Navigating the future for Christian institutions

We love to hate the institutions we need. In the midst of modernity’s ruins, we are aware that we do not have the social infrastructure that we need to flourish. We look for quick fixes: we want networks instead of institutions, we want to be spiritual without being religious, we want a future that has no connection to the past, we want policies that will achieve justice and eliminate suffering.

Yet we are also at least dimly aware that the quick fixes aren’t working— and likely won’t work. We sense that we need a broader vision of the future and of the past that enlivens the present and points to transcendence and purpose for the future. We need an understanding of what it means to flourish that can help us overcome our despair and discover life that really is life. We need to be able to cultivate institutions that encourage networks of relationships to serve thriving communities.

In the midst of brokenness, injustice, and personal and systemic suffering, can we develop institutions that bear witness to purpose; cultivate flourishing; and offer signs of justice, reconciliation, joy, and love?

We yearn for stories of hope that can inspire, for exemplary people and organizations whom we can follow, and for communities and institutions in which we can invest. We long for institutions that bear life-giving traditions, are laboratories for learning, and are incubators for leadership.

These institutions may be explicitly Christian, but they need not be. They might be secular organizations that draw on Christian sensibilities and serve as secular parables of the institutions we need and for which we yearn.

We won’t be able to navigate the future well if, as Drake’s poem suggests, we “[dream] too little” and settle for “[sailing] too close to the shore.” We need to cultivate a bold imagination, rooted in traditioned innovation, and “venture on wilder seas.” There we will again “find the stars” that will enable us to navigate the future faithfully and well. We “push into the future” while staying focused on the God who enables us to hold the future and the past in creative tension in the present.

We begin with three exemplary stories that embody different organizational contexts, all of which point to the power of traditioned innovation as a pattern of thinking and living. Only two of them are explicitly Christian, yet all reflect important dimensions of an imagination that offers rich wisdom informed by faith. People who work in these organizations discover possibilities for life they wouldn’t otherwise have imagined.

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Meet Sergio. He was six years old when his mother told him he was too much of a burden, and he should go kill himself.

“I guess you could say my mom and me, well, we didn’t get along so good,” he recounts, and you’re not sure how aware he is of this understatement. “Trust me,” he says, “it sounds way worser in Spanish.”

Terrible as this was, Sergio’s life actually got even worse before it got better. He was sniffing glue by the time he was eight, a high that turned into a habit. Next came an addiction to crack, then PCP, and then heroin—all as easy to find as glue on the streets of East LA. Sergio was arrested for the first time at age nine; it was for breaking and entering. Then at twelve he found a gang, his first real sense of family, and his homies toughened him. When his mother’s boyfriend tried to abuse him, that toughness paid off—sort of. Sergio stood up to the man, but then Sergio stabbed him. The result? Two and a half years locked up.

“My mom beat me every single day of my elementary school years,” Sergio recalls with surprising matter-of-factness, “with things you could imagine and a lotta things you couldn’t. Every day my back was bloodied and scarred. In fact, I had to wear three T-shirts to school each day. The first one cuz the blood would seep through. The second cuz you could still see it. Finally, with the third T-shirt, you couldn’t see no blood.”

Kids at school would make fun of him: “Hey, fool . . . it’s a hundred degrees. . . . Why ya wearin’ three T-shirts?” Sergio still chokes up when telling this part of the story, the wounds still surprisingly raw.

“I wore three T-shirts well into my adult years,” he finally musters, swallowing back his tears, “cuz I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want no one to see ’em.”

Out of jail, Sergio was in his mid-twenties when he met Father G, a Jesuit priest who helped him get a job at Homeboy Industries, a conglomeration of businesses—a bakery; a silkscreen and embroidery business; an online market; a line of chips, salsa, and guacamole; a clothing company; an electronics recycling business; a diner; a farmer’s market; a café—that Father G founded and leads. The successful businesses are just one part of the constellation at Homeboy; the main work is providing hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women hoping to reroute their lives and contribute meaningfully to the world. Job skills, an employment record, and a reliable reference come hand in hand with opportunities for parenting classes and anger management. It was the perfect stop for Sergio: Homeboy helped him develop skills, recover from addiction, find redemption, and launch toward something altogether different from his previous life.

It wasn’t a straight path, of course, but today, Sergio is flourishing, living a version of what the First Epistle to Timothy calls “the life that really is life” (1 Tim 6:19), one in which he is off substances, out of gang life, and gainfully employed. Not only that, he helps younger men as they struggle with the scourge of substance abuse and life on the streets, and in this line of work, his scars—the ones he used to cover with three shirts— now give him all sorts of credibility. “I welcome my wounds,” he says. “I run my fingers over my scars. My wounds are my friends. After all, how can I help others to heal if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”[1]

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Cristina, meanwhile, works as a frontline crew member at ArcLight, a movie theater across town in Southern California. The work is what you’d expect of an ordinary movie theater job—rotations of taking tickets, selling snacks, cleaning the theater at the end of a movie. But because ArcLight is not an ordinary theater, Cristina’s work also entails a whole lot more.

