith about the role of institutions in advancing the church’s mission.

You confront the common thinking that institutional service is a necessary drudgery and make the case that institutions and their everyday practices (like meetings!) are actually both exciting and necessary. When did you first start thinking of yourself as an “institutional” guy?

I more or less backed into it. I was a professor who loved my scholarly work but who was asked to fill in as a dean. Because of the challenges the university faced at the time, I hesitantly agreed. Soon enough, I found that not only was I able to make a difference but that there was something deeply satisfying about leveraging one’s efforts and abilities with other people for a greater cause.

But I still had a kind of naiveté about administrative life that is sometimes common amongst faculty. There is a belief that we can just give ourselves to our students and our scholarship without having to take on the necessary requirements of a larger institution. As I took on more responsibilities, I began to realize that even as a pastor, most of my biggest challenges were not around typical ministerial tasks like preaching or pastoral care. Instead, the issues that consumed me were more about governance and the desire to lead well. Soon, I began to experience a sense of calling to make the institutions that I was part of places where my colleagues and I could thrive.

You acknowledge right away that many people are deeply distrustful of institutions. Why was that important for you?

There is no avoiding that people have been hurt by institutions. Even within the Christian community, many institutions have been less than caring places. Many of us have been stung by policies that were developed without consultation, by practices that seemed less than humane, or by ineffective administrators who left us feeling hurt. The human cost of an ineffective institution is great, so it’s a worthy effort to invest in creating effective ones.

Why, in your view, do institutions matter?

Institutions are about identity: corporate, shared and embodied identity. Institutional life is where we recognize the limits of our individual skills and capacities. Somewhere along the way, if we are committed to being both faithful and fruitful to our callings, we have to admit that if I’m going to flourish, I need others. Artists need someone who can run a gallery. Teachers need administration to provide the structure for their teaching. Doctors and other healers need hospitals and offices. None of us are sufficient in and of ourselves. We need others for our vocations, and effective institutions help us leverage our strengths with others.

Institutions are also a way to leverage the potential of communities. When groups of people want to come together to fulfill a shared mission, they need the structure of an institution to help them work toward goals that are bigger than any individual. A community is a venue for conversations, but it needs an institution to begin to move beyond conversations to getting some things done.

In the book, you respectfully push back against some of the most revered pastoral thinkers of the past generation (like Jean Vanier and Eugene Peterson), who thought of institutions as a distortion of Christian communities. What is your response?

I respect both Jean Vanier and Eugene Peterson very much. They both have had tremendous ministries, and their lives have made a great impact on the world. But both Vanier and Peterson often want to pit “community” against “institution,” whereas I believe you need to think in terms of both a community and an institution. If you want to get something done that will last beyond a generation or beyond an individual person, you will need to institutionalize. Institutions are about taking the very best of our missional instincts and creating the structures that will enable them to actually accomplish the goal. Institutions, when they are effective, are about getting things done that will last.

Why do you think so many spiritual or theological writers are so critical of institutions?

This is indeed a theological problem. Many Protestant and evangelical writers fall into a kind of institutional Docetism. There is a failure to appreciate our own incarnational embodiment, let alone the way that our vocations must be embodied in both our own lives and in communities of mission and practice. For a calling to be faithful it must be embodied, but both pastoral theology and academic thinking have neglected the institutional infrastructure, the skeleton of the body. While there is currently an abundance of literature on Christian community, spirituality, and the church, almost no major theologians or pastors have taken up the way community and spirituality are embedded within the institutional church.

Your target audience seems to be millennials and middle managers. Why them?

It’s not just millennials. My generation of baby boomers—like them—were rather ambivalent and skeptical of institutions. Many baby boomers see institutions as a necessary evil, but younger workers and leaders are deeply resistant to even discuss the issues of power, structure, hierarchy, and everything else that tends to come with institutions. Many are creative, adaptive, and highly fluid. They are eager to start new things, to innovate, and to create. But, at the same time, a number of gifted younger leaders also live in the frustration that they can’t leverage their skills with anyone else to actually bring their dreams to fruition. Their ambitions and ideals are thwarted because they get caught in thinking that they have to accomplish them without the structures of institutions.

