Organizations may seem an alien topic for a seminary commencement. Likewise, leaders may seem less in need pastorally than other members of our church.Yet I believe it is time for a missionary outreach to leaders. Why?
In modern societies, 80 percent of the people of God spend their working hours within organizations. This is not an abstract "God in all things" argument. It is an empiric reality. Hewlett-Packard, Monsanto, AT&T, Sutter Health -- these are the stages on which the majority of the baptized gather each day. There God will be present or absent; there God will suffer or be affirmed.
I often find seminaries doubtful of organizations as a locus of religious energy. Given the scandals associated with leadership in churches, charitable organizations, and government organizations, to say nothing of product-producing and service organizations, it is an understandable temptation to cynicism. But informed by the Resurrection, I believe our tradition must examine organizations at their best.
From a positive vantage point we can quickly affirm the modern organization's potential for nobility. Let me use business -- arguably perceived as the most "secular" organizational form -- as an example. Business provides the products and services that feed, clothe, house, transport, and heal. ("I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, without shelter and you housed me.") It is business that links individuals into collaborative networks to provide for our needs. Spiritually such organizations should be loci of love.
But organizations do more. Sociologists have long documented that it is within the primary work group that we experience acceptance or rejection, compassion or alienation. For most adults, this happens at work within their department, laboratory, production group, surgical team, etc. It is here that the neighbor that scripture enjoins us to love is most frequently encountered.
Organizations enable the expression of our talents and unleash the dignity of co-creation. A modern surgeon without a hospital, professor of theology without a college, bioscientist without a pharmaceutical firm -- all contemporary technical and knowledge workers find their gifts only latent without an organizational sponsor.
Organizations are stewards of resources and the environment. The budgets -- let alone control over energies and competencies -- of the global corporation are larger than those of kingdoms in prior times, sometimes even exceeding the wealth of contemporary third-world nations.
Finally there is the multiplier wealth generated through organizations. Business taxes and philanthropy are essential to support government, arts, education (including seminaries), and environmental protection.
To have a vocation as a leader of the modern organization must be seen as an important spiritual calling.
Areas for concern
Of course there are challenges and a dark side to contemporary organizational life. There is work that does not provide dignity. There is mal-distribution of income. There are distortions of hubris and greed on display in the present legal actions against CEOs. There are destructive consequences of globalization and hyper-competition. There is environmental degradation and there are outright ethical violations.
But we need to understand that wrestling against negative "principalities and powers" and transforming organizations is exactly the spiritual journey of organizational leaders. I know executives serving on compensation committees taking specific steps to modify excessive executive pay and to assure fair wages for the lowest echelons of the workforce. I know two leaders heading teams creating "green" corporate architecture. I know a chemical firm's CEO who championed the effort to convert all the firm's products to earth-friendly and sustainable formulations. I know executives undertaking difficult negotiations to assure that health care, education, and just wages are available to workers where manufacturing is sourced offshore.
The baptized people of God are at work in contemporary organizations. This is why spiritual support is so necessary. Just as leaders of religious organizations are deeply saddened by distortions and scandals in churches, so too these business leaders are deeply saddened by all that is wrong in their setting.
What then do these leaders seek from philosophy and theology?
Let me mention just six of their hopes.
Leaders search for a deepened understanding of the lay vocation. Leaders want to go beyond "servant leadership" as a cliché. They want to explore a christology and ecclesiology that will inform their calling as a spiritual path.
Leaders search for insight into how organizations can be fully human settings. They hope for a theological and philosophical anthropology that begins to integrate how the Holy Spirit has already been present in the evolution of the modern organization.
Leaders search for an understanding of the spiritual journey and spiritual disciplines suitable to their active and turbulent lives. They still find most literature dealing with the spiritual journey modeled on clerical and religious life, or the person outside of professional roles and demands. Leaders want to understand how to incorporate prayer, meditation, and contemplation while active in the world.
Since a central role of the leader is to guide strategic decision-making, leaders want to understand how the spiritual discipline of discernment can be applied to group decision processes. Problem and solution complexity require pooled judgments and collaborative efforts in order to overcome patterns of injustice and to provide organizational outcomes that serve the common good.
Leaders seek to understand what an organization would be like if they could move beyond instrumental teamwork toward true spiritual community. Understanding sins against community and preconditions for agape are needed to realize spiritual community.
Finally, leaders seek to understand how they can speak about all of this in a religiously differentiated world. Leaders want greater clarity regarding how to witnesses their Christian heritage and simultaneously be open to the way God acts in the lives of diverse religious (and non-religious) colleagues.
The topics these leaders seek to explore are not unfamiliar. Still, as a philosopher or theologian at a seminary, you may be thinking: "Yes, but I specialize in Hebrew scriptures. You need to speak with someone else!"
During my lifetime, this has been the response. Meanwhile, the gap between contemporary leaders and your disciplines has increased. Most leaders no longer turn to their religious tradition for insight beyond matters of personal piety. However, I see a new possibility to bridge the gap and allow a confluence of thinking.
The stimulus is the emergent "spirituality at work" movement. In response to this manifestation of the Holy Spirit, two groups on the organizational side of the river of misunderstanding are ready to reach out to theology and philosophy. The first is composed of teacher-scholars in colleges of business, public, health care, and social administration. The second is the new profession of executive coaches. Both groups are aware that without solid educational study, it is easy to fall prey to the superficial and bogus surrounding the spirituality movement.
These two groups, who largely control leadership education in North America, are not asking that philosophers and theologians become solo translators for organizational leaders. Rather, they seek a partnership. In return for guidance into your primary literatures and joint dialogue, they will assume the burden to incorporate new understanding into instruction for organizational leaders.
So among your many worthy ministries, I hope you will consider this new need. Unless this bridge is built, the lay members of the people of God who must transform the most powerful institutions in our modern world, the settings where the majority of the people of God gather daily, will continue to lack access to the truth and wisdom you shepherd.
Andre L. Delbecq is J. Thomas and Kathleen McCarthy University Professor of Organizational Analysis and Management at Santa Clara University. On May 19, 2006, he delivered this commencement address to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. It is excerpted here with permission. For a longer excerpt, see www.intrust.org/delbecq. (COURTESY ANDRE L. DELBECQ)