Hugh Heclo’s “On Thinking Institutionally” (Paradigm Publishers, 2008) is a helpful – if unconvincing – argument for fruitful participation in the practices of threatened modern-day institutions. Acknowledging the century-long breakdown of societal institutions and the growing distrust that follows, Heclo nonetheless suggests that there is yet value in living faithfully within the limits these institutions provide for us. The key, he says, is in our mindset: in order to reap the benefits of institutional realities, we must learn to think institutionally.
At first glance, this proposition comes across as an attempt at pacifying the irate masses, convincing thinking people to put their trust and energies once again into the large-scale structures that govern our societal life together. To be sure, Heclo takes great pains to track the many convincing reasons why anyone paying even the least bit of attention to national events over the last half-century would have little reason to expect anything good to come from institutional life. He even goes so far as creating a five page timeline of trust-decaying events, concluding that “…we moderns have a culture-based distrust of institutions both because they get in our way and also because we cannot get out of their way,” (37). Still, Heclo contends, even this list of grievances ought not be enough to completely turn us off of participation in institutions. Leaving failing societal structures altogether does not leave us free and fulfilled.
Instead, the place we find ourselves (which seems quite similar to MacIntyre’s “among the ruins”) is one devoid of structure and guidelines for how life ought to be lived. Living without institutions leaves us “perplexed, burdened, and looking for some fixed points of reference” (39). Into this empty space, Heclo inserts the possibility of thinking institutionally, a practice that, he asserts with the promise of a first-tier self-help guru, “can actually help make you a more fulfilled human being,” (83).
Institutional thinking is not simply structural thinking, and certainly not critical thinking [which Heclo derides with a passion: it “may just as easily make a person a better scoundrel as a citizen,” (92)]. Instead, institutional thinking is something like “respect-in-depth,” “to honor something through your own appropriate participation in its practice,” (4). It is faithful reception of the past’s legacy, infusion of value into the mundane everyday, and a stretching of time horizons – making one beholden to both those who came before and those who are yet to come. Institutional thinking allows an individual – institutional leaders seem to be the target audience – to participate wholly in large-scale institutional structures while maintaining a critical edge, an active and engaged critique of current practice.
And therein lies the problem, or the first of them. Heclo advocates an insider perspective, a push for change from within. The problem with institutions, he says, is not those unwieldy systems themselves, but rather the human beings that make them up: “When institutions fail it is living, breathing human beings and not mental abstractions that fail,” (25). In order for institutions to function with integrity, those people who work within them need to act as such. Institutional failure is actually the failure of individuals who can’t seem to carry out the responsibilities of their office with any fidelity. But as Walter Wink has argued, the powers that be are not “simply people and their institutions…they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures.” Wink goes on to argue, “if we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.” Heclo neglects to address the larger – and messier – question of how institutions take on a life and a power greater than the sum of their parts.
A second problem lies in what we might assume to be Heclo’s unstated personal attachments and underlying motivation for the work. Throughout his argument – and especially in the chapter explaining what it is to be institutionally minded - he sprinkles traditional Christian concepts, speaking of our need to be “willing to submit” to institutional tradition (100), appealing to Augustine and alluding to institutions as structures that can guide and harness our desires by offering answers to questions like “what should I want?” (102) and speaking of the distinct difference between a contract and a covenant (106). He even paints his argument in eschatological terms, contending that “human beings find meaning as they live in the tension between the universal and the particular, between what has been given and what is not yet fulfilled,” (190).
These attachments and motivations might be construed as form agreeing with content: perhaps Heclo is writing from his own mindset of thinking institutionally – namely a mindset of the institution of Christianity and the Church. But if this were so, if Heclo is indeed writing out of a commitment to and interest in our modern-day institution of Christianity, why step outside of that institution to do so? Why write an academic, secular work in order to shore up a practical, religious institution? It may be true that the applications of Heclo’s theory are much broader than the American Christian church, but if his reasoning holds, then he himself ought to be acting from within his own tradition, his own institution.
Heclo ends the book with what seems like a cry of utter frustration: “Is it really so difficult to cut through the fluff and blather of our popular culture to see the things that need to be taught and learned?” (187). The question is rhetorical, of course, and Heclo assumes that every answer will be negative. But in truth – in practice and in community – the answer swells up from among the remnants and the ruins of those very things that we need to be teaching and learning – YES. It is difficult to discern what is fluff and what is real tradition. Ask any pastor who attempts to preach against consumerism, or any church administrator who tries to operate relationally in a corporate system, or anyone transformed by Christ into a life of simplicity and service who tries to live their life this way amongst corrupted and overbearing institutions. Yes, Mr. Heclo, it is so difficult. But your book helps to explain exactly why that’s so.
 Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 4.