Shifting: From “Institution” to “Organization”

In the first few chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis, God creates. As he creates he recognizes his own handiwork as “good” and proceeds to the next new creation. We are surrounded by people, animals, plants, and nature uniquely created by God and designed to intentionally to fulfill his purposes. Created in his image, God has infused men and women with our own creative impulse – the world is filled with beautiful works of art of all shapes and sizes created by God’s creations.

Unfortunately, I often witness leaders of churches, seminaries, and other organizations act as though their specific entity is as vital to God’s created order as the air we breathe. While the places we live and work are designed to accomplish unique aspects within God’s kingdom we are temporary while God’s kingdom is eternal. Everything that makes these entities unique (whether Winebrenner or someone else) can be changed. Everything.

I can imagine that someone with an eye on compliance or accreditation may be concerned about that last paragraph. We still must be consistent in policies and trustworthy with how we engage those internal and external to our organizations. If guidelines for compliance are provided, they should be followed. If contracts are provided to employees then they should be honored. Actions still must be documented. A Board of Trustees must still share in an appropriate amount of decision-making.

Much of the distinction between an institution and organization can be found in the starting points we use for decision-making. Often an institution assumes the current structure is what it needs to be and asks do we need to change anything in order to fulfill our mission? An organization begins with the mission and asks how do we organize ourselves to best fulfill the mission? Organizations can be disassembled and then rebuilt and reorganized around new expressions of mission and strategy. In a vital organization things like structure, personnel roles, and policies may look entirely different tomorrow when compared to how they look today. (Again, for those with an eye on compliance and accreditation please note that I am assuming proper steps are taken to change items such as policies.)

Over a decade ago there were conversations within the United States banking industry about what it meant to be “too big to fail.” This type of thinking demonstrates the challenges of shifting from an institution to an organization. Institutions are often focused on their own existence and sustainability. Organizations may cease to exist if the major purpose for their existence is no longer present. Organizations may make a major pivot if something external changes in a significant way. Organizations…organize and re-organize around mission and strategy.

My goal in this post isn’t to provide a specific definition of an institution or organization. Instead, I am exploring a shift that Winebrenner Seminary – and many other faith-based organizations – are working through as we develop our own creative impulses.

Winebrenner Theological Seminary is an organization that exists to equip leaders for service in God’s kingdom. We are an organization that is organizing and reorganizing around mission and strategy. Those who struggle most in such an organization may be those who believe they are working in an institution when, in fact, they are part of an exciting organization committed to fulfilling God’s kingdom purposes.

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