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Newsletter #49: Defending Institutional Integrity
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the newsletter about how we live as Christian men and as the church in the modern world.
The Decline of Trust in Institutions
Many people are deeply troubled by this but I take the opposite view. The decline of trust in institutions isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.
Frankly, a big problem in our society is that many of our institutions are still too trusted relative to the amount of trust they deserve. Think about blue chip brands like GE or Boeing that were once synonymous with American can-do business, but are now joke companies. The response to the coronavirus should have revealed to everyone the institutional incompetence of much of our public sector. And I’ve been on record for years as writing that most communities would be better off if half of their non-profits disappeared.
I plan to write an entire future Masculinist on why we should in many cases cease to identify the public good with the continuation and propping up of our failed institutions. As Alasdair Macintyre put it in After Virtue, “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”
Care for your neighbor or the American people does not necessarily have to equate to maintenance of the American “imperium.”
But today a different but related topic: how should we as leaders today respond to this decaying era of institutional decline in the way we direct our own institutions?
I argue that the most important long-term measure to manage is institutional credibility. At a time when institutional trust is in decline, those of us who run institutions have to work extra-hard to maintain that.
Institutional leaders need to manage credibility in three specific ways: trustworthiness, competence, and missional integrity. And credibility needs to be managed for the long term, spanning generations of leadership.
This is especially true for churches and religious institutions in a “negative world” that is increasingly at odds with the faith.
A friend of mine who was the chairman of a Christian organization last year put as one of his 2020 goals for the board, “Be a trustworthy institution with funds, families. Be a place where people are willing to give money and participate.”
Your trustworthiness is your baseline morals and ethics. It includes the personal moral behavior of the leaders and employees of the institution – being above reproach as I wrote in Masc #22 – and appropriately managing institutional funds and operations.
You would think this would be a simple baseline element of institutional leadership, but alas apparently not.
The number of churches and other Christian institutions with a variety of moral, ethical, operational, and even criminal problems is absurdly high. The Catholic Church and its continued failures to come to grips with sexual abuse is an obvious example. But Protestants have a lot to be ashamed of as well, including many of their own abuse scandals like the allegations swirling around Ravi Zacharias. Pastors like Carl Lentz regularly get caught in affairs. The behavior of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Liberty University was nuts. A number of prominent churches continue to be run by their founding pastors on an essentially dictatorial basis. While an episcopal-like setup is not inherently wrong, when there aren’t any checks and balances around, that’s a recipe for things to go wrong – and they often do.
Christian institutions sometimes compound this by trying to hide their malfeasance and silence whistleblowers. Stephen Baskerville recently wrote about how Christian colleges abuse non-disparagement agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses to silence dissenters. When church scandals erupt, it isn’t surprising to find that they’ve been using these tactics to keep problems from coming to light. Professors and ministry staff are often poorly paid and have big families to provide for, so are often in no position to say No when their institutions demand silence in return for severance pay. Mars Hill Church in Seattle seems to have been an example of such a church that created a climate of fear using these techniques.
A lot of ministries have also grotesquely enriched the people who run them. Think about Kenneth Copeland and his $54 million Gulfstream jet, for example. But even people who are more theologically respected can earn eyebrow raising sums from their ministries. Financial mismanagement and compensation problems were a part of the fall of James Macdonald, for example.
I’m all in favor of people getting rich. But there are plenty of ways for big name people to do that, such as by writing books or selling products, that don’t require paying themselves a lot of money from their non-profit ministries. Going into ministry shouldn’t require a vow of poverty, but if your paycheck would cause people to start doing a double take, maybe it’s time for a rethink.
Churches and religious organizations need to be much more rigorous in trustworthy operations across the board.
However, we should also keep in mind that all people and all human institutions are flawed by sin. We should not expect perfection. Christians of all people should not be surprised when men and organizations stumble. There’s no way to earn trustworthiness by being perfect. That’s an impossible standard. What we can do is practice repentance in our personal failings and take appropriate action when there are organizational problems.
We should also be aware that trustworthiness not does necessarily equate to being liked by the world at large. People who hate you or what you stand for are unlikely to put much trust in you no matter what you do. Being trustworthy is not about being obsessed with what the neighbors think.
It’s also the case that most accusations of moral or ethical lapses today are made in bad faith, by organizational enemies who are using those accusations to try to damage or even take control of institutions.
Sadly, I’ve found this applies even in cases of accusations around serious problems like abuse. There are a few Christian personalities I follow who are active on the anti-abuse beat. That is to say, they frequently talk about or signal boost abuse allegations. Recently there were allegations of domestic abuse by Rev. Raphael Warnock made while he was running for Senate, as well as allegations that a boy was abused at a summer camp he runs.
