Organization as Family?

By Wm. Paul Young

Belonging to a common family in which we are seen, known, and loved allows us to recraft systems and organizations without expecting lifeless systems to be what they cannot.

Every human is wired for relationship and there is no global expression that is more pervasive and relevant than “family”. While many of us have not experienced family as we long for, it is for family we still long. A place to be seen, to be known, to belong, to be


Institutional systems of every sort, economic, business, military, political, and religious, for example, all work toward and promote the values of “family,” often in overt standards, mission statements and marketing but even more powerfully in the creation of their ethos and internal messaging. The company, nation, team, church, gang, underworld organization, online gaming community, 12-step gathering can become the “brotherhood” or “sisterhood,” and as “family” we identify as members of a community which becomes essential to our sense of worth, value, security, and being.

What is a metaphor? It is a word or phrase applied to something, like an action or object, that doesn’t correspond or is not literally applicable. A simile uses the single word “like” to make an attribution, for example, “Our company is like a family.” A metaphor is much more potent. “Our company IS a family.” A simile lives in the world of behavior, describing the activity or performance by comparison with something else, but a metaphor is about the “nature” of something, that which is true inherently.

I have a number of friends who are in the military, not a few of them in Special F

orces. These individuals develop intense bonds through shared trauma and purpose, often the deepest sense of belonging and being seen they have ever experienced. When they refer to each other as a brother (regardless of gender), you know they mean it in the deep places of their souls. They will literally die for each other. Even if those outside the “brotherhood” are expendable, those within it are not. Often when the “band” breaks up, the member experiences profound loss and dis-orientation, un-moored from that which gave them a place to stand, be seen and belong. They thought they were a family and often will hold onto that belonging regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

I would like to propose that our references to “family” are not to a metaphor but to a simile, and that all of these “belongings”—the church, the team, the nation, etc.—are all similes. Each has attributes that make it “like” family in one way or another. May I go so far as to suggest that even the nuclear family, traditionally defined as mother, father, and children, is itself still a whisper that there is something deeper, wider, higher, more honest, authentic and meaningful than anything we experience as a member of any organization or community, a reality to which all such similes refer. Even our immediate family is still like a family, this transcendent assumption that there is and should be a place where I am fully embraced, included, known, seen and loved.

What is that? It is the relationship of and within Trinity. Trinity is the definition

of family, as it is the true meaning of belonging, of creating, of authenticity, light, love and wonder. Three Persons in face-to-face, other-centered, self-giving adoration and enjoyment. All similes are temporary, but the truth and reality behind them is eternal. The “brotherhood” will disband, or will fail you or you it. The religious organization will disappoint. Your “family” of friends will find someone else who fits better. You will find out that what you thought was love turned out to be betrayal. Your company hired someone more skilled than you. Your parents may not have known how to love well, and you were hurt. Those who should have been safest, failed. Those who could have truly known you, didn’t. Yet even in the midst of our relational losses, we still yearn and long for, family.

When Paul the Apostle stands up on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, and announces, “You are each and all children of God,” he is reaching past all simile and into the eternal heart of reality, into our origination and inclusion in “family,” from which each family on th

is earth derives its identity. You are a child of God. You already and have always belonged. Trinity is your family of origin, an identity you may deny, but cannot expunge. This is a love that you will never be able to separate yourself from, except in the embrace of delusion and lie.

Why does this matter, especially to organizational and systemic enterprise? Organizations and institutions exist because human beings created them, human beings bringing to bear all of their inherent longings and desires. If they haven’t found family, then they will build one. Where do the values of clarity, empathy, authenticity and vulnerability originate? In the deep places of the human soul, in the eternal, crafted in the image and likeness of Trinity. As human consciousness rises, is it any wonder that these relational values are emerging, being embraced and promoted?

Institutional systems have no life inherently. They “exist” only because human beings empower them. It is true that they seem to “take on a life of their own” but again, that is a dependent sense of life, an extension from the human beings who create and sustain them. If you remove human life from within a system or structure, it has no life whatsoever.

Is it wrong to build a sense of family within the systems and organizations of which we are part? Not at all, as long as we understand that the system itself cannot love, and family is built on love; other-centered and self-giving. You may think you love y

our job, but your job does not love you. People love, institutions cannot. An organization is a thing, nothing alive. It cannot by its own nature give what it does not and cannot have. If we expect a system to act toward us as family truly would, we will live in a constant state of disappointment and frustration.

One simple application of the distinction between true family and a system: a family always moves at the speed of the slowest, while an institution moves at the speed of the vision, or mission, or leadership. In any family that has health, when a child is born or adopted into its embrace who has a disability or an emotional impediment, that family will slow down and adapt to the weakest member. Love responds to loss, surrounding it in order to bring healing and presence. In an organization, the weakest are hidden away, at best, but more often simply discarded. If you are not someone who can serve the mission, you are not valuable. If you are a drain on resources, you will be “let go.”

Yes, there are people who don’t fit, who truly are a drain on resources and impediments to the mission of the organization, but how do we love the least of these

inside our organizations? If our frame of reference and sense of family is much deeper and broader than the limitations and walls of our institution, then we will always respond first with love because we belong to the same family of humanity, each and all children of God. Our response will not be systemic but one that is kind and loving; relational. You may not be a good fit for this organization, so let us explore and find out where functionally you would be a better match. Who are you? What matters to you? Do you need more education? How can we as members of the same family, help bring clarity to your life about direction and purpose? How can we help you?

What if we build our organization and community “like” family because we assume we belong to a common family in which we are already seen, known, and loved? Perhaps we can then re-craft our systems to express better the reality of family, while not placing expectations on lifeless entities to be what they cannot.

Wm. Paul Young, author of The Shack, Cross Roads, Eve, and Lies We Believe About God, was born a Canadian and raised among a stone-age tribe by missionary parents in New Guinea (West Papua). He suffered great loss as a child and young adult, and now enjoys the “wastefulness of grace” with his growing family in the Pacific Northwest.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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