Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 7

Michael Metzger

Most Americans are enjoying Labor Day because they don’t have to go to work. This is not the vision of shalom. Work was not supposed to be toil. Loving our neighbors means making a better world where they flourish as human beings. It means making culture. Culture is shaped by institutions large and small, center and periphery, that promote, permit, or prohibit human flourishing. Imagine a world where faith communities helped institutions flourish. Dennis Bakke did – and did something about it.

Dennis Bakke describes the American workplace as “a frustrating and joyless place where few people do what they’re told and have few ways to participate in decisions or fully use their talents.” When Bakke and his business partner Roger Van Sant developed AES, a worldwide power supplier serving one hundred million people, they wanted it to capture the joy a team feels while playing its sport. “People should spend 80 percent of their time on their primary roles and devote 20 percent to participating on task forces, giving advice, learning new skills, and working on special projects.”

When the pair co-founded the company in 1981, they adopted a unique philosophy to develop this winning team. First, people should be trusted. Second, businesses don’t exist to make money. They exist to serve. “Marx [came] out of the 19th century ideas that mankind could be manipulated,” Bakke once commented to Forbes magazine, “ and you could figure out, if you had the right incentives and created the right environment, how to ensure people would be good and would produce.” He and Van Sant made a deliberate effort to reject those 19th century assumptions.

“The first thing we did was to deliberately change our assumptions about people,” recalled Dennis Bakke in an interview with BusinessWeek. “We said that the assumptions need to be that people are thinking, creative, responsible individuals. And a whole panoply of things have followed from that.”

For example, under Bakke’s leadership, AES had no more than two layers of supervision between his office and any entry-level position all around the world, just two layers. They had no shift superintendents or foreman in any of their plants. They had no major staff operations in the whole company. AES had no general counsel’s office. They had no finance department, and yet they raised billions of dollars over their plants. Above all, they had no human resources or personnel department because Bakke thought this function was too important to be left to some specialist operation separate from their supervisors. AES had no public relations department, no engineering department (although, of course, they had a huge amount of engineering going on), and no safety department, although AES have the best safety record of any company in the industry.

AES required every officer to work for one week every year in one of the plants, and their highest level meetings, the operating committee that met once a month, were open to every person in the company who happened to be there. Bakke would sometimes go to the plants to hold these meetings so that people in the plants could attend as well. Every piece of financial information and every other information was delegated and given to every person in the company. There were no limits as to how much any one person could buy in the company with regard to capital investments, which were all delegated. There was no capital budgeting process as such. There were no salary grades. There were no job descriptions written, by design, and there were no employee handbooks.

Bakke noted that the element was left completely out of AES’s list of values. Bakke agreed completely with Max De Pree’s view of profits. “Profits are a likely and necessary result if in fact you are doing a good job of meeting a need in society. But the fact is that values ought to be separate from the issue of profits. Profits are not the goal, at least we’re trying at AES not to make them the goal.”

Imagine a world where faith communities assist institutions and organizations like AES. Imagine them teaching the historic doctrines, including the Cultural Mandate and shalom. Imagine teaching ought-is-can-will as the street-level definition of reality springing from scripture – creation-fall-redemption-restoration. Imagine faith communities teaching a more accurate assessment of human nature – how people learn from experience more than explanation. Imagine faith communities no longer trying to “manage” their people. The Bible says only appetites, animals, and assets ought to be managed. People ought to be mentored as thinking, creative and responsible individuals. Imagine that.

Imagine a world where faith communities administer the sacraments as a visible sign of the ought-is-can-will definition of reality. Imagine a world where faith communities take this so seriously that they discipline those who unfortunately choose to live outside of reality. Imagine that.

Shalom says to the degree that institutions, such as AES and T. Rowe Price, are flourishing according to a scriptural definition of reality, faith communities are also flourishing. Helping others flourish is loving God and loving your neighbor. This is a radical idea – with radical implications for faith communities. How would they measure shalom, instead of measuring attendance, building, and cash? How would they allocate scarce resources – to which congregants? What kind of staff does a faith community really need, if it doesn’t “manage” people but instead treats them as thinking, creative and responsible individuals? Important questions that require informed answers.

The answers come from answering one simple question: Did you enjoy a warm shower this morning? If you did, you owe it to overlapping networks of reliable, central institutions. Institutions matter because they go to the root of reality and are the manner of achieving shalom through making culture.


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  1. You said: “Imagine a world where faith communities administer the sacraments as a visible sign of the ought-is-can-will definition of reality. Imagine a world where faith communities take this so seriously that they discipline those who unfortunately choose to live outside of reality. Imagine that.”

    Imagine a world where our faith communities begin to live in the ought-is-can-will reality and then you can begin to imagine a world where the institutions also live in that world. By and large, our faith communities mimic the institutions because we think those represent the better way. It is time to turn the world right side up.

  2. John: I like that! People often imagine that prophets or innovators turn institutions upside down. But if they are on the side of reality, they turn them right side up. In fact, something I wrote in this piece needs to be turned right side up. In actuality, no one truly lives outside of reality. Reality is reality. To the degree that one does, on time reality will bite. All one can do actually is distort reality as it says in Romans, “hold the truth in unrighteousness.” So I was incorrect in writing that people can live outside reality. Second, by “discipline” I mean church discipline as in Matthew 18 and excommunication. Faith communities built upon a therapeutic gospel (“we’re all wounded people”) and individualism (my “personal relationship with Jesus”) find discipline to be a difficult duty to perform. My guess is that their congregants tend to treat membership as a personal choice based on preferences (worship, sermon styles, youth program) or feeling that the church is a “safe” place. Either orientation is not conducive to discipline. An institutional approach–both to shalom and church–reinforces the need for discipline, including excommunication as a last resort to underscore that the institution trumps individualism.

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