Institutions of every shape and size are vital to the overall health of a population because they are essential for molding character, shaping life, and cultivating health and well-being. We are all too aware of the challenges our communities are facing today—from mental health concerns to global pandemics, racial injustices to global conflict. These wide-scale, complex problems are keeping our people, and our communities, from the flourishing they were meant to find.
We recognize that these complex challenges cannot be solved overnight and will require the commitment of many creative people—and the institutions they lead and in which they participate—to develop innovative and effective solutions. In a world where we find ourselves fighting any number of obstacles every day, our communities need healthy, hope-bearing institutions that are instilling life among those they serve. We need strong and vibrant institutions that cultivate practices, friendships, and strategies to enable people to have strong character and to flourish.
Care and Connection
I take much of my inspiration as an institutional leader from the example set forth by the early Christians. These creative leaders understood and accepted their role in community—they cared for the sick, the widows, the orphans, and the poor in ways that were new and innovative at their time. They established new institutions and renewed established ones. The early Christians developed the first hospitals and health clinics in the world, and they also renewed patterns of schooling and created orphanages to care for those who might otherwise have been abandoned. These institutions embodied hope and connection and offered a powerful witness to health and well-being. This same calling—to care for those in need and to cultivate flourishing—is one institutional leaders need to cultivate in our time.
There are consistent reminders and symbols throughout the Bible that demonstrate this call to care for those around us. I think of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4. The well was a powerful symbolic gathering place where people also discovered “living water” that nourishes. The compassion, love, acceptance, and ultimate support illustrated in this story demonstrate a great layer of community that we, as individuals and as institutions, are called to embody. This is the power of an institution—to serve as a gathering place that reminds us of connection, its power, and its importance.
Physical and mental illness, as well as other challenges that impinge on our well-being, can isolate every member of our community as we shrink into ourselves and the location of our pain and struggles. Our institutions are weakened when this isolation comes into play. Weak or problematic institutions are both the cause and a symptom of isolation and brokenness. By contrast, healthy institutions are both a cause and a sign of health for participants and for the broader community.
Addressing Complex Institutional Problems
Our contemporary institutions are suffering from a half century or more of inattention, and the consequences are serious. For too long we have taken our institutions for granted, thinking that they did not matter. We have confused institutions with bureaucracies, failing to recognize—much less articulate and sustain—the crucial roles that institutions play in the fabric of human life. In addition, because of an understandable and well-documented history of many instances of misuse and abuse (e.g., the Enron accounting scandal, the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crises, numerous government failures), we’ve come to mistrust the very institutions we need. Our “performance-based” mistrust of institutions has created a cynicism about them.
When institutions are healthy, they play a crucial role in shaping the people around them. They become the background that enables us to live well. When they are weak or problematic, we suffer. The challenges lie in discerning how to address our problematic institutional landscape—we recognize the way in which our institutions can and should be serving our communities, but how can we encourage and lean into that truth?
One way to start this shift is simple, yet significant. We typically think about organizational structure through org charts—a very static, mechanistic approach. What if we changed this to better align our organizational thinking with our communities? Could we shift our thinking to organic terms—a mindset that more closely matches how we consider our own communities—and tend to institutions as such, considering their growth, decay, and need to be pruned and cared for? This requires a great deal of intentionality and innovation on the part of leaders of institutions, and the result—a thriving institution that better mimics our own communities—is well worth the commitment. We need to tend to our institutions as crucial ingredients of a healthy ecosystem in order for human beings to be healthy and live well.
Our Call as Institutions
To serve those around us in the way in which we are called, we must first develop a sense of trust among our community members and take care to maintain it. This isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. We see so much cynicism around institutions because there is such little trust. With this in mind, we have important work to do to rebuild and sustain trust. Trust can be broken in just a moment, but it takes infinitely longer to rebuild. The policies, practices, and relationships of our institutions must intentionally work to preserve and cultivate trust, because rebuilding trust after it has been broken is a far more difficult task.
Populations need institutions that are bearers of trust and bearers of hope. Trust is cultivated through the alignment of words and deeds, so our institutions and institutional leaders must articulate this ideal and embody this commitment through transparency in all practices and relationships.
In order to build better trust and ultimately ensure better health for those we serve, we must remain focused on mission. The more missionally focused we are, the greater the focus on the big picture: shaping the conditions of daily life by nurturing the aspects of our lives that impact our well-being.
I believe that institutions are the very fabric of our society. They are necessary and, when led organically and with a focus on mission and a clear sense of purpose, they have the power to make our communities and our lives better. They are the foundation that helps people thrive, and the visibility of these institutions draws communities to the work they do and the impact they make. Paying close attention to caring for institutions, renewing ones that exist, and starting new ones is critical to forming people of character and wisdom and supporting flourishing societies and healthy people. This begins with an intentional commitment, from each of us, to build and cultivate hope-bearing institutions that contribute to us all living healthier lives.
Disclosure of interests
The author reports no conflicts of interest.