Organism / Organization

Why is it that we have, in the words of John McKnight of Northwestern University, “crime making corrections systems, sickness making health systems, and stupid making schools”?

In an article republished recently in the journal of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, McKnight puts it down to the endless conflict between ‘Community’ and ‘Institution’—between ‘Organism’ and ‘Organization’.

Institutions are structures designed to control people. Associations are the result of people acting through consent. In their structures, and in their operations, there are therefore remarkable differences.

In an institution, structures are created where the persons considered to be most able, dominate. The unqualified have no place, and become dependent ‘hangers-on’. In a community, however, the structure expands until every willing body, even if untrained and unqualified, finds something useful to do. Communities therefore breed leadership from their very nature. Institutions, in contrast, being based on control, make leadership by all except the anointed few almost impossible to develop. And the anointed few themselves quite obviously may not have the expertise and qualifications to deal with all emergencies at all times in the most effective possible way.

Communities respond to need with incredible rapidity. Institutions are ineffective because they bog down in their own bureaucracy—committees, budget approvals, ‘channels’ of all kinds. Contrast the rapid and effective community support that sprang into action after Edmonton’s 1987 tornado with the cumbersome, grandstanding and still incomplete work of the official political agencies.

Communities come up with creative and innovative solutions. Many minds working on a single problem give a multitude of imaginative answers to a problem, from which a course of action can be developed and tried. Institutions kill creativity, by requiring procedures and channels to be followed, so that innovation rarely has a chance.

Institutions provide services. Communities provide care. If it is personalized care that people need, an institution simply cannot provide it—and the ‘institutionalized’ victims are destroyed as human beings while they try. No social worker—except in his or her off hours—could ever express through institutional procedures the simple humanity of the Good Samaritan.

Communities are forums for the development of citizenship. Institutions by their very structure of authoritarian control make the development of citizenship impossible.

We should be thinking of these things as we look into the nature of our church and its structures. Particularly is this so in the light of the emphasis of building of community that came out of our recent Diocesan Synod. Our church dies the moment it becomes an institution. It lives so long as it is a creative community, animated by the Holy Spirit. No one planned that Peter would become the first spokesman of the infant church. The situation developed, and Peter was led and empowered by the Spirit to respond, while the remaining disciples recognized his gift and his leadership. It worked! By contrast, the institutional religion of the time of Jesus and the Apostles found these persons’ behaviour and their irreverence in the face of organizational structures completely intolerable—hence the crucifixion and many other persecutions throughout history.

There’s a lesson here somewhere on the way we should be running our church, from the Parish level right up to 600 Jarvis St. and beyond. Let’s be willing to learn it!

– Anglican Messenger, May 1989