spirit led leaders and institutional life
Interior curved balconies with plants growing along the edges. FreeImages.com/Razief Adlie

When a ministry looks for a leader, it wants a person who is Spirit-led so that the ministry will function under the direction of, and in the power of, the Holy Spirit. A Spirit-led leader has been trained to discern what God is saying to the church today. That leader will be receptive to the Spirit who “blows where he wills” (John 3:8) and therefore will necessarily be open to change and fresh ideas for ministry.

Yet once the Spirit-led leader is hired, that person is placed within an organizational structure, otherwise known as an institution, which has policies, procedures, and plans that are supposed to be helpful. In fact, institution means an organization founded to help people do something together (rather than separately) for a religious, educational, professional, or social purpose. All churches and specialized ministries are institutions.

Institutions and Institutionalism

Now, I have to acknowledge that the word institution has a bad rap. As soon as it is said, one thinks of a stodgy old organization that is set in its ways and resistant to change. But that is not the way an institution has to be. Stodginess, being settled in one’s ways, and resistance to change don’t define institutions, but institutionalism.

Institutionalism arises when maintaining the organization itself becomes the primary object for a group within the organization. For them, the idea of what the organization is becomes what the organization was at a moment that is now frozen in time, and then bad things happen:

  • Form takes precedence over substance
  • The servant becomes the master
  • The tail wags the dog
  • The organization that once served the mission has displaced that mission

Institutions and organizations are good things. As Carl Dudley wrote, “Organization puts ideas on wheels, translates faith into action, and enables our vision or ministry to become tangible reality.”1 There is no reason why an institution should necessarily inhibit charismatic ministry. And yet much conflict, particularly in local churches, occurs when Spirit-led ministry runs up against entrenched institutionalism. When the institution takes precedence over its mission, institutionalism has inhibited the charismatic work of the Holy Spirit.

The problem from a leadership perspective is that, once a Spirit-led leader is hired, the stage is set for conflict with the powerful force of institutionalism. The Spirit-led leader could find resistance coming from any or all of the board, the staff, or the donors. Any of these persons could be predisposed to revel in the fresh work of the Spirit today (charismatic ministry), or to trust in the time-tested ways of the ministry’s institutional life (institutionalism).

The Solution

The solution is to recognize that people suffering from institutionalism have lost sight of how God works and what the purpose of the organization truly is. My own observation is that those people have displaced Christ at the centre of the ministry with their own personal preferences for the ministry. In other words, the ministry is now serving them as opposed to the mission. They may still be actively engaged in mission, may be significant donors and volunteers, but only in so far as how the mission is conducted suits their own preferences.

We all need to acknowledge that Christ and his mission for our ministry come first, and our personal preferences come much lower in priority. The welfare of the community within the organization ranks in-between.

The board and leadership need to help people understand this. Discipleship programs should include teaching about the place of individual preferences in the life of the church. When everyone keeps Christ at the centre, we will all get along. We’ll not be self-centred and will be much more charitable towards others. We will be more willing to follow the Holy Spirit wherever he leads us.

The Spirit’s Leadership

The primary correction for institutionalism, a fixation on the past, is to focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church today. So here are some thoughts to help you teach your community about the role of the Spirit and, consequently, to be more receptive to Spirit-led leadership.

The Holy Spirit Continues Jesus’ Ministry

Luke says his gospel concerns only what Jesus “began to do and teach,”2 and yet his gospel and its sequel, Acts, show that Jesus’ time on earth came to an end shortly after the close of the gospel when he ascended into heaven. So how does Jesus continue to do and teach?  Luke makes it clear that Jesus continues to work through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit Helps Us Adapt

According to the lexicons, the Hebrew and Greek words for the Holy Spirit mean “invisibility, movement, power, and life” and convey the idea of “God in action.” We live in an ever-changing world, so when we know that the creative and dynamic Spirit of God is actively guiding the church to meet new challenges, we should expect change and development to be the result. While the church’s mission does not change and the gospel of Jesus Christ does not change, how the church conducts its mission certainly can and does change.

The changes brought about by the Holy Spirit help the church address current conditions and are not changes that we humans can control. All we can do is acknowledge that the church and its various ministries belong to God and are his to do with as he pleases. The Holy Spirit therefore has primacy over the church, its methods and its structures, and we must accept his leadership.

The Spirit Prevents Decay

As often happens as organizations age, we get attached to the structure and the methods already in use and then, as it has been so eloquently said, the “encrustations of time . . . come to be valued as the most distinctive feature of the organization.3 The organization fossilizes and declines.

We must keep our focus on God and remember that the church exists for a reason. It’s been well said that, “There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.”4 Mission comes before organization, therefore organizations (institutions) can be adapted to support the mission.

The Trinity and Institutions

A Trinitarian view of the church helps us see the continuing work of Christ through the Spirit to accomplish the Father’s purposes, giving the church a dynamic quality that prevents fossilization.

Where the Spirit is at work, things happen. The people of God should be solidly grounded in the historical, incarnational ministry of Christ, but also open to the continuing, fresh, dynamic work of the Spirit.

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There will always be an element of surprise as we discern where the Spirit is and how he is leading us. We must be careful to not make the Spirit fit our preconceived notions of how things should be!

Spirit-led leaders and the institutions they lead will always be highly compatible when everyone is focused on Christ and his mission and sees the organization simply as a helpful means to fulfill Christ’s mission.

Key Thought: A Spirit-led ministry uses its institutional structure to accomplish its mission.

  1. Carl Dudley in Basic steps toward community ministry. St. Alban Institute. p 77
  2. Acts 1:1
  3. R.W. Southern. Western society and the Church in the Middle Ages. P 237
  4. Anna Marie Aagaard “Missio Dei in katholischer sicht.” Evangelische Theologie, 34:423

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