Institutional Intelligence

Posted by Jerry Roth on

Many people, including those in the church world, would argue that this concept is an oxymoron. But Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Canada, believes otherwise. His book, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, offers a different perspective. In an interview article, The Deep Satisfaction of Accomplishing Something Together, Smith shares why he believes that institutions have great value in advancing the church’s mission.

Here is his core belief about institutions, “Institutions are about identity: corporate, shared and embodied identity. Institutional life is where we recognize the limits of our individual skills and capacities. Somewhere along the way, if we are committed to being both faithful and fruitful to our callings, we have to admit that if I’m going to flourish, I need others. … None of us are sufficient in and of ourselves. We need others for our vocations, and effective institutions help us leverage our strengths with others.”

It reminded me of another author/mentor, Peter Drucker, when he wrote, “The organization is, above all, social.  It is people.  Its purpose must therefore be to make the strengths of people effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.  In fact, that is the one thing only the organization can do – the one reason why we have it and need to have it.”1

Smith goes on to say, “When groups of people want to come together to fulfill a shared mission, they need the structure of an institution to help them work toward goals that are bigger than any individual. A community is a venue for conversations, but it needs an institution to begin to move beyond conversations to getting some things done.”

He suggests that institutions have specific charisms. He writes, “Thinking of institutions as having charisms reminds us that we are stewards of organizations that are bigger than we are and that God has brought them into being.”

Charism also provides a way to talk about who we are in light of something bigger than ourselves and unique to ourselves. It allows us to differentiate ourselves from other institutions while also valuing the other institution. It helps us see that our gift and vocation is different from that of our sister institutions (and sometimes competitors!) and enables us to pray for them, support them, and collaborate with them as part of a larger work of God.”

In his book, he defines seven different institutional charisms2.

  • The capacity to think and function in light of institutional Mission.
  • The capacity to know how Governance works within a particular institution.
  • The Human Resource capacity: knowing for themselves and others how people are appointed or hired, how they develop and flourish within the organization and how they transition well when they complete their time with the organization.
  • The capacity to read institutional culture and play a part in fostering a dynamic and generative Organizational Culture.
  • The appreciation of the key role that money and Finance plays in an organization – the economic factor.
  • The capacity to see and appreciate that all organizations are “housed” – they thrive only as they are properly located in Built Space, whether that is in buildings or in the virtual space of the internet.

Smith comments on specific key institutional factors that support Mission achievement:

  1. Great Meetings – He started from the position that meetings are time-wasters and hinder progress. He now believes that “meetings are actually the conversations that move the mission of the institution forward. Good conversations are ultimately about fostering institutional growth and wisdom. … I now hire people who know how to listen well and, when they speak, move the mission conversation forward.”
  2. Recruiting & Hiring Practices – He supports intentional human resource practices that enhance the organizations ability to achieve their Mission. “We want to recruit and hire people who are committed to leveraging their strength with the strengths of others as a means of fulfilling their own vocations. … it’s not just about getting the right people on the bus and then figuring out where we are going. It’s about discerning where we are going and then getting people on the bus who really want to help us get there.” I would underline this last message. It is critical that we clearly define our missions before we develop recruitment and hiring strategies that invite people to join our organizations and collaboratively use their gifts to fulfill our goals.
  3. Productive Budget – When he works with his leaders, he drives home the concept that “the goal is not a balanced budget but a budget that delivers the mission. … rather than just asking whether we had a balanced budget …  we have to consider: Did the mission happen?”
  4. Venues of Spiritual Formation – He believes deeply that the institution is not distinct from our faith journey. He states his belief this way, “The institution is the place that brings us together in all of our diversity and difference, in our conflict and common mission, so that we can grow into the people and serve the mission that God has called us to be.”

That last quote is the most powerful and hopeful statement Smith makes. It is easy to criticize our church institutions at the local, regional or national levels and see them as obstacles or impediments to fulfilling our mission and ministry. As staff and leaders, if we embrace the challenging but hopeful understanding of our institutions presented by Smith, then it can guide us in developing and utilizing the charisms outlined above “so that we can grow into the people and serve the mission that God has called us to be.”

The Center for Parish Leadership can provide relevant consulting and facilitation for your staff and leaders that can incorporate best-practice concepts like those outlined above. Please contact us to explore how we can support you on this journey.


  1. The Organization of the Future, The Drucker Foundation, pg. 5, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1997
  2. Institutional Intelligence;


Jerry Roth

Research Analyst

The Center for Parish Leadership


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