Institutions (1/37)

Last week, in a small-group ecumenical setting, I described a project I’ve been working on. My fellow group members were Baptists and Presbyterians. We had a little reflection time in which they asked me a lot of questions, a fair number of which had to do with Quakerism’s denominational structures. Finally, a Baptist pastor said, “I think I understand the non-hierarchical approach, in terms of your theology. But for this particular project, why not form a new organization? What is this fear of institutions?”

I’m not afraid of institutions.

One of my favorite memories is a late-night gathering of a group of young adult Quakers in Peru. We came from six continents and every branch of Quakerism. (Actually, once we got together, we discovered that half the room had been taught in school that there are eight continents, of which Central America is one. This foreshadowed the diversity of our preconceived notions.)

We were trying to discern way forward about some particular question, and the actual question is irrelevant to my story. The problem—and also the opportunity—was that we had no common understanding of Quaker process nor any preexisting institutional structure. We all agreed on listening for God’s leading, but that was our only common ground. We didn’t have a clerk, nor did we agree what clerks should do. We didn’t have a recording clerk, nor had everyone even heard of recording clerks—or, for that matter, minutes. There was no cultural crossover even on deciding whose turn it was to speak. In fact, we literally didn’t share a common language, so various messages had to be relayed through multiple translators.

The power of God was palpable. And yet, it took us hours of worship and deep listening to find our way forward on the question at hand, even though the solution we eventually approved was actually a very minor step. I have a bone-deep sensory memory of the cold, the darkness outside, the rumbling tummies, the bright colors on the walls, the voices in multiple languages, the sleepiness of my drying eyes. I learned something that night about the miraculousness of faith.

And in the coming months, I was reminded of the power of institutions. Because we didn’t have one, our hard-won minor step fell apart. There was no built-in clarity about who was supposed to do what as follow-up, so the combination of cultural differences and general reluctance to make assumptions meant that no one carried through. It was not a tragedy, nor anyone’s fault. But it was evidence of a fundamental truth.

The best thing that institutions do is perpetuate existing patterns. The worst thing that institutions do is perpetuate existing patterns. I wonder sometimes if the Valiant Sixty would be dismayed at how many Quaker institutions now exist. At the same time, the Valiant Sixty never had to organize conferences, negotiate contracts, deal with nonprofit law, or make sure their staff had health insurance. They were part of a movement, a glorious one, but movements either burn out, or else they are assimilated into general society, or else they begin to form institutions. Because institutions perpetuate. Without them, we have to reinvent the same process every time. 

I love institutions, and over time, I’ve learned to navigate our Quaker ones. I’ve learned how they can support and release our spiritual energy, and I’ve learned how they can drain it away. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about our institutions—the theology behind them, the ways in which God uses them, the ways in which they hold us (and God’s purposes) back, and some thoughts on how we might move forward. 

Fair warning: my outline has 37 parts, so feel free to dip in and out of this series. But it does feel like it’s time to write it.

3 thoughts on “Institutions (1/37)

  1. I was so appreciate your perspective – thanks for digging into this question about institutions … especially in our post-covid etc etc world!

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