Can You Love An Institution?

I don't know. Really?

A word of caution: the thoughts are not fully baked on this post. The toothpick does not come out clean. I’m hoping for some back and forth.

Rob Bell did an amazing series on forgiveness two summers ago, and one of the things he said repeatedly is that you can’t forgive an institution. You can’t forgive the company that fired you. You can’t forgive The Church. You can forgive the people who wronged you, and that can include people within that institution—possibly even most of the people in that institution, either for wrongs done or complicity through silence. I think what he’s getting at is that forgiveness is a relational thing. Forgiveness requires a face.

What do you think?

Some of our Reformed theologians talk about societal-level sin, the “isms” and idolatries that pervade an entire people, that are built into unjust structures. I resonate with this, and yet I am intrigued by Bell’s assertion about forgiveness being personal. Do you think these two thoughts are mutually exclusive?

There was a short but interesting discussion on Twitter yesterday about whether it is possible to love an institution. I know (and love) people who say, “I love the PCUSA.” I feel like that needs some unpacking. Is “love” the right word? And what is meant by “the PCUSA”? Its connectional structure? Its history? Its theology? Its people?

I do love the people. And I think our theology is rich. Our history is complex, instructive. And our connectionalism is pretty rad as a guiding structure. Or some might say, “connectionalism is the worst system of church government, except for all the others.”

But something in me stops short of saying that I love the PCUSA. That, to me, is like saying I love capitalism, or representative democracy. Does love, like forgiveness, require a face? Does love presuppose at least the possibility of being loved back? The institution has been good to me. But the institution does not love me. People within the institution love me.

There’s a lot of anxiety in some quarters about the future of the denomination. The impetus behind our proposed new, smaller, more flexible Form of Government is in part an acknowledgement that the bureaucracy that has been built up since the 1950s no longer serves us. Some find that shift necessary. Others find it simply scary. Some find it scary AND necessary.

Will the PCUSA as we know it cease to exist? It’s worth remembering that the PCUSA is younger than I am. As I said yesterday on Twitter, our history, our theology, will live on in this Reformed branch of the tree. I don’t worry about that.

Anyway. If it is possible to love an institution, how does that love play out with an institution that needs to (and will) change, or maybe even cease to exist in its current form? It could be a positive or negative effect.

On the positive side, love requires attentiveness, intentionality. Real love is not blind. Real love calls forth our best selves, not to get too Oprah-ish. So maybe that love of the PCUSA could call forth something really exciting.

But on the negative side, loving an institution is fundamentally different than loving a person or a pet, who have a finite life cycle. At some point, the object of our love must die. Institutions, on the other hand, can theoretically be immortal. So love could also compel us to keep the denomination on life support way beyond what is helpful or faithful.



14 thoughts on “Can You Love An Institution?

  1. Shawn Coons says:

    It’s possible that I love the PC(USA) depending on how you define love.

    If love is a squishy, romantic feeling that makes me head over heels and blind to faults, then no, I don’t love the PC(USA).

    If love is a commitment that is based on mutual attraction and recognizing in one another much common ground in hopes, dreams, practices, outlook, ways of being, etc., then yes, I may be in love with the PC(USA).

    I grew up not going to church, although we knew which church we didn’t go to. I came to the Presbyterian church through youth group but didn’t really know what being Presbyterian meant until 20 years later in seminary.

    What I found out is that the PC(USA) represented very well my beliefs about God and how the church should be and do things in the world.

    At this particular moment in my ministry, that church I serve is in significant upheaval in the aftermath of 10-A. This upheaval is so much less than it could be because of the PC(USA) and the systems, structure, polity and people in place.

    So I don’t know if I love the institution, but on some level I am deeply committed to our theology, polity and practices, and to those who share that commitment.

  2. Dan Webster says:

    Fr. Thomas Keating of centering prayer fame warns against “mythic membership” which he defines as the over-identification with any group or institution. I may be on fire for The Episcopal Church but I doubt that I would say, I love it.

  3. MaryAnn says:

    Here’s another dimension:

    No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for…
    The Instititution.

    If Jesus identifies self-emptying as the ultimate expression of love, how does that impact this discussion?

    FWIW, I read “lay down one’s life” as giving one’s life, either by dying for someone OR living for someone.

  4. Melissa DeRosia says:

    Great blog post! Thanks for continuing the conversation beyond 140 characters. What I didn’t say yesterday is that I can’t separate the institution from the people. Shawn describes it well above that love is commitment to the hopes. dreams, practices, etc. They collectively belong to the people as a whole.

    • MaryAnn says:

      That makes sense. Except then why do some people have such angst over the possible death of the institution? Why the focus on preservation? Saving?

      If the *people* are the institution, such concerns don’t even make sense. The people are not going anywhere, even if the way we are connected looks different.

      • Jan Edmiston says:

        MA – I love this post. I wonder though if institutions also have seasons and a finite life span. This is not to say that The Church will die out, but manifestations(institutions?) of The Church may come and go.

        I loved your tweet about the institution being pregnant (as opposed to near death.) Sometimes in pregnancy, it just feels like we are dying – even to the point that we beg for someone to kill us and get it over with.

        PS Missing you here in The Heartland.

  5. Rachel Heslin says:

    I, personally, am incapable of loving (or forgiving) an institution. I can be drawn to an institution’s stated ideals and goals, but as far as I’m concerned the institution itself is merely a means for implementing those ideals and goals.

