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Bobby Moore Consultancy

Participative Leadership in a Participative World


Facilitating the emerging future of Religious Life

I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended.  Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.  It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble. (Vaclav Havel, Philadelphia speech, July 4th 1994)

Changing times: A changing paradigm for Religious Life

A paradigm is a framework within which everything is connected and collectively makes sense.  There once was an overarching, taken-for-granted paradigm of social and faith experience within which Religious Life held rich communal and individual meaning, members felt connected to each other and aligned to a collective higher purpose.  That paradigm has ruptured and the residue is often felt in fragmented, sometimes tormented community experiences, dislocation from a creative sense of mission and what some have described as rampant individualism.  Unfortunately, just as in other social contexts a new paradigm will not come of its own accord yet nor can it be forced.  However, leaders in religious life can facilitate an appropriate, enabling environment within which new patterns of relationship can flourish.  A crucial component of this unfolding is the capacity for empathic listening and generative conversations that bring about unimagined possibilities.  This new framework is consistent with worldwide change as we move to a more participative world:

 The emergent worldview has been described as systemic, holistic, relational, feminine, experiential, but its defining characteristic is that it is participatory: our world does not consist of separate things but of relationships which we co-author. (Reason and Bradbury, 2001, 6)

Participatory Religious Life

In my work with Religious communities over the past fifteen years I have witnessed a great deal of what Havel refers to as the ‘something else’ that is ‘painfully being born’.  Courageous responses are being made to the urgent needs of our times such as the enormity of the cruelty entailed in the trafficking of humans beings, the devastating impact of HIV/Aids and the colossal challenge of impending ecological disaster.  I have witnessed these responses ‘rising from the rubble’ at individual, local community, Provincial and General Congregational levels.  Particularly inspiring are those instances of cross-Congregational co-operation that create an enhanced capacity to address the sheer magnitude of need.  It is sometimes argued that the relevance of the charisms of Religious Congregations might be decreasing as the State takes over responsibility for delivering the services so painfully lacking at the time of founding inspiration.  Clearly this is not so.  The needs may have changed but the depth of deprivation, isolation and sense of alienation is if anything greater in the world of our days.

With almost fifty percent of the population of Europe living in single person households there is clear evidence of social fragmentation and the spiritual impoverishment that goes with it.  Lack of significant connection with others awakens a deeper hunger for meaning.  In responding creatively to these unfolding realities Religious communities are however hampered by the impact on themselves of the very changes they seek to mitigate.

As I move among Congregations today I witness the painful impact of local community disintegration and spiritual impairment.  The sinews that once held communities together have frayed.  Foundationally, Congregations were gathered through the trumpet call of their own specific charism, embodied in the community life that supported their apostolate in education, health care, preaching etc.  Few Congregations, if any, now find the majority of their members still engaged in that original apostolate.  Indeed some find that no members continue to engage in the activity that flowed from the founders’ embodiment of the charism for their time.

Apostolic Congregations, who have for so long intimately connected their identity with their activity, are presented with an increasingly complex dilemma.  Wide-ranging change in mission and ministry evokes far-reaching challenges for both individual and communal sense of identity. The discomfort is exacerbated as age profiles tilt towards the higher end with fewer members actively engaged in apostolate.  Among those apostolically active ministries can come to be characterised more by individual inspiration than corporate identification of need. Where previously a Congregational commitment would have meant that if a Religious was changed or fell ill then the Congregation would provide cover or a replacement.  Nowadays it can happen that Congregational leaders remain unaware of the details of a particular Religious’ ministry let alone have any on-going commitment to it.  Departure of the Religious, for whatever reason, has massive implications for those collaborating in the project.

Many religious live at the fringes of community and Province life whether in community or alone.  Increasing numbers chose to live alone for a variety of reasons often struggling to find mechanisms for relating to other members or actively resisting connection.

An underlying tension emerging in these uncertain times often shows itself in a tug-of-war between those who hark back to the old ways for certainty and those who seek to embrace the uncertain future.  It can be difficult, and seemingly impossible at times, to find mechanisms for creative conversations around these crucial concerns.  Yet it is not inevitable that they should separate and divide since often they are but different aspects of the same quest for integrity.  Unfortunately, in my experience of listening to Religious today, few are finding the happiness and contentment promised in the gospel for those who leave everything and follow.

We have witnessed a profound paradigm shift in human consciousness that reverberates throughout Religious Life raising challenging yet exciting possibilities for Leadership.  A paradigm might be thought of as a commonly held, consistent and coherent set of principles that provide a framework for living, exploring and conversing.  The emerging paradigm of our time has been described as a participatory worldview within which we co-create meaning.  Leadership in a participatory world is one of providing opportunities for growth to take place, for insights to emerge and for individuals and groups to accept their own responsibility and power.  Leadership functions best as a contract between a group and a leadership team where as far as possible all participants are aware of the personal and collective aspirations.

The history of Religious Life is replete with cycles of development and decline.  However, recent years have arguably been the most turbulent with the morale of religious taking a profound hammering.  The major challenge for Congregational leaders today is to provide environments for reflection that facilitate the emergence of new realities consistent with the underlying values and charism that gave birth to the Congregation in the first place.  This will require an enhanced capacity for generative conversations and profound listening to the invitation of the spirit of God, each other and the times in which we live.

   Copyright 2009 Bobby Moore Consultancy  All Rights Reserved.