ArcLight is a subsidiary of a company called Decurion, and if you think movie theaters are a dying industry, somebody forgot to tell Decurion, which is thriving in all sorts of innovative ways. It all starts with the fact that Decurion is on a perpetual quest to align all of its operations— including how Cristina develops, both inside and outside work—with their “fundamental beliefs about people and work.” Because work gives meaning to people’s lives—it’s not just a means to make money, Decurion knows—the company has designed a variety of interesting structures and practices that empower employees to develop themselves, to create something excellent and enduring through their work, and to contribute to the good of other people. While Decurion honors the roles that everyone plays within the organization—whether popping popcorn or planning business expansion from a corner office—they also believe that reducing people to a role in a process can dehumanize them.

This is why they do all they can to create conditions that pull people into greater levels of complexity and wholeness, that enable them to grow and develop in their working lives. And this, they are quick to say, is not a trade-off with profitability, or even a “double bottom line.” Pursuing profitability and human growth is one coherent strategy and way of life at Decurion, and they are emphatic that “nothing extra is required.” Their success on both fronts speaks for itself.

So what does all of that mean for Cristina when she shows up to work at ArcLight? All sorts of fascinating things. For one, her team meeting before the shift will involve “checking in,” a practice of allowing all employees to say whatever they need to say to bring themselves fully, as whole people, into the work space—whether that’s a feeling or a goal or a story that overturns the rampant workplace assumption that work is public and personal is private.

It means that if Cristina’s work for the day is at the popcorn machine, she won’t see herself as a “popcorn maker.” Instead, she is a businessperson, part of a group of businesspeople running the theater, encouraged to review cost and revenue numbers, as well as targets and actuals from shift to shift.

It means that if she’s making popcorn today, she’ll do something else tomorrow. She will rotate from task to task as a way to see the full operation of the theater and to grow as a person and a skilled worker.

It means that Cristina will get to think continually about how her tasks at work align with a deeper sense of purpose in her own life and in the life of the company—the same invitation afforded to everyone from the frontline employees like Cristina to the CEO at corporate headquarters.

And it means that throughout this reflective process, Cristina will get to develop a “line of sight” that will enable her supervisors to find new opportunities for her to grow. In Cristina’s case, the eventual goal of leaving her theater job for a career as a film-set designer means that her manager offers special opportunities to join the team creating decor for events at the theater, practice for the Hollywood set design to which she aspires, and a tangible opportunity to connect her future goals—whether or not they involve ArcLight or Decurion—to her present work.

Cristina is just one example at Decurion. Go to the C-suite or the custodians, and you’ll find that they are all afforded these opportunities to develop. It’s because, as Decurion executive Bryan Ungard explains it, “We see our deepest purpose—‘flourishing,’ as we call it—reflected in every aspect of our day-to-day operations, whether we are talking about something as simple as tearing theater tickets, or as complex as formulating a long-range business strategy.”[2]

Mike and De’Amon are an unlikely leadership pair. One is an Anglo United Methodist minister, the other an African American artist. Yet they have come together in leadership at Broadway United Methodist Church, and their distinctive gifts offer a transformed vision of what it means to be and do “church.”[3]

Broadway is a historic church. In its glory days in the middle decades of the twentieth century, thousands of people were members. It was a leading institution in Indianapolis and throughout the Midwest.

Over the last decades of the twentieth century, however, Broadway declined in membership and influence. It embodied a familiar narrative— changing demographics in the neighborhood, establishment mindset, and uncertainty about how to adapt to changing realities.

Mike Mather served as an associate at Broadway in the mid-1980s. He noted the well-intentioned but largely ineffective strategies the congregation was employing to meet needs in the surrounding area: food pantry, summer programs for kids, offers of tutoring.

Yet Mike also glimpsed deeper possibilities, possibilities deeply rooted in the Christian tradition: a vision for hospitality, a focus on gifts and assets rather than needs and weaknesses, and a ministry of innovation and empowerment rather than only service or advocacy.

Mike was assigned to a congregation in South Bend from 1992 to 2003. That congregation became an incubator for a developing new vision of ministry and congregational life. When Mike was asked to return to Broadway in Indianapolis in 2003, he brought his new imagination along with a deep understanding of the congregational and community context.

Mike was reintroduced to De’Amon, whom he had first met in South Bend. Mike recognized a powerful gift for relationships and community development in De’Amon, and he hired him for the church in a role they called “roving listener.” De’Amon’s responsibility was to get to know the community, listening to neighbors and learning more about them. He began to discern rich stories and imagination, along with distinctive gifts that the church began to find ways to cultivate.

