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Institutional Virtue

By Ephesians 4

This post was written by Dr. Scott Bader-Saye (@ScottBaderSaye), Academic Dean and Helen and Everett H. Jones Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest.


Since becoming Academic Dean here at the seminary, I have often been asked about my vision for this institution.  It’s easy to deflect this question, to say that it is the vision of Cynthia Kittredge, our new Dean and President, that really matters, or to say that my vision is simply the seminary’s vision: “to be a community for formation and leadership within the church supported by a strength of program, endowment, and environment that assures excellence in theological and pastoral education.”  But truth be told, no one comes into a new position without some personal hopes and vision of what might be achieved.  

I jokingly suggested to a friend recently that I’m working to create the Next Big Thing in theological education—a new degree program that combines veterinary medicine, woodworking, and pastoral care.  But such jokes largely function as obfuscation, betraying a resistance to speak of one’s hopes, perhaps out of fear that once voiced, those hopes, like a vulnerable word-balloon released into the sky, will fall prey to the elements and dissolve into dust.  Despite such fears, I part ways with the worthy ally of obfuscation and confess that my hope, my vision, for the seminary is that we can be a model institution that graciously orders the many gifts that are present in our midst.  

Part of the challenge is that caring about institutional life seems to put one on the wrong side of all the wonderful rebellious energy that decries the “institutional church” in favor of authentic personal spirituality.  But while suspicion of institutions has a venerable history in the American psyche, it is part and parcel of the modern triumph of utilitarian individualism.  As sociologist Robert Bellah notes in The Good Society,

Americans often think of individuals pitted against institutions. It is hard for us to think of institutions as affording the necessary context within which we become individuals; of institutions as not just restraining but enabling us; of institutions not as an arena of hostility within which our character is tested but an indispensable source from which character is formed.


When I posted the announcement of my appointment on Facebook, a friend and colleague who had some time ago made the shift into administration wrote back, “Welcome to the dark side.”  Beneath the good natured quip lurks a real question: Is an academic-turned-administrator “selling out,” trading the non-instrumental quest for truth for a small-minded, managerial efficiency?  Of course such a question presumes that institutions are at best necessary evils, which itself is a mistake born of forgetting that “we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25).

My hope is that Southwest can continue to develop (and thus teach by example) an institutional life that resists instrumental reasoning and its attendant utilitarian management style, to nurture a shared social matrix that guides and forms its members in the pursuit of excellence and the service of the common good.  Practically speaking, when we teach Bible and go to chapel and learn about liturgy and explore theology and share meals and have meetings and invite speakers and throw parties, we have the opportunity to create a life in which personal flourishing and social well-being cohere.  To administer an institution is to curate that matrix and to direct its trajectory.

Bellah notes that it is easy to see the “confusion and nihilism” in American culture “as a personal problem.”  But, he argues, “it is also, and perhaps primarily, an institutional problem. Our institutions today from the family to the school to the corporation to the public arena do not challenge us to use all our capacities so that we have a sense of enjoyable achievement and of contributing to the welfare of others.”  

The invitation to help administer an institution brings with it the opportunity to address the “institutional problem” Bellah describes.  To be an administrator is to be a guardian of a social eco-system that can and should direct our individual efforts to a common and worthy goal.  It offers the moral challenge to embody what we believe about God and the world and goodness and justice in a way that teaches by example what a good church, a good school, even a good business, should look like.   

What a privilege to be invited to do such work.


Read an excerpt from Bellah’s The Good Society here at Commonweal.


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