    I think some of the problem is that symbols *are* very useful tools in that they allow us to condense complex ideas into more easily communicable statements. Unfortunately, at some point, people start mistaking the map for the territory and believing that

    1) everyone attributes the same meaning to that symbol that they do, and
    2) the symbol itself has intrinsic meaning.

    In the case you describe, people seem to be angsting over the future of the PC(USA) as a symbol, rather than specifically looking at what it is attempting to accomplish with an eye to evaluating if its current incarnation is the most efficient means of going about it. Your breaking it down into components is an excellent way to steer the discussion into more productive directions.

  6. MaryAnn says:

    Thanks Rachel. It’s nice to get the perspective of someone outside the PCUSA and indeed mainline Christianity.

    Jan–you’ve brought up another emotional dimension of this, and that’s grief. I tweeted yesterday that I will not grieve if the PCUSA as we know it ceases to be, **assuming something takes its place that is effective and faithful for our time**. I don’t relish wanton destruction, in other words.

    But no, I won’t grieve. Just like I did not grieve when we got rid of our old Honda Accord and bought a Prius. The Accord connects me to a bygone time and place in my life. So I feel a little affection for it, sure. But the Prius gets me where I need to go, and does it better, more efficiently, more responsibly. The journey is what matters, not the vehicle that gets us there. And it’s still the same people in the car with me, too.

  7. Sue says:

    As a lay person and having been PCUSA born and bred, I have been known to say that PCUSA drives me bonkers on more than one occasion, and would say I have a sentimental affection for it. I can’t imagine not being PCUSA. But not love. Loving for me is all about the people.

    Especially lately with all the various debates and concerns about the future, I have been glad for this affection. It makes me committed to seeing what the future holds. It’s why I am going to Big Tent. I am glad is it NOT a love – then I would feel I need to support unconditionally. When my head starts spinning trying to understand and figure out exactly what is going on and where my own feelings fit in the midst of it all, I focus on the people in my congregation. I made a comment recently that if PCUSA ceased to exist tomorrow, would my congregation really be all that different? Do we go because we are PCUSA or because of the relationships we have with each other? This might be different for other congregations, but we are pretty tight-knit and I have a feeling we’d still show up to hear what the message of the day is no matter what flag was at the front.

    I live in a 2-church house where the emphasis has always been common Christian values over denominational difference. However, even we are not immune to conflict – the 10-A issue has actually caused more angst in my own house than in my congregation.

    SO, even as a lifelong PCUSA girl, I would not grieve – but I also feel something else would continue the core beliefs we have today.

  8. Katherine says:

    I’m not in on the PCUSA conversation, but I think I love the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I’m currently serving a UCC church and feeling very much that this is where I’m called to be, but I dearly miss the practices and ethos of the DoC. My heart was always pretty fond for the institution, but absence is making this heart grow even fonder.

  9. David F. White says:

    I have been thinking about the question of whether or not one can love an institution and I have some thoughts.

    First, when I consider institutions in general I think of Walter Wink’s biblical notion of “the Powers” which are essentially institutions that he characterizes as “good, fallen, and redeemable.” Specifically, he suggests that we need institutions such as families, governments, economies, schools, etc. because they participate in God’s providence. As Luther said, they are, at their best, the very hands of God providing for us care, food, clothing, protection, and enrichment. This is their vocation. But when they become ungrounded from this vocation they no longer serve God or neighbor, but mere profit or power.

    Secondly, when I think of institutions I also remember Jurgen Moltmann’s vision of the eschaton in which God is “all-in-all”–that is, when all relationships with individuals and institutions are restored in such a way as to foster fullness of life, through which the very Spirit of Shekinah pulses. Other theologians, including Dante in Divine Comedy, have depicted this as the culmination of beauty, when all creation shall join in harmonious praise of God. Can institutions praise God? Can institutions be beautiful? Some theologians seem to think so. Do you love beauty? Then it should be possible for you to love an institution that is beautifully (lovingly) formed and expressed.

    I have heard some suggest with at least some ambivalence that they can no longer love their denomination (insert your own). This is understandable, but not necessary. While institutions are not people, they do have personalities (Wink calls them spiritualities or powers). They can be abusive, exploitative–or supportive, nurturing and caring (your family is, in fact, an institution) and so can represent love to you or not.

    While no institution is perfect, some are indeed capable of nurture and care. I look forward to a day when all institutions–churches, governments, families–are healed and fully capable of expressing the love of God; but we do not advance this potential by denying this potential.

  10. David F. White says:

    Correction: In next to last paragraph when I say “This is understandable but not necessary” what I mean to say is that while some institutions may have lost their grounding, and therefore are not lovable, it is therefore not a necessary conclusion that all institutions are not lovable or that some are not redeemable. Institutions that cannot adapt to the changing needs and create appropriate ways of caring, if they cannot be reformed, they should probably die. This is only because they are no longer responsive to their vocation.

  11. Billie says:

    Comfort or love Katherine? I’ve been serving an intentional multi-denominational church for more than 10 years. It’s comforting to ‘go home’ to presbytery meetings and worship that feels ‘right.’ It’s a comfort thing – no doubt…but Mary Ann raises a valid point…do we love a thing – a structure – a polity – way of worshipping…or do we love God and God’s church (people) enough to question and support what God is calling us to do next?

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