I took a look at these Christian personalities, who are ordinarily very quick to start tweeting, etc. the minute some pastor is accused of abuse. Not one of them said a word about the Warnock allegations, not before the election at least.
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed these curious omissions. When the New York Times ran a major article alleging improper handling of abuse allegations by Matt Chandler’s Village Church, most (though not all) of these people were also silent. In this case, given that the story was sourced to the Times, there’s no excuse that could be raised about the allegations not being carried in a major publication.
I’m not saying these people don’t care about abuse, but their actions suggest that their concern about it is subordinated to political considerations, both internal and external to the church.
The next time you see a Christian angrily denouncing some pastor or ministry over abuse allegations, I’d encourage you to look on Google and Twitter to see what this person had to say about Warnock and Chandler as a gauge to how genuine their concern and outrage about abuse actually is vs. the extent to which it is a weapon used against political enemies.
The same is true of virtually all the other outrage raised about problems in organizations today, alas.
This is why, although even accusations by enemies that are true need to be strongly addressed, you should never give any sort of position of authority or oversight of your organization to people making accusations against it. You’ll note that they frequently agitate for this such as by demanding that some allied organization be retained for an investigation, calling for the board members to be replaced (naturally by people of which they approve), etc. But just because I point out that an organization has some conflict of interest, for example, that doesn’t mean I or my buddies should be assigned any role in running or overseeing its finances.
Regardless, if we are running an institution, conservative or liberal, Christian or non-Christian, we all need to be very focused on operating in a trustworthy manner. Way too many of our institutions are falling short.
Incompetence is the root of much of our institutional distrust today. For example, the New York MTA builds subways with massive delays and at by far the most expensive cost in the world. Boeing cut corners and built an unsafe plane that killed people.
What’s particularly depressing is that ineptitude and failure are actually rewarded in our society. The people who brought us the disastrous Iraq War, which was launched based on a claim that was not true, have mostly continued to enjoy high respect and prestigious positions. Conservative critics of the war haven’t fared nearly so well. Similarly, many of the journalists who got the 2016 election completely wrong were promoted or hired by more prestigious outlets. Andrew Cuomo was lionized as a leader and even wrote a book about his leadership for a major publishing imprint while presiding over one of the most incompetent coronavirus responses anywhere. For example, he forced nursing homes to accept coronavirus-positive patients, killing thousands of people. His vaccine plan was so terrible health care workers were literally required to throw perfectly fine vaccine doses in the trash. A surging homelessness crisis and crime spike has hit the country, and officials have been largely hapless in dealing with it.
There is some good news too though. Some of our institutions have done very well in displaying competence. Amazon continues to execute for customers and responded well to an unprecedented surge in demand during the pandemic, for example. Apple products continue to mostly be paragons of excellence. These companies fall short in other ways, but they are at least competent in delivering products and services.
In my podcast on Tim Keller, I noted that he was competent in building his organizations in New York. If you read his discussion of how he approached church in New York, one thing he figured out right away is that New Yorkers demanded excellence. He set about trying to set a very high bar for how they went about doing things that obviously worked.
There’s just no substitute for institutional competence and operational excellence.
What is your organization’s mission? You need to know it, and you need to maintain institutional integrity around it.
I’m using the term integrity here in the sense of structural integrity or wholeness. There’s a ton of pressure bearing down on institutions from the outside, and if they cannot maintain missional integrity, if they are going to deform under the pressure, they might as well liquidate and go out of business.
That sounds harsh, but the cold reality is that outside actors frequently target institutions whose mission they don’t like in order to force it to change course. In the most extreme cases, which unfortunately occur all too often, they capture de facto control of the institution and reorient it away from the original mission towards the priorities of the new bosses.
The world doesn’t want your institution to be mission focused. We can see this in the case of Coinbase, the leading cryptocurrency exchange. Coinbase’s CEO decided that he did not want politics to cause the same sorts of problems at his company that they did elsewhere. He announced that the company would henceforth be mission focused, and would exclude politics from the workplace. Employees who didn’t like the new direction would have an opportunity to accept a generous buyout. About 60 did so.
Almost immediately the New York Times began running hit jobs on the company. First came a story in which a few disgruntled former minority employees accused the company of racism. Then someone stole Coinbase’s payroll data and sent it to the Times, which accused the company of underpaying minorities in an article that was completely tendentious because the Times did not make any adjustments for education or experience levels.
It’s very likely that attacks, including further dishonest ones, against Coinbase will continue because the activist class in the media and elsewhere do not want any precedent to be established that companies can prohibit activism on the job.