I want younger leaders especially to know that few things are as satisfying as the experience of accomplishing something together. Indeed, it is one of the deepest satisfactions of the soul. And institutions are the structures that help hold that deep satisfaction.

You describe institutions as having specific “charisms.” Help us understand what that is and why that’s important.

I was intentionally looking for language that allows us to think theologically about the unique diversity and distinctive contribution of an institution. The term “charism” comes from Catholic orders. The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits—all are under the larger umbrella of one Catholic Church, but they each have a different vocation or “gift” to bring. Thinking of institutions as having charisms reminds us that we are stewards of organizations that are bigger than we are and that God has brought them into being.

Charism also provides a way to talk about who we are in light of something bigger than ourselves and unique to ourselves. It allows us to differentiate ourselves from other institutions while also valuing the other institution. It helps us see that our gift and vocation is different from that of our sister institutions (and sometimes competitors!) and enables us to pray for them, support them, and collaborate with them as part of a larger work of God.

What is the mark of a great meeting?

I had a conversion experience about meetings. As a university president, my day is one meeting after another. Like many administrators, I used to feel that my work was being hindered by the number of meetings that I had to attend. I even used to complain about this until I realized that meetings are actually the conversations that move the mission of the institution forward. Good conversations are ultimately about fostering institutional growth and wisdom. This growth comes when institutional leaders, in conversation together, develop a greater capacity to see what needs to be done and to wisely attend to the shared mission that has been revealed to us.

When we have a good, crucial, honest conversation, I’m always amazed at how much discouragement and cynicism is right below the surface. Meetings and the conversations they support are ultimately for renewed hope, renewed clarity, renewed focus, and encouragement.

Once I began to see the critical importance of meetings in connection to the mission, I began to change the way I hired senior administrators. I now hire people who know how to listen well and, when they speak, move the mission conversation forward.

How do good recruiting and hiring practices play into institutional effectiveness?

We want to recruit and hire people who are committed to leveraging their strength with the strengths of others as a means of fulfilling their own vocations. For me, as a university president, this means recruiting faculty who are both deeply committed to their scholarship and teaching and deeply committed to the mission of the institution. They can’t just be interested in conversations happening within their academic guild; they also have to be interested in moving our shared institutional mission forward. We invite faculty to bring your expertise and share our mission as a whole.

So, to respond to another leadership writer, Jim Collins, it’s not just about getting the right people on the bus and then figuring out where we are going. It’s about discerning where we are going and then getting people on the bus who really want to help us get there.

In the book you write, “The goal is not a balanced budget, but a budget that delivers the mission.” How do you help boards and executives measure this?

When I meet with the board of trustees, we, of course, have to talk about finances. But, rather than just asking whether we had a balanced budget or ended the year with a surplus, we have to consider: Did the mission happen? And if there were some very hard decisions to make to balance the budget, the board needs to know how that will change the mission going forward.

This requires wisdom as well as financial and managerial skill. And in many ways, this wisdom is best cultivated when resources are limited. Limited resources help force clarifying conversations. When the mission suffers from a lack of resources, the first thing isn’t just to add more money but to ask questions about our mission. What is it about our mission that makes this unsustainable?

In the book, you write about institutions as “venues of spiritual formation,” and you reference Bernard of Clairvaux, Ignatius of Loyola, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as great institutional souls. What do we learn from them about the role of institutions in spiritual formation?

Whether we see it or not, the institutions of which we are part are going to be the primary grist of what God is going to do in our lives. The institution is the place that brings us together in all of our diversity and difference, in our conflict and common mission, so that we can grow into the people and serve the mission that God has called us to be. Our cynicism about institutions makes us hesitant to see them as places where we can actually grow spiritually.

Institutions help us leverage our strengths so that we can serve God through serving a mission, but institutions also are a constant reminder that we serve a mission that is bigger than ourselves. They help us prepare for the day when our personal contribution will diminish in scope. As we move into our senior years, our impact and influence will be more relational than institutional, and when it is time to move on, we let ourselves rest in the confidence that we have made our contribution and can now entrust our work into the hands of others.

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The Deep Satisfaction of Accomplishing Something Together