On Movements and Institutions

As pastors, are we leaders of a movement or an institution? Or both?

This summer I have been active in two social change movements: Moral Monday, a protest movement led by the NAACP against recent N.C. State legislation; and Walk for Our Grandchildren, ending in a rally across from the White House, declaring “yes” to a sustainable environment and “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. I referenced both of these in my last posting.

I’m uncomfortable as an activist. Frankly, I am more of an institutional person — for fifty years a pastor of three congregations and a director of Pastoral Care within a medical center.

Lately I have been pondering — what is the relationship between movements for social change and institutional leadership? Then I came across this quote:

History suggests that movements of moral imagination are the animating force for social change. In order to realize their goals, however, these movements must eventually impact and transform existing institutions . . . Once a movement is institutionalized, however — politics being the art of compromise – the original moral insights are often eroded and sometimes lost altogether.

— Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation

I find myself responding, “Yes . . . and!”

We know this truth. We experience this awareness. In our lifetime we have witnessed the Civil Rights Movement as “an animating force for social change.” We watched it “impact and transform” our national institutions and yield Voting Rights legislation. But, we see, as well, as the result of intuitionalism, how this “moral insight” is now under the threat of “being eroded.”

Or, we study the God movement embodied in Jesus being an “animating force” that, in the effort to renew Judaism gave birth to the church, a new institution. Yet, even within the New Testament we begin to see the crystalizing power of institutionalization as roles, structures and doctrines become more tightly defined.

My “yes . . . and” response to Enns and Myers is my need to distinguish more clearly institution from institutionalism. I want to put in a good work for institutions. In my circles of relationships the word “institution” seems tainted, at best a necessary “evil.”

But, to make an obvious point, institutions are inevitable. Even a movement begins to institutionalize as soon as the leaders of a movement decide to meet at a certain time, with a particular people, and some semblance of organization. Soon, if the movement keeps moving, there is money to raise, a budget to create and communications to establish. Before you know it you are asking, “Who does What When?” That is institutional work.

Perhaps my concern can be best expressed in negative terms. Note the dangers of both institutions and movements. The danger imbedded in institutional life: When institutions become ends in themselves, they become self-serving, eventually freezing into inflexible structures and rules for purposes of survival, control and protection. There is the constant danger of the “animating force” being choked by “right” structures, “right” procedures, “right” beliefs.

The danger imbedded in movements: Movements will dissipate for lack of structure, procedures, and covenants. Movements need containers as a way to hold the “moral imagination [as] animating force for social change.”

Pastors possess the courage to walk the line between these two dangers. It’s a sharp, treacherous edge. They are leaders in the divine movement of shalom in a world that defies all efforts to contain its Mystery in precise form; they are leaders of institutions that seek to hold and be held by this movement, when at its best, allows this “animating force” of Spirit to flow through its finite structures and words.

Is not the church both movement and institution, willing to live in the tension between the two?

2 Responses to On Movements and Institutions

  1. gacochran says:

    Thanks Mahan! Yes…This speaks to the ministry at Woodbrook Baptist here in Baltimore and also to the non-profit for which I work, Well for the Journey. Here, we intentionally define ourselves as an “organism” rather than an “organization”. I often talk of the tension of which you write as we grow trying to live into the and… I’ll be passing this post on to others. Thanks again for your pondering and insights!

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  2. Liz Canham says:

    Welcome back Mahan – you certainly don’t wast time!

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