The result has been a transformation of the congregation as well as its imagination. Through Mike and De’Amon’s friendship and collaborative leadership, they have been “finding abundant communities in unexpected places” (the subtitle of Mike’s book). They have incubated new businesses by uncovering assets and gifts among their neighbors; they have transformed their own imagination from a service-oriented mindset to a transformational, entrepreneurial one; and they have discovered remarkable signs of life that really is life—even amid challenging circumstances.

Broadway, as with Decurion and Homeboy, emerges as the kind of institution most of us want to be a part of. They value people, engender trust, and strive toward the well-being of individuals and communities. True, most of us don’t want to be part of a “glory days” congregation that struggles to pay its bills, go into the movie theater business, or sell bread or guacamole. But those missions, frankly, are just part of why Broadway and Decurion and Homeboy exist, and they are not nearly the most important part. These organizations are doing something that is likely to strike a deeper chord in all of us, whether we lead or work in businesses, universities, churches, school systems, government agencies, or social sector institutions.

Each of them draws on deep wisdom in the past, fosters a rich vision of what it means to be human, and is focused on cultivating a broad trust in the future. Broadway is a familiar Christian institution, a congregation, yet one that practices its mission in highly distinctive and transformational ways. Decurion is a secular parable, because it trades on traditions of which it is perhaps only implicitly aware. Homeboy, led by Father Boyle, is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and articulates ways of acknowledging the reality of suffering with a hope-filled vision of transformation.

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Human beings are much more than a job title within a company, a warm body that pays tuition or occupies a hospital bed, a client who receives goods or services, a parishioner who shows up at services, or a cog in some machine that institutions otherwise maintain. If pressed, most people would agree. Yet people increasingly mistrust institutions because they have failed to live up to what we hope and expect of them. As Lex Rieffel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has put it, even our most cherished institutions “are on the defensive—they are having a hard time meeting user expectations and struggling to stay relevant.” This is no small development, representing, at one extreme, the possibility of what Rieffel calls a “global dark age,” or, perhaps more likely, an era in which our trust in one another and our ability to promote flourishing drastically diminish.

Flourishing people and flourishing societies rely on flourishing institutions. And flourishing institutions are in retreat. Navigating the future, then, requires us to bring fresh imagination to our leadership and participation— regardless of our positions—in institutions across sectors.[4]

Broadway, Decurion, and Homeboy are organizations that are doing something different, and they are doing it exceptionally well. In the ways they direct their attention and strategy, they help us remember that human flourishing is a more vital and transcendent purpose than any single activity or strategy or tactic. They remind us that flourishing is something we all deeply yearn for, as they provide shining examples of what is possible—for the bottom line, sure, and most important for fulfilling the human vocation and bearing witness to hope for the future. We are living things created for flourishing and for helping others to flourish.

We have mounting evidence that human flourishing does not happen inevitably or automatically in a world that is changing quickly and being environmentally degraded, where, for too many people, the ways of the past are unfit for the challenges of the future. In fact, human flourishing is a state, and never a static one, that is always under threat by deep forces in our world that bewilder us, by technological changes that are quickly altering our work and our lives, by eroding trust in society, by inequality of opportunity or injustice in its pursuit, by deep suffering around the globe and across the street, and perhaps even by the simple ways we see and treat one another in our daily interactions.

We need better imaginations as we consider how to navigate a future on these wilder seas, because what got us here won’t get us there, to paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith. If institutions are vital to human flourishing, and if flourishing, trustworthy institutions are largely in decline, how might we navigate these and other threatening waters? Is a belief in innovation sufficient? Should we just learn new techniques? Or maybe we should turn the boat around and head back to shore.

The world is changing quickly, and our flourishing is doubtful. If our deep yearning to flourish is to mean anything as we navigate these wilder seas, then several fundamental questions—some old and timeless, others new and reflective of this unique era—need answers:

  • What kinds of new and renewed institutions are necessary to enable flourishing? How might we nurture and advance them when institutions are globally under existential threat?
  • What does it mean to be human in a milieu of artificial intelligence and machine learning? Is human flourishing possible given the changing nature of work and interaction?
  • Is there purpose for my life, for the institutions in which I participate, and for the world?
  • What is the future of life itself when every living thing is being commodified?
  • In the face of suffering, injustice, and mistrust, how might we cultivate flourishing and create a purposeful, life-giving, hopefilled future?

In Navigating the Future, we propose “traditioned innovation” as a way of life that is central to addressing these questions. Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that holds the past and future together in a creative tension that enlivens our imagination and action in the present.

