Institutions play a formative role in every aspect of our lives. We are all impacted by institutions, whether we like it or not. Government, church, business, schools, hospitals, even sports: these are all institutions. They get painted in the media and popular imagination as monolithic, massive, labyrinthine places where good things go to die. We often associate red tape with institutions, or think immediately of the dreaded word “bureaucracy.”
Right now, our political climate in America is decidedly anti-establishment. This political climate, though, is mirrored in other areas of life as well: there is now less participation in civic groups than in previous generations, we see changes in denominations and church affiliation, and in the business world the term “disruptive innovation” has taken root in both theory and practice. We as a nation are wary and weary of our institutions, but intrinsically we know that we still need them. The great question before us is this: what will our institutions look like in the future? In a more specific way we can also ask: what kinds of institutions will our current leadership climate produce?
These are questions we need to grapple with as leaders. One of the great tendencies among leaders is to become so consumed with our individual achievements, our individual legacies, that we lose sight of what kinds of institutions our leadership is producing. Max Depree argues that “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers.” We must devote great care and attention to how we lead our institutions, because they impact so many more lives than our own individual leadership will ever reach. As we grapple with the toughest questions of our day, we need good, healthy, vibrant institutions. The following are three questions we should ask ourselves about our institutions:
How can we support and sustain healthy institutions?
How can we reform struggling institutions from within?
What kinds of new institutions do we need to need create?
I’d like to focus on the last one through looking at the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Finkenwalde seminary. Bonhoeffer was a leading pastor in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. His efforts to faithfully train and equip the next generation of pastors became increasingly challenged by the Nazis until they kicked him out of the official German state church apparatus. His answer to the question “What kinds of new institutions do we need to create?” was answered out of necessity, and he formulated the idea that would become Finkenwalde. In 1934, just before establishing Finkenwalde, he wrote the following in a letter to a friend:
“The next generation of pastors, these days, ought to be trained entirely in church-monastic schools, where the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously—which for all three of these things is simply not the case at the university and under the present circumstances is impossible.”
Bonhoeffer’s creation of Finkenwalde, which lasted 1935-1937, was a wonderful example of what kinds of new and alternative institutions to create because it recognized two key points. First, Bonhoeffer didn’t simply want to retreat from the difficulty of his time. He wanted to prepare pastors who would be able to minister effectively to an increasingly broken Germany. Second, he knew that this training was important enough to do the hard work of raising funds and building a support network. As H. Gaylon Barker, the editor to his collected volumes, describes:
“Without the proper context, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that Finkenwalde represented Bonhoeffer turning his back on the world and embracing a form of pietistic sectarianism instead. But, in fact, the opposite was true; it was an act of both preservation and preparation. Finkenwalde was envisioned as an alternative community prepared to withstand the temptations of Nazi ideology. It was a deliberate act to preserve the church and its proclamation. Because the Reich Church had falsified the gospel and given itself over to other powers, it was necessary to develop an alternative church for the future. So the Finkenwalde period was not a turning away from the world but rather an effort to prepare the church for the world.”
There is a tendency in our contemporary culture to shun institutions or people that we think are “burying their heads in the sand.” However, Bonhoeffer’s witness through Finkenwalde underground seminary reminds us that the one of the best ways to serve our culture is to have alternative institutions that value, encourage, honor, inspire, and teach faithful Christian discipleship. As culture continues to shift into a secular civil religion, it will become increasingly important to support existing healthy institutions, seek to reform those damaged institutions that can be reformed, and, when necessary, create new institutions.