Supreme Court cases on both sides of the 49th parallel last week focused on what it means to be a Christian organization. America's and Canada's highest-ranking jurists are being asked to define the boundaries within which religiously-motivated organizations can behave according to their convictions, even when those convictions may not match mainstream consensus.
But legal definitions should not overly influence our perception of Christian (or other religiously-based) institutions. There are more basic things to keep in mind.
A recent conversation with a leader at a Christian nursing home complex reminded me of this danger. His organization is undergoing a strategic planning process and he was concerned about how various jurisprudence might shape their ability to be the sort of organization that the founders and funders aspired to. Would their desire to hire people who shared their passion be honoured as the organization grew? As the population being served was increasing in its religious and ethnic diversity, what was the organization's responsibility to facilitate and encourage diverse expressions of faith? What about lifestyle choices made by residents and staff members which, while legal, offended the standards of the community which was being served? Given the present kerfuffle surrounding the community covenant at Trinity Western University, would developing legal documents be worth the effort?
It is tempting to hire simply lawyers to get the most legally strategic answers to such questions (and lest I be misunderstood, that is something that should be done!) but forget that a faith-based organization should aspire to much more than fitting into the legal space allotted it.
It is in the intersection of at least three factors that Christian organizations find their purpose. Identity, ethos, and impact each provide a distinct set of considerations for leaders to consider, recognizing that how these factors intersect will vary significantly depending on the type of institutions involved. A nursing home will be very different than an educational institution which again, will be very different from a publishing company or a think tank. But my guess is that in most situations, thinking about the interplay of these three factors will be helpful in understanding how to wisely work in the present context.
By identity, I mean that a Christian organization needs to think of itself as such. In some cases that may take the form of a comprehensive statement of faith; in others it may be a minimalist identification (as for example Cardus, which simply identifies itself as a think tank drawing on 2,000 years of Christian social thought). In either example, however, there is a clearly-defined starting point for the conversation as to what it means to be a Christian organization. This is a necessary prompt for both internal and external conversations and becomes a helpful accountability mechanism.
But translating that identity into specific behaviours that characterize the organization in its day-to-day action is a crucial step. A commitment to excellence, a recognition that all stakeholders are people possessing both body and soul, a respect for justice and the common good—it isn't hard to identify characteristics that one should expect of Christian organizations.
True, many of these characteristics are shared with organizations that do not claim religious motivations but that does not negate the expectation that an organization that calls itself Christian ought to be doubly attentive to how its identity translates into its ethos, and hold itself accountable to maintain that.
Often overlooked in this calculation, however, is the matter of impact. Surely part of the evaluation of how a Christian organization maintains its identity is a sensitivity to the impact that its behaviours is having on those it seeks to serve. Faithful service isn't about a checklist of simply doing the right things, but flows from a sense of mission that has in view the needs of those around us. Perhaps that service will take a form which may be unpopular; often faithfulness has a "tough love" aspect to it that we shouldn't shrink from.
But never is organizational faithfulness callous or indifferent. A love for God and neighbour means we pay attention to the needs of our neighbour and consider how it is that we are serving them.