Obviously organizations need to adapt and adjust over time. A historically Irish parish that has a big influx of Mexican immigrants might need to add a priest to hold masses in Spanish and think about how to serve that community. Serving the poor doesn’t look the same at every time and in every place.
But churches and other Christian institutions too often chase fads and let themselves be blown here and there by the wind. That’s why so many of them don’t last longer or remain effective for more than a generation or so.
The biggest threat to missional integrity for religious organizations today, as it was with Coinbase, is politics and activism. I’m doing an entire podcast series on conservative politics and Evangelicalism’s relationship to it, arguing for a rethink. I refer you to that series if that’s an issue you are interested in. In this newsletter I’m going to focus on the rise of woke politics, especially on race, that demands a radical reorientation of organizational mission.
It’s perfectly appropriate to preach about race and there’s sadly a lot of room for improvement in America on racial matters. But most of what I see today in the church is a scripture-light recitation of talking points, most of which are of recent secular origin, with remarkably little evidence that most of the people repeating them have any particular knowledge of the subject.
After I first started noticing the turn towards race 5-7 years ago, I undertook a research project in 2018 in which I looked at every article published on the Gospel Coalition’s web site in 2017 that mentioned race to determine how many scriptures they cited. Nearly half of the articles did not cite a single scripture. Another 20% only cited one scripture. That’s an example of what I mean by a scripture-light approach.
When it comes to knowledge, let’s do an experiment right now. I’m sure you now know all about racist housing polices like redlining, restrictive covenants, blockbusting, urban renewal and the development of public housing projects, freeways, etc.
Here’s my question for you: Who was Robert C. Weaver?
Weaver was the first black cabinet secretary and inaugural Secretary of HUD who was a leading authority on housing in the midcentury era. He wrote maybe the first book systematically examining racial discrimination in housing. I’m not saying Weaver is some secret key to understanding American housing policy. Rather, I use him to show that most people talking about historic housing injustices have no real knowledge about them, how they were developed, or who was involved in the various battles. (And despite an annual Black History Month, most Americans still haven’t heard about important and accomplished blacks like Weaver).
Maybe you know all about things like these and many others, but I don’t see many references to their like in any of the contemporary Christian material on race I’ve read. Again, the impression they give off is of talking points taken from popular press books written largely within the last decade or even the last five years. There are certainly exceptions. Anthony Bradley at the King’s College in NYC knows a lot about race. But they are exceptions.
There are a lot Christian leaders today writing and speaking loudly and frequently about race with teachings that have weak scriptural grounding, that don’t appear to have any rooting in historical Christian teachings on race (other than cherry picked quotes and examples to show how horrible Christians in the past were on the topic, or maybe mentions of William Wilberforce or MLK), and who evince little substantive knowledge about race in America.
Is this woke turn a result of a Great Awakening on race by the church? I’m skeptical. It seems to be primarily promoted by neutral world Christians that I previously noted have conveniently alighted almost exclusively on issues in which they are 100% in agreement with secular elite opinion.
Race can very much be a key part of the mission for churches and religious institutions. What John Perkins and Wayne Gordon tried to do with CCDA is a great example. I think what some of the new monastics like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his Rutba House in Durham, NC have done is also great. There are plenty of great ministries here in Indy that have long been focused on issues with racial dimensions. Many of them were established when that wasn’t the cool thing to do.
But when some traditionally mostly white church or ministry decides to all of a sudden get obsessively woke in the most standard issue way right at the time when the culture at large has also done so, we see that they lack missional integrity because their organization’s focus and teachings are being dictated by the currents of the outside world. There’s no reason to believe this won’t continue in the future until eventually they are driven into a reef.
An inability to sustain missional integrity is a big reason why there are so many old and grand but empty and falling apart church buildings in our cities. If you don’t want the same thing to happen to your institution, take heed. In fact, it would be well worth our time to go stand outside one of these buildings that once housed vibrant churches or ministries and ponder what makes us different from the people who were leading those organizations. Maybe it’s a lot less than we think.
Institutional Credibility Today – and Tomorrow
There’s another aspect of institutional credibility that’s important to keep in mind. It’s the generational component.
In important ways, our legacy is not what we do when we are on stage, but what happens after we leave it. If you are the pastor of a church, then it’s not just about how successful that church is while you are leading it, but what happens on your successor’s watch. You may not have full authority in selecting a successor or be able to fully control what happens when you are gone, but you certainly have some role and responsibility for it. That’s true for corporate CEOs, and it’s true for Christian leaders too.
