Monday, December 10, 2007

30. The Process of Institutionalization

The Process of Instiutionalization (PI) is a complex phenomenon. While looking into this topic, there have been several times that I have sat back and wondered "How deep does the rabbit hole go?" This topic can be approached from so many different angles and has so many nuances that it is difficult to give a "one size fits all" description of the PI. For example, an individual may experience the PI on a personal level long before the group takes on an institutional feel or look. This personal dynamic requires a whole different diagram and discussion. (forthcoming hopefully.) This is also true from the other perspective. An individual can remain "uninstitutionalized" well into the life of a group that has been officially institutionalized.

Having said all of that, there are some fundamental elements to the PI that have a somewhat universal presence. This diagram is an overly simplified view of some of these elements in the process. The PI can happen on an individual level far before it manifests itself and is embodied in a group context..The pyramid is inverted to represent the small beginnings of a group of about 10-15 people. The increase in group size is represented by the expanding width of the pyramid as it moves upward. The next level would be 15-50 people. The next would be 50-200 and so on. Use your imagination.

The size of a group is critical to the development of the PI. As a group expands in size, it is propelled into the different phases of the process. This increase in the size of a group brings with it certain needs that demand a response from the group. Who is going to be responsible for __________? How will we accomplish __________? What about ____________? When the needs of the group reach this level of complexity, it forces the group to divvy out the work to preassigned roles. As a result, a hierarchy is either formally, or naively, informally created. As the group grows even larger, the needs of the group outweigh the capacity of the individuals to address them. (hi amanda) This is when the need for full or part time staff arises. This is usually accompanied with a central facility out of which to operate, if that has not already been acquired.

This process outlined above, though vague and lacking all the elements of this complex phenomenon, gives us a good framework to discuss the tipping point of institutionalization for a community. From a sociological perspective, once habits are formed by the group, with a certain degree of frequency, say once a week, then they are already flirting with institutionalization. Repetition is the fertile soil from which the seeds of institutionalism sprout. This is an important factor to keep in mind when we talk about the "institutional church" as opposed to the "organic church."

I would like to suggest a subtle, yet significant word to introduce into the conversation.


This term acknowledges the fact that, despite our best efforts, there will always be an element of the PI in our communities. Because we will undoubtedly develop patterns, habits and even rhythms of behavior in our communities, we will always be flirting with institutionalism. There will always be, from a sociological perspective, an institutional element in our communities. This is true without even addressing the size issue and all the complex dynamics that surface when a house church goes from one group to three groups or goes from 10 to 20. I think we would all agree that when we say "The Institutional Church" (IC) we are coining a term to describe what churches have become as a result of the PI. For most of us, our experience with the IC has led us to encounter some of the worst repercussions of institutional dynamics. Hierarchical control, abuse of authority, money centered, self-preservation, ritualism, traditionalism, corporate-ized ethics and methods in discipleship and evangelism etc. To call this type of church an IC is exactly on target in my opinion. But my word of caution to us is that we not become naive to the fact that there are also elements of institutionality in our own communities. Naivety on our part in this area will make us susceptible to becoming the very thing we have fled. Instead of being a traditional IC, we will be an IC with a different look.

The discerning question then is not "Are we institutional?" but "What degree of institutionality is our group experiencing?" Or more specifically, "What is the tipping point, and how do we stay organic and fluid enough so that we do not fall prey to the monstrous demands of the institutional dynamics?" (Maybe some one needs to come up with a top 10 list of "You know your institutional if....) The real goal is to avoid the constraints and limitations that come from being institutional. This will of course mean that we will want to avoid becoming a full blown institution. But the distinction I am calling for has to do with identity and focus. Our focus and identity come from the gospel and embodying this gospel in the world, not from being "non-institutional." I may be stating the obvious, but it is worth saying none the less. Being organic and non-institutional is a tool for the mission, not the mission itself. There is a big difference.

This tipping point in the PI will be different for every group. It will not be a clear cut and predictable line that can be laid over top of random communities in a universalized fashion. It will ultimately need to be communally discerned through objective analysis, intuition, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Trust me, those who are phobics about institutionalism, of which I am one, will sound the alarm when we have begun to progress (or should I say digress) into heightened levels of institutionality. You know the deal.

As rule of thumb, staying small goes a long way in safe guarding the PI. I don't say this as a cry for huddling up in our own little worlds and not engaging the mission of God. But can't we be on mission with God and still be organic, fluid, flexible and free from institutional constraints? I would say yes! Thank God yes! This is what the Simple/House Church movement is saying at this moment. It is an experiment for us personally, and I am loving every minute of it!


Mickey & Suzy Mooney said...

Well written. I follow and agree with your conclusions. On one hand I tend to run from institutionalization (as you well know). On the other hand, I realize that some elements can be effective in accomplishing certain "tasks". Can the PI be enacted for a moment in time in order to accomplish a merited task with the understanding that it will disband upon completion (before it becomes it's own reason to exist)?

Mickey & Suzy Mooney said...

O.K., I need to clarify my comment with a follow up comment. In my brain fog I haven't divorced "orginization" from "institution"! My question should have been: Can we form a "orginization" to accomplish a worth while task, with a view to disbanding it before it becomes a "institution" (becomes its own reason to exist)? Do humans possess the maturity and selflessness to do that?

Amanda R. said...

Thanks for the shout out, Tim!! I have a question/comment about this post but I have to think about it more before I write it. I'll be back.