In response to aging, diminishment, shrinking pools of leadership and financial stress, many communities are choosing to reconfigure. Reconfiguration joins two or more congregations, typically of a similar charism or founder, in a more comprehensive manner (i.e., forming a new structure). According to Dr. Dunn’s survey recently published, Discerning choices for new life: A survey of options, the following results were obtained, whether considering reconfiguration, refounding or restructuring.
The most important benefits clustered around the following seven areas:
Hope for the future: The promise of new life was claimed with a “new spirit, energy and hope for the future.” There was a renewed appreciation of the abundant blessings of life and determination to go forward.
New perspectives: There was recognition of new horizons and broader perspectives on mission. “It broadened our thinking, gave us a new understandings and a more global vision.” “We now have seeds of new life for a new vision.” “It made us re-think the reason we entered religious life.”
New sense of home: Communities have found new “friends” and claimed a new sense of “home.” They have deepened their appreciation, respect, trust and understanding of one another. There is a greater degree of closeness, inclusiveness and belonging. “We are rediscovering and growing to care for one another again.”
Stronger partnership: Members have gained a sense of “being-in it-together.” There is greater interdependence, partnership and a growing sense of solidarity and unity amidst diversity. There is a greater sense of shared mission (“I am an integral part of the whole”) and stronger common heart. “Those who were on the fringe are now more engaged and volunteer for committees and leadership.”
Greater ownership: “This is now our community.” There is more ownership because of more voices and participation in the process. As result, there is more passion, energy and pride.
Stronger identity: There is a clearer sense of “identity and who we are as a community.” In addition, there is a clearer sense of charism and mission.
Deepening faith: “We have been faithful to the journey and become more spiritually acquainted.” “We can truly say we lived the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising and this has made us strong in facing the continued transition of religious life. God is leading us to new life.”
What did it cost communities for the benefits they received? By far the most common tangible cost was time, money and energy, especially for travel and meetings. Added to these costs, however, were the costs of accountants, lawyers, facilitators and consultants of all kinds. And many struggled with this cost because these “resources could have been spent on mission.”
The less tangible costs, however, proved just as burdensome. There was the emotional toll of generalized fear and anxiety because of “not knowing where all this is leading us” and “risking with no guarantees.” There was the pain of divisions, conflict and disengagement by “those who wanted to take different directions.” For some there was a strong fear of “splitting” and “camps” were formed between “us” and “them.” There was pain in “facing the reality of who we are and our own limitations.”
For most there was grieving of one kind of another. There was letting go of the “way things have always been” and the “way we’ve always done things.” For nearly all there was some kind of death and dying. As one conveyed it, “Our grieving is about facing the reality of who we are and that change is essential if the community is to live on.” For those reconfiguring there was a loss of intimacy that had came with their “smallness.”
Another cost often mentioned was the unearthing of old wounds and the struggle toward reconciliation. For example, “Anyone who has emotional baggage from the past did not handle the process well, especially those who had questions about religious vocation. It seemed to bring up all their personal insecurities.”
Myths and misunderstandings
Respondents were asked to identify the most important myths or misunderstandings about the options, processes and outcomes? Myths common to all three options were that these would somehow “solve” the very problems that brought them to explore new options in the first place. These problems were, in fact, not “solved:”
Aging and diminishment. “What I have learned is that it doesn’t solve the problem of an aging community. We are still dying, but we have a lot more energy and vitality in our last years.”
Shrinking pool of leadership. “In the new congregation, the pool of leadership, in terms of ‘ratio,’ was smaller than our small pool.”
Ministry options. “Members are not as willing as we imagined to move ministries across the provinces. It did not free up personnel to earn a salary in other ministries.”
By far the most common myth related to smaller communities engaged in reconfiguring was that it would result in their being “swallowed up,” losing their identity or culture. Many were afraid of losing their voice and personal freedoms (e.g., lifestyle, residence, ministry choices). Apparently, for the most part, these fears did not become a reality.
Another myth or misunderstanding was that there is a “definite endpoint” wherein efforts to pursue these options would come to completion. “The myth was that once the leadership took over, the merger took place. We are still merging and learning how to do this respectful of our goals, similarities and difference.” “The myth was that we could refound and it would all be over. And once we did that, then all our problem would be solved.” Regarding a restructuring effort, it was said, “We are still living into these changes.
It is essential to understand, however, that 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.”
For more information regarding reconfiguration and what communities are doing, go to Discerning choices for new life: A survey of options.