Institutions do not exist.
At least, not in the way that they often think that they do. Despite the Supreme Court’s concept of Corporate Personhood that allows corporations to be treated, at times, as if they were individuals, the truth is that institutions and corporations do not exist apart from the individuals that make them up. They can’t make decisions on their own; they can’t eat and breathe on their own; they can’t accomplish anything on their own apart from the individuals that work on their behalf. It is the living and breathing individuals working in relationship with each other that make corporations possible and apart from that, an institution’s existence is tantamount to an idea on paper, nothing more.
My reflections on the non-existence of institutions began swirling around in my head a couple weeks ago as the crisis at the General Theological Seminary in New York began to spill into the news. I should be completely clear here that I don’t have the same personal stake in GTS that many of my friends and colleagues do. I attended a different seminary and I don’t have any close affiliation with any of its board or faculty members, so my observation of the current fight between the Board, Dean and Faculty is really as someone who is an outsider to the community. Nonetheless, the tragic war currently going on at this school, seems to be to be emblematic of a larger problem that exists within the church as a whole: its all about trying to save the institution.
I have no doubt that both sides in the current conflict at General are primarily concerned with the best interests of the institution, but I would argue that having the interests of the institution at heart might be precisely the problem that has led to this impasse. When we start to love an institution for itself, we are liable to overlook and undervalue the real relationships that make those institutions possible in the first place. We must not see this as just a problem for one seminary in New York City though, but as a problem that the entire Catholic Church of Christ grapples with from time to time and that the Episcopal Church, among others, is struggling with in very specific ways right now.
Whenever I hear someone say that they love an institution I often wonder precisely what they mean: Do they love the building? Do they love the people that work there? Is it the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation that they love? When people say that they love the Episcopal Church, to what specifically are they referring? To the national church headquarters at 815 2nd Ave in New York City? (I doubt it) For me at least, to say that I love the Episcopal Church is a short-hand way of saying that I love the people within the Episcopal Church. It is a way of saying that I love what we as individuals are trying to do when we come together with the common mission of worshipping God and proclaiming the gospel. The church is made up of individuals who come together with a common purpose and a common mission; without individuals coming together and working and living in relationship with each other, the church as an institution or a corporation would simply cease to exist. The institution of the church and its corporate structure exist to support and facilitate those meaningful, purposeful relationships between individuals, but all too often we think of our relationships with our fellow christians as something that is necessary to support the church, and not something that it is necessary for the church to support.
When our Lord gave his summary of the law he instructed us to love God and to love our neighbor. Conspicuously absent from that list are any of the human institutions, corporations and associations which we routinely organize ourselves into. And yet, somehow we frequently manage to misdirect our affections away from the people that make up an institution, or the mission it serves, and we start loving the institution as a thing in itself, as if it were a person. Naturally, when something happens that threatens that institution, our first instinct is to try to protect and save it. And we will do anything to save the corporation…even if it means doing something harmful to those that make it up; even if it means sacrificing the original mission for which it was founded, even if it means breaking the relationships that made it possible in the first place.
The problem of putting an institution before human relationships begins when we convince ourselves that the institution, itself, matters.
Not the people that form the institution. Not the people it serves. Not its mission. The institution itself matters. We must do whatever we can to save the institution. Perhaps it is part of the self-perpetuating tendency of all groups, but spend any time in corporate America and you are bound to hear the argument that the institution must take (fill in the blank) action in order for its existence to continue. Our focus naturally moves away from the mission of the organization and it moves away from the people who collectively form it and run it, and we establish the institution itself as an idol to be worshipped. Although the CEO of General Motors never actually said “What is good for General Motors, is good for America,” still the mentality that what is good for the institution MUST be good for the people has a very firm grip on American corporate culture.
This may seem like a mere philosophical argument, but it has some painful real world consequences. In 2002, when the sexual abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston erupted in the media, the most damning information, and that for which most people were rightfully outraged, was not the simple fact that a few priests had committed horrible crimes, it was the manner in which the crimes had been perpetuated by the institution’s desire to protect itself from scandal. In short, the institutional church perpetuated a system which harmed its most vulnerable members, purely out of a desire to protect itself from negative publicity. This is, of course, an extreme example of how worshipping the corporation or the institution itself can be devastating and harmful to the relationships of the people within the institution.
