Attending to Institutional Fit

Back in the 1990s, while I was serving as the Dean of a small Christian college in Saskatchewan, I had an opportunity to participate with a colleague – Ken Badley – in a research project where we asked:  what were the elements or features of the life and work of senior scholars in academic institutions who were clearly, in their senior years, thriving at their work and thriving through till and including their transition to retirement?   Coming out of series of extended interviews, Ken and I listed what seemed to us to be the common themes and practices and elements that we thought might be universal.  And it was one of these that really stood out to us:   that those who had long term vocational vitality were located within colleges or seminaries where there was a deep congruence between their own vision and values and that of the institution.  There was an alignment of vocation – that is, that their sense of calling fit with what the mission of the organization.   But more, there was also a sense of resonance with the institution’s ethos and approach to governance.   They belonged; they had found their vocational or institutional fit.

We had noted this as a minor theme in the interviews until I had a conversation with Gordon D. Fee, who at the time was professor of New Testament at Regent College.    It was not long into the interview that he gave me an overview of his professional journey.  He had taught for a while at Wheaton College, near Chicago.  Then he had moved on to a Pentecostal college – Vanguard – in California.  And then after a few years he was off to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  But he did not stay long.  And then, and the tone of his voice changed, he came to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.   Working side-by-side with Jim Packer and Klaus Blockmuel and Bruce Waltke and others, he found an energy and comradery that became his institutional home.  When I came to Regent College around 5 years later as Dean, I ended up having a weekly breakfast with Fee.   And I reminded him of this interview and he emphasized it again:  his calling and work as a scholar could not be explained without reference to the institution in which he was housed.  

Or, a different word, perhaps – “nested.”   I came upon this metaphor when James K. A. Smith used this word in the introduction to one of his books where he speaks of how his own scholarly career is one on which he is deeply conscious of his indebtedness to Calvin College where, he says, he is “nested”.    Whether housed or nested – whatever the metaphor – the point is the same:   we thrive vocationally when we discover a significant measure of vocational alignment – vision, mission, values, ethos and approach to governance – with the organization of which we are a part.   We might have a job and have some measure of effectiveness when this alignment is not there.  But it will not be for long.   The organization will drain us.   Rather than fueling our work and rather than sensing that our work is leveraged off the strengths and vision of the organization, we will find that we are constantly fighting the organization – not literally, perhaps, but in our spirits.  We will feel drained and frustrated and our emotional and intellectual energy will be dissipated.

If that institutional fit is not there, we can go on indefinitely fighting it – trying to fit in, feeling frustrated and trapped – or we can accept that this will not be for long:  perhaps two or three years at most.   On a university faculty, why work towards tenure if you know that this not your institutional home?   Or in a different organization, why try for a renewal of a contract when you know that this is not working in a way that is best for you and the organization?

Either come to peace with it – and learn not only to grudgingly accept the limits of the organization.   Or, move on.    But either way, the point is this:  institutional fit is not a secondary factor our long term vocational satisfaction.  What is not good for you may well be an ideal environment for others.    But the issue is this:  it is about your vocational fit; and, most crucially, you have to make the decision yourself:  be proactive, make the needed choices and without rushing things, make the move.  Sooner than later; at the very least by your mid-40s.  Before that, you might well be learning and exploring and finding both the strengths and limits of organizations.  But by your mid-40s, hopefully, you will want to be institutionally “at home.”

Now, one more point:  there will never be 100% congruence, unless you start your own organization, perhaps.   But even then, I would say that it is unrealistic to expect that there is a perfect synergy between your vision and values and those of the organization or the church denomination, for example.  But there should be enough overlap, enough congruence, that one is not constantly fighting the inertia of the organization but actually, in some significant way, animated by the organization – finding, indeed, that it is a generative space and place for you.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.