Ever since reading Joshua Rothman’s piece on “the meaning of culture,” I’ve been paying special consideration to the way we use that word, especially in the way we use it in the corporate sense.

“Values” is a cousin to “culture” and sometimes they’re used synonymously. Tim Cook recently described Apple post-Steve Jobs in this way: “Everything can change except values.”

A recent newsletter from the National Catholic Community Foundation speaks to the necessary intersection between mission and culture/values. I think it’s especially relevant as Christians celebrate Easter:

…I read a translation of Pope Francis’s (then Cardinal Bergoglio) address in 1999 to an association of businessmen in Buenos Aires… [Bergoglio says:] “This (profane messianism’) appears in various forms of social and political undertakings. Sometimes it shifts the ethos of personal actions to structures, with the result that ethos doesn’t create structures but rather structures create ethos …”

Have you noticed how more and more procedures and policies control our lives? I see it in the large bank where I work which, of course, is part of an increasingly regulated industry. It is almost as though human judgment is discouraged if not prohibited. Where discernment was once respected as a virtue, it is today regarded as a vice. Limited to quantifiable realities, structures and systems control our activities and allow no room for the personal intuitions of faith (trust), hope and even charity.

Breaking down the super cumbersome “profane messianism” phrase: profane meaning not offensive but simply “secular” or “non-sacred” and “messianism” referring to a general faith in a savior.

So future Pope Francis is referring to the idea of an overriding and misplaced faith in structure, process, organization, or bureaucracy as the inherent means of fulfilling an organizational or life mission. Of mistaking a great process for a great purpose.

In a Christian institution, the first principle of any endeavor has to be service to God. Any structure, process, bureaucracy, etc. in a Christian institution that’s not rooted in that first principle isn’t sustainable and likely doesn’t create the room for a humane approach to organizational culture.

And in the secular sense, you see the same idea rooting Apple: its foundational values (e.g., creating the best possible products at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology) are absolute, even as product specifics and “everything else” can change.

I’m trying to bring together a lot here, and probably not successfully. At minimum this is an insight into how I’m trying to approach nonprofit and Catholic institutions that contribute meaningfully to civil society.