The builders of the cathedrals started works that could not be completed in their own lifetime, taking a generational perspective. King Hezekiah of Judah took the opposite view, as we see in a famous passage from 2 King 20:16-19:
Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord: ‘Behold, the days are coming when everything that is in your house, and what your fathers have stored up to this day, will be carried to Babylon; nothing will be left,’ says the Lord. ‘And some of your sons who will come from you, whom you will father, will be taken away; and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.’” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Is it not good, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
No. It’s not good.
The Bible talks a lot about ways, about the path that we are on. There’s a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. The same is true for institutions. If an institution meets a bad fate only after we leave, we may still have been complicit in leading it down the path to that destination. If our church or organization goes off the rails after we leave or pass on, then we very likely deserve a share in the blame for that.
We need to have a multi-generational view as we lead our institutions today.
Putting It All Together
My thesis is that in an era of declining trust, institutions that can build trustworthiness and competence, and sustain missional integrity will be able to distinguish themselves. I continue to refer to the example of Quaker businesses in the late 19th century. As James Meek wrote about the Quaker chocolate concern Cadbury in the London Review of Books:
The openly adulterated nature of the cocoa on sale in the mid-19th century had made it possible for less scrupulous manufacturers to touch up their wares with brick dust, iron filings, even red lead. Cadburys ran a national ad campaign, backed by the medical establishment, boasting of the unprecedented purity of the firm’s new product, free of adulterants…In Victorian Britain, Quaker businessmen had competitive advantages. Ron Davies, in his biography of George Stephenson (Quakers were early financiers of the railways), talks about a Quaker ‘moral mafia’. In a commercial landscape filled with fraudsters and dodgy dealers, non-Quakers liked doing business with the Friends, knowing the extraordinary lengths the community would go to vet its members’ entrepreneurial ventures and, if things went sour, to prevent, or make good, the consequences of bad loans and bankruptcy. As for the workforce, Robert Fitzgerald, in his account of the Rowntrees, points out that since ‘business and wealth were viewed by the Quakers as a God-given trust, labor could not be treated as a mere commodity’.
What institutions are doing well and setting themselves apart? Warby Parker is one that comes to mind. The eyeglass business has long been one where customers were paying too much for too little. The business has been dominated by two companies that merged into a single giant that the Guardian called “big lens.” Warby Parker cut the price of eyeglasses in half, eliminated most of the pricey add-ons, and provides incredible customer service. No wonder people have been flocking to them.
Another is Purdue University under the leadership of former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Universities are losing credibility in part because of soaring costs and student loan debt. When Daniels took over, he ruthlessly attacked costs. He’s frozen tuition for a decade. The Atlantic called him “the college president who simply won’t raise tuition.” He also froze room and board prices, and partnered with Amazon to try to lower textbook costs. He created an option for non-STEM majors to graduate in only three years. He created an income share agreement alternative to traditional tuition. And he created a program called the “free freshman year” that lets incoming students do online courses and pass a CLEP test for Purdue credits for five classes at zero cost. He also responded to cancel culture by getting Purdue to adopt the University of Chicago principles on free expression, and Purdue has been mostly free of craziness during his tenure. Unsatisfied with the number of Indianapolis Public Schools students who qualified for admission to Purdue, he started a Purdue charter school in the city to take responsibility for building his own pipeline of low income and minority students.
He also worked hard to try to keep Purdue open to in person classes during the pandemic. His annual letter to the Purdue community gives a view into this, including a candid discussion of what didn’t go right and where the college needs to do better. This open acknowledgement of areas for improvement is a rarity among top leaders today and is a longstanding trait of Daniels. When he was governor and had to rollback a failed privatization of the state’s welfare system, he basically said, “We tried it. It didn’t work.”
I’m not arguing that Daniels is perfect by any means and I’m sure he made some tradeoffs whose costs will become apparent only later, but he’s trying to set the university apart and move it in the right direction. And it seems to be working. Multiple people in my family’s circles had kids that chose Purdue after getting admitted to a long list of good colleges. A former colleague of mine who was previously deeply tied to Penn State (he has a named, endowed scholarship there) sent his kids to Purdue and has basically transferred his allegiance.
I can’t think of any Christian organizations that are particular standouts here, though I’m sure there are some out there. But in this crazy world of institutional decay and a society whose foundations are being reformulated away from a Christian basis, it’s more important than ever for those of us who have institutional responsibility to focus on building and maintaining long term institutional credibility in trustworthiness, competence, and missional integrity.
