We live by laws, policies and procedures. The Torah contains the Mosaic Laws given to help the new community of Israel live in harmony with one another and with God. Laws are helpful in creating a just and fair society.
Some laws are harmful. Drug laws and sentencing guidelines have resulted in prisons filling up with nonviolent drug offenders who are serving long sentences. So, what happens when laws have a real human cost?
Institutions are created to care for a specific need within a community. They are mandated to carry out the law and to follow specific rules. But sometimes laws are unjust and people suffer. It is difficult to change an unjust law because institutional needs overshadow human needs. In the New Testament, Jesus said, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye . . .” He was referring to an institutional need – a law. He went on to say, “But I say to you . . . love your enemies . . .” He shifts the focus to the human need.
Sometimes institutions are the best option. Sometimes they do the most good for the most amount of people. But institutions also have needs. Institutions need volunteers who are willing to offer services or money. For example, universities need paying students. Police need volunteers to report crimes and be witnesses. Not-for-profits need people power to function. These are institutional needs.
As a particular need arises in a community, initially people (neighbors, volunteers, community leaders, etc.) step up to meet the need. If the need can be met, then the neighborhood approach continues. However, if the need increases and people become increasingly uncomfortable, community leaders will be pressured to create a solution. The solution becomes a new institution. The institution is an organizational response to a need which is governed by laws and rules. So, what started out as a neighborhood approach to a need has shifted to an impersonal, institutional response. If the need continues to rise, tension within the community will increase. The community will look to the institution to find additional ways to solve the problem. Institutions are sensitive to the growing tension and discomfort of the community.
In general, human beings are sensitive to the level of comfort and tension in a relationship system. A relationship system can be a family, a congregation, a neighborhood, a company, a community, a state or nation. When times are calm, members of the system maintain a comfortable closeness and distance, finding balance between the two. When anxiety increases in the relationship system (like a community, for example) leaders will move closer to the community to calm people down. But this closeness can quickly be replaced by distance as anxiety and tension increase in the system. Those who are prone to distancing, in response to an increase in tension, will eventually cutoff from the system if the anxiety becomes too hot to handle. As people cutoff, anxiety is contained within a smaller number of people (the relationship system becomes smaller). Research has shown that people who are isolated (cutoff) have an increased risk of physical, psychological, and behavioral problems. With fewer resources available, individuals who are cutoff from the system are more likely to rely on institutions to manage their level of comfort and tension.
The denomination that ordained me, the United Methodist Church, is facing a possible split in February. Since 1972, the denomination has debated rules that were put in place to prohibit the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. The debate and tension within the denomination mirrored the broader society. Every four years that the institution gathered to do its work, it became increasingly more difficult for people who think differently about gender identity and sexual orientation to dialogue and respect one another's position.
As result of the increased anxiety (anxiety both within individuals and tension between people in the system), individuals and groups have turned to the institution to resolve the tension. The institutional response to this pressure was to enact more rules. As the LGBTQ community gained broader acceptance in society, those who were uncomfortable with the shift turned to the institution to enforce the rules. This is an example of the continued prioritization of institutional needs over human needs.
The prohibition in the denomination’s Book of Discipleship is harming people. In response, the institution became unable to enforce the rules or address the human need. The institution is stuck. Any attempt to bring people together has had minimal success. In response, quasi-institutions have sprung up to support or challenge the institution’s rules or lack of enforcement.
As the tension escalates, so does the focus on the institution to resolve the problem. There is pressure on the institution to remove individuals who disobey the rules or to remove the rules altogether. The human need within the LGBTQ community is being largely ignored. Again, institutional needs have risen above human needs. In the Gospels, Jesus shifted the focus from institutional needs to human needs, recognizing that a reliance on the institution only perpetuates a focus on the institutional. And institutional needs always trump human needs.
Starbucks recently completed storewide training on racism. Why? Because two black men entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia. As they waited for their friends to arrive, a white female manager became uncomfortable. Instead of her taking responsibility for her discomfort and anxiety (and any tension she experienced in her interaction with the men), she called the institution, the police. Remember, we look to institutions to resolve the tension we experience in the system. Institutions always do what society asks them to do. The police step in to reduce the purported tension. But here’s the problem. When institutions step in, they remove opportunities for individuals to be more responsible for their fears and anxiety. As society loses its capacity for engaging others in meaningful ways around difficult challenges, we’ve become more dependent on institutions to resolve them for us. And it will never work. Individuals need to be more responsible for working on the tension they experience in the system. We need more opportunities to take responsibility for our perceived fears; opportunities to overcome our perceptions.
While I may sound like I’m blaming institutions, I’m not. I head up an institution and am aware of the challenges. The point I’m trying to articulate is that, if we are not careful, institutions will continue to get in the way of efforts to build community. Institutions can be an asset to building community when leaders of an institution understand this problem. Institutions can be effective at solving problems when they help people within the system lean into the challenge. It is a matter of putting the human need in front of the institutional need and identifying the limitations of the institution (what they can do but also what they can’t do). Communities are stronger when individual members take responsibility for engaging the human needs around them. As individuals come together to work collaboratively, they discover new things, new resources and new opportunities for meeting a challenge.
When someone shows up with a need, how do you respond? Referring someone to an institution is common. But is this always necessary? What if building community is predicated on people taking responsibility in addressing the human need? What if building community is based on the activity of sharing resources? If someone shows up asking for help, what would happen if you introduce them to your community? What networks and resources could be made available to them?
In what ways have you or your congregation relied on institutions to meet needs? How might being more responsible for the needs of the community help build community? If you lead an institution, how might the organization shift its focus to empowering the community to meet needs? What are the institution’s assets? What other questions or thoughts come to mind?