One of my unique interests is observing the impact on organizations and systems upon personal and leadership formation. That’s a lot of fancy words for saying I pay a lot of attention to and I think a lot about what kind of impact the environments or cultures people are in have on those individual and community senses of identity and meaning among other things.
I’ve been studying the whole book of the Psalms over the past three months and there’s a brief excerpt that caught my attention in Psalm 115 related to idolatry. I’ll pull out a section, but the Psalmist is contrasting the one true God of Israel with the false gods of the surrounding peoples. He compares the true hope that the Israelites have in the their God to the false hope that the surrounding idol worshiping people have to fabricate for themselves. Here’s vs. 4-8 speaking of the idols of the surrounding nations hostile to Israel.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8 Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
If you’ve been in leadership for any period of time, you’ve had to have entered into a discussion about structures and systems and the relationship between form and function. If not, maybe you know the phrase “sacred cow” as it speaks to the phenomena of things or structures or processes that were established that now have taken on a life of their own to the point where there is great difficulty allowing for any change to take place. In fact, this is so common it’s probably impossible for you not to have encountered it.
But check out Psalm 115: 8 and let it sit with you a bit: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
As people who long for safety, security, comfort, and control – we just can’t seem to help but default to trying to create a working order that allows for us to try to feel like we somehow have a handle on our lives. In ancient times, while idols were crafted into images of creatures and other things they were connected to and were symbols of things that are not so far off of what we put our hope and trust in today: financial provision, sexual fulfillment, national security, military dominance, and many other things. The Psalmist observes the phenomena that what we put our hope in and what we try to control, in ways that reject God’s centrality in our lives, those very creations made in our own image end up turning the tables and begin shaping us in their image. It’s a very deep thought and observation.
While all of this might be more sermon type content thus far, have you ever thought about how organizations and the structures therein function like idols at times?
People lean on tradition and resist change when it is needed. Tradition, instead of being something that was a progressive working out of mission and values over time, it becomes something like a living entity that holds power over people and many find themselves ending up being defined by the past.
Methodologies and strategies that are once upon a time quite successful for a particular context and time end up almost taking on a larger life force than ever and end up overshadowing driving values and fundamental affirmations that reflect human reality and changing cultures.
Positions and structures that are established to serve the mission and vision end up fueling and shaping people who cannot resist the trappings of being defined by status, position, and power.
There’s idol making going on everywhere, but most of the time we’re immune to it because it’s so normal to our lives and our world. But organizational idolatry can be quite insidious as it can overtake you as the author of your own values that you choose to live your life out of. You start doing things and making decisions according to “the way things are done” with little self reflection as to what greater truths those decisions are anchored in.
It is true – we shape our organizations and any system we enter. But they shape us too. If those systems have a strong dependence on mechanisms for control, conformity, and efficiency – then in the absence of great character, resolve, and involvement in alternative communities you will slowly (or quickly) lose the battle over self and you will be increasingly shaped in your organization’s image.
This is no less true for churches and ministries as it is secular companies. We can be serving God and proclaiming from the mountaintops the beauty of His intentions for creation and humankind, all the while we go about our business trusting the hierarchies and structures and strategies and tools that “get things done.” If we fail to live in ways keeping with core values and a larger story, we doom ourselves to live shallow and desperate lives that are at the mercy of the faceless power that is at work in the culture and structures of our organizational life.
So are we left to be depressed by the reality that there are active forces seeking to shape us into cogs in a wheel or excel sheets or line items in a budget or high production machines?
By no means! The tone of the Psalm above in whole is incredibly hopeful. While the pagan nations are left to fabricate hope, all the while being shaped and formed by the images they have created by their own hands and imaginations – Israel is connected to a true hope and a true power that anchors people in a bigger story and reality. They can stay anchored in larger truths, larger stories, and deeper and more authentic ways of doing life because they are a part of the true story (as opposed to a fabricated one) and they are connected to the author of that story.
Knowing the author of the story doesn’t guarantee that you will fall to the temptation of the idols called pragmatism, hierarchy, control, and production – but there is always a way out when we repent and seek to once again anchor our ways in the true story that transcends any organizational mission or culture.
One of the great challenges of spiritual (not just servant) leadership is to anchor people in the larger story and continue to point out the false promises that come with allowing structures to inform values and not the other way around.
Where do you recognize the forces of culture or organizational life shaping your identity, person, and values? How do you stay value driven when structures routinely threaten to take over?