May 9, 2012

The Genesis of Institutionalism - and Why it Must be Avoided

I am not sure if you're familiar with a parable called "The Genesis of Instituationalism." I received this gem from a friend.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a ladder under it.

Before long, one of the monkeys will go to the ladder and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the ladder, all of the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, none of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the ladder. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the ladder and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the ladder or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys has ever been sprayed with cold water.

Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. 

Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here.

And that, my friends, is how institutionalism creeps into organizations.

Here's the thing: institutions and organizations are necessary. They are necessary because as soon as two people gather, they are going to have to agree on some things:
  • What are we about?
  • What are we not about?
  • What things/behaviors are permissible?
  • What things/behaviors are not permissible?
  • etc.
Institutions and organizations are not bad and evil things. They are necessary things.

Institutionalism - institutions and organizations existing to perpetuate and protect itself - is what we want to avoid.

No institution deserves to exist merely to perpetuate itself if it does not serve a purpose or a common good. 

The institutional church, if it exists merely to sustain, perpetuate, protect itself it deserves to die.

However, if the church is willing to risk even its very own self in order to be about the mission and the ministry of Jesus Christ to bring life and wholeness to the world, that institution called the church is life-giving to the community.

It's not institutions we ought to be afraid of. It's institutionalism that needs to be avoided. 

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