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Gordon Smith's recent book, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, can be an incredibly helpful companion for effective church leadership. While he writes more generally about institutions, he does so with a specific eye to both non-profit organizations and churches. Attached at the bottom you will find a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book.

Smith does two basic things in Institutional Intelligence:

First: he makes the case that our typical disappointment with institutions is not because institutions are bad, but because institutions are often badly governed and led. Part of this is due to perception. In our world, we often fail to see our church, classis, or denomination as an institution...or, we might prefer to not see them as institutions. We think of administration and governance as something that gets in the way of ministry. Ironically, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Good administration & governance is actually designed to clear the path for the mission to flourish; it's poor administration that tends to throw stones on the path and disrupt the journey. We can probably all tell stories of great ideas that get tripped up again and again by a dysfunctional council, unclear expectations of who is leading, lack of ownership, competing priorities, or whatever other hazards get in the way. 

Smith suggests that the first step to clearing the path for an effective pursuit of our mission is to acknowledge that we are indeed an institution and to take responsibility for ensuring that good governance, administration, and leadership happens. His definition of an institution helps us start moving in that direction: "An institution is a social structure that leverages wisdom, talent and resources toward a common cause or purpose." Just to be clear: the institution is not the mission, but it is designed to help us achieve it. In fact, when the institution becomes the mission, it's a sign that the institution is not functioning as it ought to be.

Second: Smith gets practical. In fact, the majority of the book is all about practical steps to be a healthy, effective institution. To stick with our metaphor, Smith joins us on our path of ministry. He talks about the journey we're on and paints a vision for what a clear path can look like. He also points out one stone after another that is sure to trip us up. The various chapters are like him both painting that vision and picking up one stone after another, examining each of them in detail, and then helping us figure out ways to toss hazards away so that the mission can flourish on a clear path. 

Smith talks about seven "capacities" of effective organizations, and they are what give structure to the book. You can read about them if you scroll down on the front page of his website: They are, in brief: Mission, Governance, Human Resource, Organizational Culture, Finance, Buildings and Space, and Strategic Partnerships. 

Using the Book

I said at the beginning that this book can be a helpful companion. I should say: it already has been. I've used it in a few different contexts and it's produced very fruitful conversations.

One specific example: earlier this year, we gave copies of the book to the Classis Stated Clerks and invited them to join a conversation about how it intersected with their classis. One of the questions we wrestled with was whether or not a classis is an institution. As we gained clarity on the fact that it is, in fact, an institution, it gave rise to several other important questions that the book points to. For example, who "runs" classis? In most cases, there is not one defined person who is responsible for stewarding the mission of classis.

As Smith says, the absence of a named leader simply means someone is leading without accountability. Several of the clerks felt that this was true in their situation, as often the clerk becomes the de facto leader. It led to some good conversations about the role of the clerk, how they function within their realm of authority and responsibility, and what other leadership might need to be cultivated within their classis.

Overall, Institutional Intelligence is a helpful book. One I know I'll be keeping within quick reach on my bookshelf.


I have been sold on this book for a while. If the seminary had a course on governance for pastors, this would be required reading. I have used it with local settings and it has been fruitful. Great post, Mr POSTMA

Indeed, one of the things I neglected to say was thanks to Darren for putting me onto this book! 

Also, for those in Canada interested in engaging with it more, there is a project starting up called "Good Governance for Better Mission." It is seeking to help churches integrate some of the key learnings from this book into their own church governance and leadership. Stay tuned, or ask Darren ([email protected]) or Lesli ([email protected]) for more info.

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