Rethinking Life Scripts – College Credits
A homeschooling mother wrote me in response to last month’s newsletter with some additional info on earning college credits at home:
You mentioned college alternatives as well as ways to do college more affordably, including pursuing community college as a less expensive option. I wanted to mention another way, in case it wasn’t something you had heard of much yet: “alternative credit.” Within the homeschooling world, many families are pursuing college credit during the high school years, including credit by exam (CLEP/DANTES), online options, ACE credit from places like Sophia and Straighterline, etc. (as well as the standard dual-enrollment option at the local colleges). Granted, sometimes this does limit transferability in some ways, but there are legitimate colleges out there who definitely do take this sort of credit in large amounts, and an even larger selection that will accept this sort of credit for gen-ed requirements.A disclaimer though…I think what a lot of Christian homeschooling families do not consider when they take on this venture: if you are pursuing secular courses in order to gain that secular degree, you run the risk of leaving out important opportunities within those high school educational years. Theology, apologetics, philosophy, worldviews, etc…all of that takes time as well.
If any of this is new to you and you want to know more, info is available at:
She also says that you should be cautious about the content of these courses if you are concerned about secular influences on your child.
Financial Life in the Negative World
We recently reached FIRE. My wife and I are both 45. We have two kids. I just resigned from my job, will be taking a ~6 month sabbatical, and then will be looking for something productive to do (but will no longer have to worry about how much it pays). For example, right now I’m helping [Redacted] Seminary build out a strategic plan as a deeply discounted consultant. We did this by giving away 10-15% of our income and then living on less than 50% of the rest for the past ~15 years.Thinking about financial life in the negative world is very important for one’s ability to serve one’s family. Following the traditional script on your money puts you at major risk in a world that might cancel you or even just think less of you because you do not follow the new secular religion’s convictions (and thus affect your ability to advance in your career).
Financial freedom leads to all sorts of other freedom.
a. I’ve learned that as I have more freedom, I can throw off ‘worries’ about things at work and act with more courage – like sharing my faith with our managing partner.
b. For us, arriving at financial independence has always been about freedom, about increasing optionality. This applies to work of course: I mentioned above that I’m going to spend a few months reflecting / praying / evaluating where to apply myself next. I’m able to work without regard for income, which might mean a faith-based nonprofit – or a charter school – or something else that couldn’t otherwise ‘afford’ me on the open market.
c. This (b.) also applies to raising kids, too. Our freedom allows us to think creatively about how and where to educate our kids.
d. I have greater freedom to serve at church (and elsewhere). I recently became an elder and am able to assist our pastor in expanded ways given my flexibility.
Thanks to him for sharing this story. I think this makes clear that FIRE and similar approaches aren’t just about fear or selfish living. They allow you to be more generous and to focus more on mission and service than you might otherwise be able to. There’s a missional, outward facing element of this.
Positive Family Stories
In a world with so much bad news, I try to make sure I’m sharing the good news about being a man, a husband, and a father. This month reader Brian sent in a great picture of his family.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and my employer told me that I would be working remotely for the foreseeable future, my wife and I and our homeschooled kids seized the opportunity to not be “tied down” to one location. So we hit the road and tent camped our away across the entire Northwest. It was our first experience using the National Forest “dispersed camping” (no fee, no facilities) and my seven kids rocked it! I worked remotely from our campsites using a small folding table desk and a Mifi. Over 12 weeks we drove 14,000 miles, visited 17 national parks, hiked our first 14er, spent two weeks on the coast in Oregon and California, and saw dozens of other amazing places. It was the trip of a lifetime, and we’re hoping to squeeze in another one before we get the vaccine and I return to the office.
It was at that time I got a job working as a consultant on the Norwegian revision of the Old Testament, and since I had no grounding in the linguistic, cultural, or religious aspects that were involved, I had no option but to work hard and meticulously, nothing was going to come to me on a plate, and what revealed itself then, when I went through the first sentence of creation word for word, for instance, was the way in which entire worldviews might be encapsulated in a comma, in and “and,” in a “which,” and with those insights, how different the world becomes if its description is coordinate with rather than subordinate to the metaphor, for example, or the way a word not only has lexical meaning, but is also colored by the contexts in which it appears, something the writers of the Bible exploited to the full, for instance, by allowing a word at the beginning to apply to the sun’s relation to the earth, and then to let that same word many pages on to apply to man’s relation to woman. The word is merely there, in the two different places, and the connection is as good as invisible, yet decisive. People have been reading the Bible as holy Scripture for a couple of thousand years, and every word it contains has been considered meaningful, a dizzying tight mesh of different meanings and shades of meaning have thereby arisen, which no single human can every possibly command. What happened when I started working on those texts was that I learned to read. I began to understand what it meant to read.
– Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Six