It is increasingly fascinating to me how nearly every organization, regardless of its original motive for existing, eventually caves to some form of self-preservation as its primary function. As a pastor, I wish this were only true of the “worldly” and “secular” institutions.
Each organization has programs. These may be within or outside the organization. In the sales organization there are programs for training a sales force, and there are programs where potential clients are courted individually or in groups. For the vast majority of products or services offered, if we mine back in time to the origins of that organization, it began with a purpose to, in some way, improve life, culture, society, ease, or opportunity for people. The “programs” offered would benefit the organization, but only because those same programs were benefiting the target market, the client, the customer.
This works well until the sediment of tradition begins to dictate the programs. What we did successfully last year becomes the program we offer again this year. Offering very good programs subtly replaces the original intent to improve life. Offering “our version” of whatever program becomes the driving force and purpose of the organization. When the transition is complete, programs trump people.
As an organization develops, there is a need to be able to nimbly make decisions so the organization can move at increased speed to do what it does. Policies are developed to create simple algorithms to know what to do in certain situations—you follow the policy. At first these are made so the organization’s purpose can be more efficiently fulfilled. In too many organizations, over time the policies unfortunately transition from great servants of efficiency to tyrannical dictators demanding adherence to policy at all costs. Once this occurs, then the original intent of the policy, to best serve the constituent or customer, is lost. Serving, obeying, and following policy becomes the controlling end game of the organization. For some time, things may continue to operate as always. However, in time, the policies created to serve the customer become sacrosanct in themselves, and then more policies are developed to protect other policies, and life begins to be choked from the organization by way of its own policies. Eventually, following policy becomes the highest good.
Overtly in the business world, and more covertly in social and religious organizations, profit is critical to continued existence. At a factory, all the costs of doing business are built into budgets for the production of the product, and that wonderful space (margin) between the cost of what you are making plus the cost of doing business, and the price charged for the volume of product sold, produces the profit. This profit is then paid out to share holders, invested back in the business to increase margins, stockpiled for “rainy days,” or invested in some community benefit. This all works well as long as everyone remembers that producing a profit is part of being able to continue to serve the community and make life better by producing the product.
Unfortunately, just as with programs and policy, profit can become what an organization is about. Even not-for-profit organizations can recognize that, without a margin, they cannot continue their mission. Then, for intended good ends, they can become profit-driven to the detriment of the people employed in the organization and the people served by that organization. When the profitability filter is used as the primary litmus test of every decision, the organization has shifted from its original intent to its new purpose of profitability. It goes without saying but must still be said, when there is no positive bottom line on a perpetual basis, the organization is terminal. The organization must have some form of profit just as it must offer programs and must have policies.
What I’m suggesting here is that none of these three – program, policy or profit – can be allowed to rule supreme. Benefiting, caring for, enabling, supporting, teaching, training, guiding, and providing for people must, in a healthy organization, trump programs, policies and profits.
When even a good program ceases to benefit or actively damages people, then the program must change. When well-intended policies become impediments to the human needs and cares, they must be re-written. When profit margin goals are set that demand inhumane decisions, then it is time to adjust our required margins. The healthy secular organization will run best by the rule that people trump programs, policies, and profit. While in the secular organization this standard is a preferable option, in the religious organization it must be mandatory.
Jesus’ life on earth demonstrated his interest in people over programs, policies, or profit. For any organization to call itself “Christian,” it must be an organization where the care of people, love in action, the human enterprise, consistently and clearly trumps programs, policies and profit.
Think about organizations you belong to, work for, or run. What can you do to elevate the human enterprise? And for all those connected to church—what can we do to avoid “unfortunate common ground” with organizations that elevate programs, policies, and profit above people?