Traditioned innovation begins with the End that points back toward a generative Beginning, Flourishing, and holds the past and future together in creative tension as a way to strive toward that end—for ourselves, for our friends, families, neighbors, and coworkers, for our communities and institutions, and for our societies and the cosmos at large. Traditioned innovation is a habit of being, living, and working together that maintains both a strong fidelity to the patterns of the past that have borne us to the present and a radical openness to the changes that will carry us forward as we engage deep forces in our world—some of which foster, but many of which imperil, human flourishing.

Traditioned innovation offers a different way of seeing, and thereby a different way of thinking and acting. This book explores what is involved and what is at stake in the practice and mindsets of traditioned innovation. It encourages the cultivation of certain key dimensions of character, the development of certain mindsets and practices, and the nurturing of a Christian imagination, which together offer ways of seeing the manifold possibilities that lie before us as we navigate a future on wilder seas.

Certain virtues and character dimensions that feature prominently in this book are essential to the work of traditioned innovation: love, awe, hope, curiosity, gratitude, wisdom, discernment, humility, trust, and generativity. Following philosopher Christian B. Miller, we believe there is good reason to devote ourselves to virtue and good character, because, at the very least, virtuous lives are inspiring and infectious, good character typically makes the world a better place, the development of virtue is in keeping with divinely inspired human callings, and good character is deeply rewarding—evidence of our own flourishing. Who we are contributes in important ways to how we see, and therefore, how we navigate the future.[5]

In addition, developing a Christian imagination—by fostering unlikely friendships, cultivating vibrant institutions, and committing to entrepreneurial collaboration—can transform how we navigate complexity. Traditioned innovation emphasizes these things while also encouraging practices and mindsets, such as creative experimentation, ongoing learning, and storytelling, that spark our imaginations for the sort of innovation that promotes human flourishing.

Together, the cultivation of these perspectives, practices and mindsets, and dimensions of character are marks of the deep and ongoing formation that is required of us if we are to see the possibilities for human flourishing. But because it is an abiding challenge to see clearly amid complexity, and because we human beings are limited in our individual capacities, traditioned innovation emphasizes an expansive, and perhaps unusual, view of formation, suggesting that it must occur in multiple ways and locales:

  • in people,
  • in relationships,
  • among teams,
  • within organizations and institutions, and
  • throughout communities.

This sort of deep formation, we contend, equips people and the institutions they lead and serve with a different set of navigational tools. In an era in which so much talk about innovation focuses solely on the future and suggests that techniques will save us—design thinking, hack-a-thons, or strategic plans, for example—we believe that formation is much more deep-seated, durable, and dependable. Like many of these techniques, which can be valuable in doses, traditioned innovation emphasizes the need to look forward, to embrace a nimble and adaptive stance toward a world that is always changing. But unlike the techniques of innovation and planning, which tend only to look forward, traditioned innovation encourages us to look simultaneously backward and all around—to the past, across the landscape of the present, and toward a future the particulars of which we can never predict.

Where, though, should we look? Many traditions are damaged, perhaps beyond repair. This is even the case with Christian traditions, especially as they are understood and practiced in the United States. For many, Christian traditions are associated with partisan politics, sexual abuse, infighting, and irrelevance. Christians are often clearer about what we are against than what we are for. Where might people turn to cultivate life-giving appreciation of the past, and what traditions are redeemable? Which are worth carrying forward? And how might those traditions be renewed and nurtured to help us navigate the future?

We need to be honest about the complexities and wounds of the world. Practicing traditioned innovation is neither a “fix-it” technique for institutions nor nostalgia for a past that is gone or never existed. There is nothing either intrinsically conservative or radical about traditioned innovation. Rather, it is a way of thinking and living that requires discernment of traditions that are a resource for the future, traditions that enable us to envision the future in creative tension with the past for the sake of imagination in the present.

For us, the deepest and richest imagination for navigating the future is found in the broad, ecumenical Christian tradition. That will shape and undergird our overall perspective and argument in the book. Even so, we believe that those of other faiths, and of no faith, will glean from our stories—including secular parables of people and organizations that have no explicit connection to the Christian tradition—hopeful frameworks for navigating wilder seas.

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[1] Sergio’s story appears in Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 52–54.
[2] Cristina’s story is told in Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, An Everyone Culture (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2016), 144–45. Information about Decurion, including what is written here, can be found throughout Navigating the Future. This quote from Bryan Ungard is on p. 102.
[3] For a rich discussion of this congregation, on which we draw, see Michael Mather, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018). We also have benefited from ongoing conversations with Mike and De’Amon over several years.
[4] See Lex Rieffel, “Institutions Are under Existential Threat, Globally,” June 28, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2018/06/28/ global-institutions-are-under-existential-threat/.
[5] See Christian Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 36–47.

This article is excerpted from Navigating the Future: Traditioned Innovation for Wilder Seas.

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