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Handwriting on the wall
A time for hard choices

By all accounts there are less than one-third the number of men and women in religious life than there were when at their peak in the late 1960’s. In your own community the trends are likely to be similar: Diminishing numbers, advancing age, few (if any) new vocations, increased tensions between the demands of maintenance and the call to mission, a shrinking pool of willing and able leaders, and actuarial tables that only project a continuation of these trends.

In the midst of aging and diminishment, some are biting the bullet and making the hard choices. Some communities are choosing to reconfigure, joining with other communities with a common charism. Some are restructuring their model of governance as well as reorganizing, downsizing and simplifying their efforts. And some are choosing refounding and other transformational efforts believing that only this, the most radical of all options, can transform their lives anew.

The road ahead is challenging and the statistics are daunting. If history repeats itself, only 15% of all communities will survive this period to see a new cycle. The question before you is this: Will your community be among the 85% that will become extinct or will you be among the most courageous and innovative communities risking it all to claim a future full of hope? (See Dunn, T. 2009. Refounding Religious Life: A choice for transformational change. Human Development. 30 (3), 5 – 13).

Journey of Transformation

No matter what primary pathway is taken in order to transform your community (i.e., RefoundingReconfiguration or Restructuring) what is becoming increasingly apparent is that these choices are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the “success in choosing any one of these options is dependent upon the work that is also done with the other two. For example, reconfiguring must also include restructuring as well as the deeper work of refounding; otherwise, the transformation needed to birth new life will not occur. All three, in other words, are interconnected and to focus upon one to the exclusion of the others would be a grave mistake” (see Dunn, T. 2011. Discerning choices for new life: A survey of options. Human Development, 32 (2), 16 – 26.).

Reasons for Failure: The Dirty Dozen

It is hard to hear that most communities will fail and only 10% will succeed thrive anew. Yet, the good news is that we know why communities will fail and we can do something about it. Here are six of the the "dirty dozen," the most common reasons communities and organizations fail to transform:

  1. Not enough urgency

  2. Less than an all out effort

  3. Choosing breadth over depth

  4. Limited commitment and ownership

  5. Working around resistance and conflict avoidance 

  6. Glorifying the past

Grace and Possibilities

James Conlon once said, “Grace happens when, in the midst of our search we discover that place of hope where our secret longings lie.” Communities must come to discover their secret longings. They must find a way to have intimate conversations about what really matters to them. They must “fall in love with the truth,” as Thomas Merton once said, and do the hard work of transforming their lives, including

  1. Transformation of Consciousness: Create a New Narrative

  2. Re-authenticating Your Soul: Your Inner Voice

  3. Reconciliation and Conversion: The Crucible

  4. Become a Learning Community: Experiment and Act Your Into a New Way of Being

  5. Transformative Visioning: Listen to Your Deepest Longings

If communities can embrace the essence of our creed, the paschal mystery, and engage in these kinds efforts, then a grace can work through the soul of a community and the possibilities will be endless!