Praying for the healing of institutions: What does Michael mean by that?

I welcome your dialogue about this! Email me at

A story

Twelve years ago, I went into a prison for the first time. Halfway through the weekend alternatives to violence workshop that I was co-facilitating, I noticed that one of the inmates kept staring at me and looking ang ry. When I got up my courage to ask him what he was thinking, he told me that he was indeed angry. He was angry because no one had come to visit him in the past 10 years. The only outlet he had for expressing himself was a notebook he kept in his pocket, where he wrote ideas about what would help him re-connect to himself and society. He was angry that day because the workshop we were doing used so many ideas that he had written in his notebook. With encouragement, this man went on to be a trainer in this program, and he later started a halfway house for others coming out of prison. He struggled throughout the process, because he was giving up old habits that were no longer useful to him. He was slowly living into a purpose of serving others, and he was building a community to support this new behavior. In recent years, I've been drawn to learn about how whole organizations, such as prisons, can go through a similar process of transformation and healing that this man did—letting go of old habits that aren't useful, living into a collective purpose, and building a trusting community to support that purpose.

Since that first day I went to prison, I've developed and managed several programs that support the individual transformation of people impacted by crime—offenders, victims, and family members of offenders or victims. Now I want to learn how large organizations and systems can have fundamental changes of heart and spirit to become healthier and more effective at achieving their purposes. For example, how do prisons develop an atmosphere that encourages accountability and healing among the people within its walls, both inmates and employees? How can the criminal justice system, as a whole, let go of habitual interventions that consistently fail to decrease crime, and free up their resources to try more evidence-based approaches?

In the next years, I want to learn how to see and engage the organizational personalities of criminal justice organizations, so they can be more effective at creating a Minnesota that is more safe and just. Changes needed in institutions to address these questions can be approached from the perspective of management, policies, and organizational culture. I want to learn more about each of these approaches. At the same time, I also want to learn how to intentional engage the spiritual level of institutional change. I want to learn about how prayer, ritual, and spiritual discernment can influence these changes.

The quotes in the column to the right express some of what I feel pulled to learn about.



I have found the writings of Walter Wink to be very helpful in articulating what I am seeking to learn about, in terms of engaging the spirits of instituations. Here are some quotes from him that express some of what I'm most interested in:

What is the spirituality of instiutions?

"My thesis is that what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called 'Principalities and Powers' was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a 'personification' of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such. Institutions have an actual spiritual ethos, and we neglect this aspect of institutional life to our peril."

"Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed."

What does it mean to pray for instituions?

"The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitalbe."

"No doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed. No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer.  But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously, intercession is more than that. It changes the world and it changes what is possible to God. It creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by unholy necessity. A new force field appears that hitherto was only potential. The entire configuration changes as the result of the change of a single part. A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world."

"Is my understanding of prayer similar to the "spiritual warfare" practiced by some evangelicals and charismatics? Yes, to the extent that I agree that prayer should be imperative and aggressive. ... I see the demonic as arising within the institution itself, as it abandons its divine vocation for a selfish, lesser goal. Therefore I would not attempt to case out the spirit of a city, for example, but rather, to call on God to transform it, to recall it to its divine vocation. My spiritual conversation is with God, not the demonic"

"It requires a deep spirituality centered in prayer that can liberate us from illusions spun over us by the Powers and that can free us to create a society more friendly to life."