Aging Institutes - Issues and Options


Consider the following scenarios:

Case One - Twenty five remaining members of the Angela Community are all over 80, they are unsure of where to turn for leadership.

Case Two - The Brendan Community is a diocesan institute with thirteen members. All are aging and they are no longer able to supply leadership. The Community has two ministries that it continues to sponsor, and in which some of the members continue to work part-time.

Case Three - The Deborah Community, a diocesan right institute, served in the diocese for nearly 100 years. There are now 33 members of the community remaining, however, many are elderly and the sisters did not feel able to select leadership.

These three cases are typical of many scenarios that are arising in smaller aging institutes of religious men and women. As they age, they are faced with the challenges of providing for the ongoing needs of the community and also with providing for the eventual end of the life of the institute. As an added difficulty, these challenges come at a time when energies and resources are waning.

Each situation is colored by the history of the institute, its relationship to other institutes of similar charism, its relationship to the local church, the current resources of the community, its internal energy and leadership, trusted individuals who are able to provide support, etc.


Communities facing this reality have several options open to them regarding the civil and/or canonical structure or relationships which are best suited to enable the last generation of members to complete the life-journey of their institute.

A community might choose to remain as it is, and hope that the community can meet the needs of the members on an ongoing basis. This is often not realistic, and the burden of this choice may fall on a few members still able to care for the group.

On the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, a community may seek to canonically merge with a larger more stable community. This option too has its difficulties since it would require the aging members to give up their identity and charism and take on that of the larger group. In addition, most larger communities are also aging, and it may be difficult to identify a potential partner.

There are intermediate options, which might be more attractive to an institute. One of these would be seeking outside leadership. This may be sought from among religious with whom the community already has a relationship. The arrangements that have been made for outside leadership vary, as does the experience of communities that have used this option. However, it may provide a viable option for some communities. It is important to consider the option carefully, along with its attendant consequences. It is also important to clarify for the community and for the outside leader, the expectations of each. It is possible however, that this outside leader may not be able to continue this service, leaving the community with the prospect of finding a replacement.

Another intermediate option is seeking to affiliate with another religious community, while not merging canonically. In this scenario, a smaller community would enter into an agreement with a larger, more stable institute to help with leadership and administration as the institute diminishes. An agreement can work out the general lines of the relationship, leaving details to be determined as time goes on. As needs arise, the smaller community can approach the larger for the needed assistance. This allows the aging members to retain their identity and some degree of autonomy, while still obtaining the needed help. This arrangement could provide for a succession of leadership, so long as the larger community is able to provide it.

Many of the smaller aging communities are diocesan communities that have generously served in a particular diocese for 100 years or more. In this case, the community might turn to the diocese for assistance as it gets smaller and finds itself in need. After having received so many years of service, it is hoped that the diocese would take responsibility for the community in its moment of want. Although the diocese may be able to provide some help, it is important that the integrity of the religious life of the community be respected and preserved to the extent possible.


There are several important issues which will require attention in any attempt develop a plan for a smaller aging community, these include the timing of the plan, the time and energy needed to discern and implement a plan, realism, financial matters, and careful attention to civil and canonical issues.

Timing is crucial – ongoing planning is certainly an important part of the life of any organization. For a small aging institute, it is critical to begin any plan for the end of its life-journey early enough that it still has resources needed to develop and implement a plan.

Time and energy will be required in this planning process. It will often be necessary to gather as many members who are still able to participate, scheduling a process in keeping with the availability of members and with the level of energy they are able to bring to the process. Often this will also require time to allow those in the process to deal with the emotional and spiritual challenges of planning the last stages of their institute's life-journey. Individuals as well as the group will likely experience various degrees of anger, grieving and sense of loss. It is important that the group have the resources to process this, as they move through planning.

Realism is crucial in the planning process. Often a small aging institute that has difficulty finding enough members for leadership is still unwilling or unable to face its own end-of-life. It will take time, but the group must be encouraged to face its situation realistically.

Financial matters often enter into the planning. An institute that is financially stable will have more possibilities and more options in moving through this process. If they are seeking outside leadership, or some level of affiliation with another institute, financial stability will make this much more feasible. The National Religious Retirement Office may be able to assist communities in assessing and improving their financial stability. It must be noted that there are unsavory individuals who appear to offer assistance, but who can defraud or seriously negatively impact the security of the institute.

Law: Finally, each of the options raises important civil and canonical issues that must be considered and addressed as the options are assessed. In addition, each option will require careful planning to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure that the institute complies with all its legal obligations in the final stages of its life-journey. Individuals do estate planning to ensure that costly unforeseen problems do not undermine their security or that of their legacy. In the same way, religious institutes are well advised to ensure that their legacy of service, spirit and ministry are secured for their members and for the future.

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Covenant Project - This is a project in three phases designed to assist institutes who are not planning merger or reconfiguration, but seek to enter into one or more covenants. Read more....

The recording of the webcast on Small and Aging institutes and other past programs are available here. Register to view earlier webcasts on Civil Structures of Religious Institutes, Record Retention, Establishing and Running Nonprofit Organizations, Taxation for Religious, Legal Issues for New Members, Member Legal Documents and Resolving Disputes with the IRS.

If I can be of any assistance to your organization, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Amy Hereford

*A webcast is a seminar delivered over the internet.

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