There are plenty of examples within our own denomination as well. The Episcopal Church always seems to be looking for the newest way to save itself. Whether it is the “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church” or with the latest legal battle being fought on whatever front, the concern always seems to drift more toward the preservation of the institution than the preservation of the relationships involved. Any institution is only as strong as the relationships between the individuals who make it up. The institution itself is not a real thing, but the relationships are. When the relationships are broken, regardless of who is right or wrong, the institution is going to falter, and perhaps even fail. If we think that we can save an institution without saving the relationships that make it possible, we make a fatal error.
Whether it is the Universal Catholic Church, our denomination, our parish or our seminary, any time we make a decision to put the interests of the institution itself ahead of the interests of the people (and real relationships, and mission) that make that institution possible, we take a turn down a dead-end street. Saying that “what is good for the institution is good for the people,” is very tempting, but time and time again this has proven in practice to be just not true. Like any idol, once we have set an institution up as an object to be worshipped and adored, we lay the groundwork for the inevitable fight over who is going to have control over that object. Perhaps this is why our Lord’s instructions in the summary of the law are limited to loving God and loving our neighbors: they are two things that we cannot control. It is much harder to love something that you don’t have control over; you are forced to live in relationship with it.
Institutions, themselves, do not exist.
What does exist are the relationships we have with each other. Institutions are just fancy logos and ink on paper. The real corporations are all the collected individuals who work side by side, day in and day out in offices and factories, at desks and in laundry rooms with a common mission and purpose of working together to make something happen. The church doesn’t really exist either, not by itself. The institution of the church exists to support our relationship with Christ and our relationships with each other. Having apostolic succession, having ancient rituals, having scriptures and having venerable buildings are ways in which the church helps build those relationships, across time and across place, but lest we make an idol out of the church itself, we must remember that it is those relationships that are of the utmost importance, not the institution. The real church, the Catholic Church of Christ, is each and every believer worshipping side by side, across continents and across generations, loving God, loving each other and sharing the common mission of trying to tell the story of that love to the world. It is the relationships that we form “whenever two or three are gathered” that really matter. It is in those relationships where Christ is alive, and not in any ink on paper.
As I stated in the beginning, I did not attend General Seminary. A few weeks ago, one of my classmates from my own seminary sent out a facebook post recalling how we all supported each other on September 11th, 2001, our first week of classes. What a harrowing and awful time that was, and yet I look back now and think what a gift it was to be able to form relationships with so many talented and caring people at such a difficult time. Through all of the turmoil it was the relationships that we had with each other that made our class strong, and not the institution. I chose my seminary because I thought it was the institution that was important; what I learned was that it’s not really the institution, it’s the relationships that you make there.
While I am disheartened to see another institution in the church fighting in the tired-old style of corporate America, there is something I have seen these past weeks which has given me great hope. Regardless of what actions the Board and Faculty of General Seminary take or have taken, I have witnessed the students and alumni coming together across the continent and across social media to support and pray for and encourage one another. Yes, there has been griping and anger and raw emotion, but there has also been much love, support and companionship. Current and former students have joined together in a common cause and concern, and isn’t that what our institutions are supposed to be about in the first place: people working in relationship with each other with a common mission in mind? The true life of the institution is in those relationships and they seem to be stronger than ever right now.
There is an old saying: “Mind your pennies, and your dollars will take care of themselves.” Maybe it is the little acts of kindness, generosity and respect that ultimately make the larger corporate life that we share possible. Maybe we should spend more time trying to save individual souls, and less time trying to save the institutional church. Maybe if we start paying more attention to the real person to person relationships that make our institutions possible, and that ultimately give them meaning, we wouldn’t have to be worried about trying to rescue the institutions themselves all the time.
Institutions do not exist. Only the relationships are real.
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