“Are institutions representative of restoration? And if so, how?”
These were the questions that CSC Conference keynote speaker Andy Crouch had attendees consider at the end of his first session. After introducing new terminology to parallel the sequence of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration within the redemptive story of humans in a way that made it more personal to each of the educational leaders, Crouch challenged participants to consider a time in their lives when they experienced a significant amount of flourishing in their lives—when they felt like they were bearing the image of God and their lives represented a balance between order and abundance—and how institutions may have played a key role in their lives at that time.
To answer his own question, Crouch began his second session by presenting an example of a moment in history where God intervened as a means of redemption and restoration—resulting in the creation of a cultural pattern that was meant to last and spread (an institution). His example from Genesis 12, occurred just after the tower of Babel incident—the pinnacle of human idolatry. Not only did God frustrate the attempt of humans to replace Himself with an idol, he set in motion the calling of a particular people, the Israelites, and sets them apart with all the markings of institutions.
Having prefaced the session with this example of how institutions are a representation of God’s restoration plan for humanity, Crouch expressed concern that leaders often have vision for too short of a horizon. “Our job, as leaders, is to think past our own generation, past the next generation, and into the third generation,” he emphasized.
In order to do this, leaders need to consider five things that combine together to make institutions a cultural reality: artifacts, arenas, rules, roles and records. Artifacts are the specific cultural goods that are associated with an institution. In a school, an example of this might be a school yearbook—a document that outlines the things that are happening at the school within a year. Arenas are the places that the institution expresses itself in its most glorious and compelling form. Often, arenas are represented in a school not only by the physical building, but also by the beautiful work that it produces through its students. Rules are a fundamental piece that gives an institution its shape, while records are something that an institution keeps as a reminder of its successes and failures, such as statistics and grades. And finally, there are different roles that people play within an institution, often based on the unique personalities and gifts of those who are a part of its structure. It is important for leaders to consider the artifacts, arenas, rules, roles and records that can be intentionally generated within their institutions, so that three generations from now, people will recognize an environment that has been created in which they can flourish.
Not only can institutions represent restoration for humanity, but they can be agents of the most idolatrous and unjust systems of the world. The institution of slavery is one example that has played a huge role in history. Slavery consists of artifacts, arenas, and all of the marked characteristics of an institution. However, it has been riddled with idolatry. Because of these examples of institutions where humans were not given the opportunity to flourish, the result has been for people to become leery of institutions. When an institution ceases to exist for the flourishing of people, and starts to treat them as a means to an end, they rob people of their identity. Idolatry within institutions (institutionalism) can be recognized when those who are serving an institution start to feel smaller, or “less than”, rather than flourishing.
If transformation needs to happen within an institution, it cannot occur within the context of legislative process. Instead, leaders need to think institutionally, but to act personally. When transformation occurs, it happens only because a person—with all their flaws, but also with all their capabilities and gifts—has embodied the transformation. And, those who choose not to embody this transformation will simply exist as a manager or caretaker of their institution. “It’s bigger than you,” challenged Crouch, “but yet, it comes down to you, as a leader, and what choice you’re willing to make.”
There are two key qualities that leaders must balance, in order to become the embodiment of transformation in an institution: Authority and Vulnerability. “Human beings have more authority than any other creature on earth, and are able to act powerfully in the world in ways that no other creature can,” Crouch shared. “And at the same time, we are more vulnerable than any other creature on earth.” He continued to define these more clearly as authority being the ability to act in a situation, and vulnerability being the exposure to meaningful risk. “True leadership,” Crouch stated, “is having the capacity to act, while at the same time being exposed to meaningful risk.”
Often, leaders have believed they need to make sure they have a high level of authority with no risk. However, this position involves having full control, and leads to idolatry. In fact, such authority is something that is of almost no use to a leader. Although many hold titles that tend to give them a certain amount of power within their institutions, the authority that really matters—the type that transforms systems and creates possibilities—has almost nothing to do with position. We know this because the human being who exercised the most transformative impact in the whole history of human beings, and who acted at every moment of his life with utter precise and transformative authority, had absolutely no position.
The only thing that power actually gives is the legitimate option of force. In other words, you can’t command or force something that is good—you can only use it to restrain that which is not good. Coercion, or force, is the least desirable option in the tool kit of a leader; once you’ve used it, you, or the system that you work within, has already failed to some extent. Using your position to force action is a sign that you’ve reached the end of your rope.
Another challenge of being a leader is the fact that they have to act in public in order for many things to happen. A big part of being a leader, especially in moments of transformation, is taking a symbolic step that other people see and remember, and it impacts them in some way. This type of authority is very clear in the life of Jesus. Basically, everything that Jesus did that has been recorded was a symbolic action. He acted, not just in response to the immediate situation in front of him, but in ways that opened up possibilities for people and reconfigured how they could see the world. He was 100% intentional in everything he said and did, and that is what leaders are meant to do as well. Every time they lead in public, leaders want to not only address the issue that is presently there, but also use that moment to open up possibilities to people and give them a sense of what reality could look like.
In contrast, leaders must also exercise authority through symbolic inaction. Often, leaders have to choose not to act at all in certain circumstances, for two reasons: to ripen an issue, and to enable others to action. The first is one of the most difficult things for leaders to do. Leaders have to decide how to let a situation ripen, because if an issue is tackled before the community is convinced that it is a problem or issue that needs to be addressed, it will not work. Instead, a leader has to wait for the moment that they are ready. “What you don’t do is just as significant as what you do in leadership,” stressed Crouch. Secondly, when leaders wait to take action, they leave room for others to act. A clear example of this is how Jesus would withdraw at times, so that his disciples would act. Leaders often think that the best way to exercise authority is in imperative mode—to do something—but true authority is both jussive (defining of reality, speaking into a possibility) and also relational (enabling of others to act and do).
In this session, Crouch identified two key qualities that leaders must balance, in order to become the embodiment of transformation in an institution: authority and vulnerability. He continued to define these more clearly, beginning with authority. In his next session, Crouch promises to talk about the balancing quality to that authority—vulnerability, and the exposure to meaningful risk.