"On Thinking Institutionally" by Hugh Heclo

I am the pastor of a denominational church, but I live in a culture that despises organized religion (and institutional anything). While I understand my culture’s distrust, I nonetheless value my church and my denomination. According to Hugh Heclo, I think institutionally.
To think institutionally is to have “respect-in-depth” for or “an appreciative stance” toward institutions. This respect and appreciation differentiate thinking institutionally from thinking about institutions. The former adopts the “internal perspective” of institutions; it is committed to the values they embody. The latter is a more academic enterprise that doesn’t care one way or another whether institutions survive.
Institutions themselves “represent inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations.” They overlap with but are not identical to organizations. Examples include sports, medicine, journalism, religion, marriage, business, and higher education. Institutions “constitute socially ordered grounding for human life. This grounding in a normative field implicates the lives of individuals in a lived-out social reality.” Because institutions are inherently social, a “culture wholly committed to distrusting its institutions is a self-contradiction.”
Unfortunately, modern culture seems wholly committed to such distrust. There are two basic reasons. On the one hand, there is what Heclo calls “performance-based distrust.” Basically, institutions have let us down. Athletes dope up, journalists plagiarize stories, clergy abuse children, businessmen erect multi-billion-dollar Ponzi schemes, professors falsify research, etc. On the other hand, there is what Heclo calls “culture-based distrust.” Essentially, modern culture has taken libertarianism to heart. “Our moral polestar amounts to this central idea: the correct way to get on with life is to recognize that each of us has the right to live as he or she pleases so long as we do not interfere with the right of other people to do likewise.” In such a culture, institutions appear both hypocritical (with respect to their own ideals) and oppressive (with respect to individuals).
And yet, our very distrust of institutions reveals our dependence on them. When we critique institutional hypocrites, for example, we do not dispense with the ideals they embody. We don’t throw the journalistic baby out with the plagiarized bathwater. We demand that journalists write their own true reportage. Even libertarianism, with its vaunted individualism, relies on a web of institutions—the market, the legislature, the law court—as means by which individuals can relate to one another. We may not like institutions, but we cannot dispense with them either. To think institutionally in the modern age is to adopt a critically appreciative stance in which we “distrust but value.”
Our culture has the distrust side of this equation down pat. Heclo focuses our attention on the value side. For him, institutional thinking incorporates three basic concepts: “faithful reception,” “infusions of value,” and “stretching of time horizons.”
Faithful reception entails that the “emphasis” of institutional thinking “is not on thinking up things for yourself but on thoughtfully taking delivery of and using what has been handed down to you.” As a pastor, I cannot think of a better example of this than the institution of the Lord’s Supper, about which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:23: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” Another example from the world of organized religion is baptism. In both cases, the institution in question is handed down by tradition. It implicates participants in webs of spiritual meaning and relationship. All institutions do this, although in different ways. To think institutionally is to accept this state of affairs gratefully.
Infusion of value draws on a distinction between “strictly instrumental attachments needed to get a particular job done and the deeper commitments that express one’s enduring loyalty to the purpose or purposes that lie behind doing the job in the first place.” I think, here, of a docent I encountered at Mount Vernon. In 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in order to purchase and maintain George Washington’s estate “in trust for the people of the United States.” Her purpose was not merely commercial or touristic. She believed that Americans could learn much from Washington’s ideals by traveling to his home. When I visited Mount Vernon a few years back, one docent in particular caught my attention. Unlike some other employees, who ran through their historical scripts in a perfunctory manner, this docent knew his material and was enthusiastic about it. Indeed, it was clear from our dialogue that he was conversant not only in primary source material but in secondary material as well. After retirement, he took on the job of docent because he believed in Washington’s ideals and wanted to teach them to an interested public. He infused his job with value because of commitment to the institution’s purpose.
Finally, the stretching of time horizons means that the institutionally minded person is “attentive to precedent” as he plans for the future. Heclo points to the Roman legal concept of usufruct as an embodiment of this attentiveness. “It refers to the right to make full use of something while also being under the obligation to pass on intact, without injury, the substance of the thing itself.” This concept derives from farming—usufruct means “use of fruit”—so a farming analogy is appropriate. A farmer plants a seed, waters and fertilizes it, prunes it, and after time enjoys its fruit. This process takes years. Cared for properly, the tree will continue to bear fruit for its owner long after the original seed-planting farmer has died. Destroy the tree, however, and it bears no fruit. An institutionally minded person cares not merely for the fruit, but also for the tree. He has long-term as well as short-term commitments. The non-institutionally minded person cares only for today.
Institutional thinking requires that we act differently. A “way of thinking” necessarily gives rise to a “way of being.” Heclo identifies three important terms in this regard: profession, office, and stewardship. Profession pertains to institutional “content,” office to institutional “position,” and stewardship to institutional “process.” An institutionally minded professional—such as a member of the clergy or a doctor or a lawyer—recognizes that he must master the content appropriate to the institution in which he participates. Christian pastors, for example, must know Bible and theology. It is knowledgeable interaction with this content that marks the professional out from the layman. To continue the example, pastors have certain duties inherent in their position: to preach, to baptize, to communicate, to discipline, to counsel, etc. But they must also be attentive to the processes by which they exercise these duties in the context of a local congregation. All stewards—not just pastors—receive these duties in trust, are responsible for “faithful management” of them, and must give an “accounting” of their actions to others (their Board, for example and ultimately God).
As I wrote above, institutions implicate participants in webs of meaning and relationship. To an institutionally minded person who acts in institutionally appropriate ways, meaning in life is not generated by an autonomous self acting independently of others. Meaning, like life itself, is given through relating. Contrary to the sociological and ideological trends of modern culture, then, institutionally minded people know that we really do need each other.
Which brings me back to my situation: I am the pastor of a denominational church in a culture that despises organized religion along with just about every other institution. While I appreciate and to an extent agree with my culture’s critique of the soul-deadening side of institutions, I see their life-giving power too. Institutions can oppress, but they can also liberate by connecting us to purposes larger than ourselves and communities stretched across time and space. As long as human beings are social creatures, there will be institutions. The only question is whether they will serve the purpose of human flourishing.
Let us pray—and think and act—that they do.

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