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from the editor

I’m not sure there’s a better way to begin the new year than with the following from Justin Irving. For this month’s feature, Irving talks about flourishing, individually and collectively, in an adaptation from his new book, Healthy Leadership for Thriving Organizations. And he reminds us where that begins. It’s where we spend our time, not just our time alone or our time with family or the time we spend with our church. “We live a majority of our lives in the context of families, churches, schools, workplaces, and communities. Human flourishing is not an isolated pursuit,” he writes. When the organizations we’re a part of, like these, thrive — there’s opportunity for human flourishing for everyone involved. Not just temporally, but ultimately. In short, we need each other. And we need thriving organizations too. — Sarah Haywood, managing editor 

Although it might be easy to consider human flourishing primarily through an individualistic lens, people made in the image of the triune God are naturally wired for community and relationship. Amy Sherman writes that “true biblical flourishing involves the good of others as well as our own good. Flourishing is meant to be a shared experience. We are blessed to be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).

Christian Smith argues that, while persons are not dependent on the social for their ontological personal being, “all persons are radically dependent upon the social for their existential development and flourishing.” The implications of this are vital. While we do not depend on social or organizational contexts to make us any more human than we already are as people made in God’s image, people and the social contexts of organizations do hold potential for our development and flourishing as humans. Miroslav Volf affirms such logic, noting that “social arrangements can both help life go well for people and plunge them into misery.” Both experientially and developmentally, the presence and absence of social and organizational influences — or the positive and negative dimensions of these influences — may have a profound and shaping effect on our growth and development.

All of this points to the reality that we live a majority of our lives in the context of families, churches, schools, workplaces, and communities. Human flourishing is not an isolated pursuit. Human potential flourishes within immediate and broader social contexts — including the organizational context. Noting the importance of individuals making prudent commitments and choices that promote rather than compromise their own flourishing, Smith also highlights the dangers and benefits associated with the absence or presence of a variety of institutional influences. He writes, “In the absence of these kinds of material, relational and institutional contexts, persons will likely not flourish. In their presence, however, persons enjoy environments that nourish, though not guarantee, their flourishing.”

To Flourish, We Need Each Other

So organizations provide one of many social contexts within which human flourishing may occur. Part of this flourishing relates to our nature as those made in the image of a creative and working God. The creation mandate highlights the dignity of the work and stewardship responsibility given by God to humans. In this mandate, we are tasked with both procreativity and productivity. Addressing productivity, Tom Nelson asserts that “one of the primary ways we live into God’s creation design is by living a flourishing life of God-honoring productivity.” Organizations provide the context where many live out this call to productivity through service and work.

Art by Ryan Blomberg

Our work in organizations plays a basic role in promoting human flourishing. Volf notes, “We work in order to make a flourishing life possible.” Organizations provide a context where people are able to make a living, provide for themselves and their families, and develop resources that may be shared with their churches and given to other worthwhile causes. But the story of work in organizations is not valuable merely for its utilitarian purposes (what we get out of it). Organizations also provide a context for contribution that is valuable to others. Work itself has both utilitarian and intrinsic value.

Arguing for the importance of institutions and productive contribution, Gordon Smith writes, “Institutions give us an opportunity and a mechanism, a means, to invest in something much larger than ourselves and to make a contribution that we would never be able to make individually and on our own.” This logic can run contrary to our cultural value of individual autonomy, but it is an important reminder that our vocations or callings most often find a place within broader organizational contexts.

Although productive contribution to the lives of others can take many forms (paid or unpaid) and can take place in many contexts (inside or outside organizations), organizations and institutions often are part of the story of human flourishing — providing space, and a place, for us to lean into the God-honoring productivity to which we are called as divine image bearers.

To Flourish, We Need Healthy and Thriving Organizations

Organizations — both healthy and unhealthy, effective and ineffective — can and do play a part in the story of human flourishing as work is carried out in the midst of “thorns and thistles.” However, I would argue that the nature and health of organizations significantly affect the flourishing of those working within them. Said another way, while human flourishing can take place in various organizations, not all organizations promote human flourishing in an equally helpful or meaningful manner.

Richard Stearns puts it this way: “Organizational cultures can be brutal, or they can be life-giving. Good and godly leadership contributes to human flourishing when it creates cultures and environments that are fair, just, and caring.” The nature of the organizational culture —  brutal or life-giving — will have a major effect on the people working and serving within the organization. In addition to environments that are fair, just, and caring, the nature of the organization as a productive context for work also matters. If it is a business, is the business not only fair, just, and caring, but also productive and profitable in order to facilitate stable employment for its employees? If it is a nonprofit, is the organization being both faithful to its mission and operating from a place of financial stability and equilibrium?

While we have been speaking at length about human flourishing, it may not be entirely helpful to think of organizations as flourishing. Perhaps a better term is “thriving.” Thriving organizations contribute to flourishing humans. This is true for leaders, for organizational members, and for the various constituents served by a thriving organization. Whether an organization thrives is not irrelevant to human flourishing. When people relate to one another within or between organizations, the extent to which these organizations are thriving has a profound impact on the overall flourishing of the people connected to them.

“We work in order to make flourishing life possible, but things are at their best when we also flourish as we work, when working doesn’t undermine flourishing but enacts it,” Volf says. This comment raises vital questions for those thinking about the nature of the organizations of which they are a part. Are we creating and sustaining organizations that are fit for human beings? Are we creating and sustaining organizations that help to enact human flourishing rather than undermine it? Are we creating and sustaining organizations that become part of God’s kingdom work of promoting human flourishing throughout redemptive history, or are we focused on building our own kingdoms in a manner that disregards the flourishing of others?

Here it might be helpful to draw a distinction between ultimate human flourishing and temporal human flourishing. While ultimate human flourishing is found in God himself, there is a story of temporal or subordinate human flourishing to which thriving organizations may contribute. The point is not to make organizational thriving a primary or ultimate aim, but rather to recognize that, by grace, God uses people, along with churches and organizations, to bring about great good in the lives of others. Thriving organizations tend to be used by God to bring about important aspects of human flourishing, and for this I am very grateful.

If human flourishing matters as a theme woven throughout redemptive history and if organizations are an important context within which human flourishing may be enacted — helping people to develop, grow, and thrive — then the manner in which these organizations are led becomes a weighty and significant consideration for organizational leaders. Stewards entrusted with the responsibility of leading organizations have a unique responsibility — I would even argue that this is a moral responsibility — to lead these organizations well. Thriving organizations often translate into thriving and flourishing people.

Human flourishing is meant to be a shared experience: We are blessed to be a blessing (Gen 12:2). Human flourishing is present in an organization when leaders and followers alike are part of a network that not only allows them to make a living but also helps them draw out the potential for flourishing in others.


Content adapted from Healthy Leadership for Thriving Organizations by Justin A. Irving, ©2023. Used by permission of Baker Academic.