Radical orthodoxy

It is something of a commonplace to refer to associations as a kind of family or even to think of our mission-driven efforts as in some ways similar to a religion: an effort to organize like-minded individuals who share a common cause … a cause that is integral to both who they are as individuals (in our case, generally, members of the same industry or profession) and as part of something larger than individual self-interest.  We want our members to be passionately engaged, not mere consumers of products and services.  We want to make a difference and change the world in some way, hopefully for the better.  We even sometimes talk about being “evangelists” for our profession, industry or cause.

That thought came home hard with me while recently reading something about my own church.  Which church is irrelevant and naming it would only serve to derail the discussion in unrelated directions.  It isn’t about what one church believes or how you feel about it.  It isn’t meant to suggest that any of our organizations are as profoundly important as any church is.  Just go along with me for the moment, accepting that a church — any church — is a non-profit, voluntary organization with a mission.  What this commentator said about this church struck me as relevant for associations, too.  Paraphrasing to the point of plagiarism, that commentary ran along the following lines:

Association membership or engagement maintained merely out of cultural habit or legal/governmental establishment “has no future because it does not merit a future.”  A mission-driven organization that does not get out into the world and act upon what it believes sooner or later gets sick “in the hothouse atmosphere of its own self-absorption.”

When any organization gets too concerned about itself — its structure, hierarchy, governance, internal politics, culture — rather than its mission, the purpose it exists to serve, it “falls victim to a kind of narcissism.”  That narcissism leads to an irrelevant and self-referential focus on its own sophistication in form and operation.  This is where organizations get sidetracked by hugely contentious internal matters that, if we allow them to (and how often we do allow them to), become all-consuming efforts around matters that don’t actually matter.

We rationalize it, of course, and make it sound reasonable.  We tell ourselves that it would be foolish to take external actions until we get our own houses in order … until we get the membership model exactly right.  Or governance perfected.  Or whatever.

But where does that leave us vis-à-vis our mission?  Bold action, it is true, means that you risk something.  “Just as things can happen to someone who leaves the safety of home: accidents can happen.”  But isn’t “risking an injured organization far preferable to a sick organization, palsied by self-absorption?”

Such radicalism is “going to take some getting used to. Expect serious disorientation in those ideological redoubts where old battles over now-superceded [self-referential institutional constructs] … remain all-consuming.”

“Some may find it hard to reconcile … radicalism with orthodoxy. But that’s precisely what orthodoxy is: the adventure of radical conversion ordered to mission.”

I realize that these ramblings run the risk of fueling the fires of another pitfall we face:  an overinflated sense of our own importance.  After all, we aren’t responsible for men’s souls or eternity.  Hubris is as catastrophic as self-absorbed complacency.  Maybe even more so.  Associations are important … but we are not that important.

Still … we are organizations defined by mission.  We should be organizations driven by mission.  Keeping our houses in order is important, but only in so far as being better organized and structured, operationally efficient, and philosophically consistent makes us better at achieving our mission.

Start with the end in mind, build capacity, achieve results, as Stephen Covey put it.

But never forget the core purpose, the mission, along the way.  That never changes, and shouldn’t as long as the mission itself remains relevant.  Being radical and orthodox means taking chances with everything else, risking everything else, in a ceaseless effort to be true to the reason the organization was created in the first place: its mission.