The Bi-Directional Nature of Organizations

:::For you who don't work with me, this image is a vintage bi-directional microphone:::

I've been doing a lot of thinking on why people join organizations. We are born into our families and work based on opportunity, but our organizations...charitable causes, activist groups, churches, hobby clubs, etc. are of our own choosing.

And given that they require time and energy, my question is why? What engages us enough to become part? (You might at this point be wondering about the people who have never joined anything, but I'm pretty sure they aren't reading this blog.)

My theory is that it isn't what we give that makes us join organizations, but what we get. After all, organizations that take from us tend to drain us. We burn out. We quit.

But organizations that give something in return...those that provide a sense of belonging, the glue of shared purpose, those that make us feel appreciated, those that help us grow in our personal gifts, that make our lives more satisfying...those are the ones that we continue to pour into. The ones where work feels like play.

The thing is it is a delicate balance. Take too much without giving back and you'll starve your members. Give too much without any requirement and you'll become a circle of whining navel-gazers.

It seems the most sustainable organizations have a structure that supports bi-directional flow. They take and they give...creating a virtuous circle where there is balance between gifts given and gifts received.

Like a fountain, water goes in and water goes out. Start pumping air, and the motor burns up.

Unfortunately, while fountain pumps are interchangeable, the structure that creates bi-directional flow in organizations is not. Each organization and it's members are unique. They vary in size, makeup and purpose. What is life-giving water to some is vinegar to others. (Take artists for example....ask one to do a spreadsheet and it will feel like a chore. Whereas for an accountant it is pure heaven. But, ask an accountant to create a sculpture and...well you can complete the analogy.)

I'm curious if when organizations start showing signs of a lack of balance in flow if people notice. And if they notice, do they know what to do? (I'm not sure I do.) After all, you can tweak meeting times, frequency, program and methods...but none of that ever really seems to work. (And varying opinions on the subject can be deadly.)

I wonder if like fountain pumps, sometimes there is simply blockage. Maybe the internal gears need to occasionally be cleaned, so that bidirectional flow can happen again.


Mary Burleson said...

Great post and so true. A few years ago I came across an article and used it for a retreat talk. The theme was about relationships and asked, are you a giver or a taker? The good answer is we should be both in our relationships. If we're imbalanced on either side, we'll probably self-destruct over time. Your comments about organizations reminded me of that talk I gave years ago. I learned so much from it. Thanks for sharing. I love reading your thoughts and comments. Mary B.

Cathy Hutchison said...

Ahhh Mary! How fun that you posted on my blog. I enjoy your thoughts too!

Happy said...

ah - vintage bi-directional microphones... :) i have this sudden crazy urge to sing "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B...." :)

i'm curious (having read the following two posts first) what your thoughts are in terms of the church as an organization in relation to this. I was instantly struck by the question of how/if this applied when I read what you'd written about how "organizations that take from us tend to drain us, [but] organizations the give something in return.... are the ones that we continue to pour into."

there's a train of thought that would argue that the church isn't about us, that those of us in it should be pouring into her, into others, with no thought to ourselves at all. there's another train of thought that would argue that we are all wired to a particular calling and should be serving within the gift mix that serves that calling; and when we don't, it drains us - so it *is* about us, to a degree.

so is there a happy medium? can we pour out into the church *from* our gift mixes? i think we *should* be able to - but what about when what should be... well... isn't?

just the small questions that plague me at 12:30am.... :)

Cathy Hutchison said...


(note that the Andrews Sisters are now playing the soundrack in my head now too as I write this).

It seems to me that every natural model God created is about giving and receiving. (As Mary pointed out above.) We breathe in. We breathe out. Plants take in CO2. They give off oxygen. We eat. We fertilize.

In church, there is a "just giving" model because of the great gift of Christ. But in praxis, I watch people who live that completely burn out. Then feel bad because they burn out, so they give more. Then their life sucks and they wind up on anti-depressants. (Wish I was kidding.)

I wonder if churches--being human organizations with this goal of giving--don't miss the receiving part. How many pastors do you know who only give? It makes them isolated. They aren't in a place to receive from people because to an extent they have to be guarded. Perfect. There is no margin for them to be truly and deeply vulnerable. To need to receive.

It occurs to me that Jesus received from the Father and gave back to the Father. (Of course we rarely look at it like that. We look at it in terms of Him giving to us.)

If we had that model in churches, then we wouldn't be driven by other humans expectations of us. If humans expect and we give, then humans need to give back. (Not in a tit for tat sort of way, but in a breathing in breathing out sort of way so there is balance.)

If we are giving and receiving from God, then the model looks different. And I think our churches would be far less busy. There would be a lot more Mary (which isn't terribly stressful) and a lot less Martha.

But as it is, churches are more like human organizations than we want to admit with all the problems and challenges therein. BUT, they are human organizations with the extraordinarily worthy goal of worshipping God and sharing love to people. And I believe there is grace in that.

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