Covenants and Completion

Consider the following scenarios:

Case One - Sixty remaining members of a community are mostly over 80, they are unsure of where to turn for leadership in their upcoming chapter.

Case Two - A diocesan institute has thirty members. All are aging and they are no longer able to supply leadership. The institute has two ministries that it continues to sponsor, and in which some of the members continue to serve on the board and as volunteers.

Case Three - A community has served in a small rural diocese for nearly 100 years. There are now twelve members of the community remaining; 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 brothers and sisters, of selecting leadership, and of providing for completion 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 religious institutes of similar or different charism, its relationship to the local church, the current resources of the community, its internal energy and leadership, trusted friends of the community who are able to provide support, etc.

Increasingly, institutes and societies who find themselves in this situation are choosing to retain their identity, acknowledge the reality that their institute is in its final decades, and begin to make provision for this period. The sisters and brothers of these institutes see that merger is no longer an option, if indeed it ever was.

Communities that come to this place in their life-cycle face three primary challenges: few members who are able to serve in leadership, dwindling resources for ministry and care of members, and decreased energies to dedicate to the important decisions and changes that are facing the community.

Discerning the time of completion is one of the most challenging moments in the life of the community. It requires that the sisters and brothers tap into their own spirit of faith and trust, and into their common resources of charism. The individuals and the community must confront grief over the loss of members, ministries and the promise of a future for their institute. They must also face their fears about what is to come, about how to navigate the uncharted waters of completion of their community's life-cycle.

If they can summon the courage to set out on this journey, they have several options to consider, for the future of their institute:

They may be able to find a larger, more stable institute that is willing and able to assist the smaller institute in a covenant relationship. This term has come to signify the relationship in which one institute assists another in transitioning sponsorship, in caring for its members, especially the elderly, in administering the financial and legal affairs of the institute, and eventually of assisting in the canonical leadership of the institute.

It is increasingly clear that the number of communities needing services greatly exceeds the number of communities that are able to assist others. Communities seeking other solutions may look for several partners to assist in the various services needed. They may partner with one or more religious communities needing similar services or they may turn to individuals and services providers who can assist with other aspects of the life of the community. The canonical leadership will have to reside with an appropriate individual or group, when the community is no longer able to govern itself.

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 to 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 early enough that it still has resources needed to develop and implement a plan. This process usually spans several leadership terms.

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.

Legal Issues are also important since 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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For more information on this topic register for a 4-session online Covenant Project workshop that will examine the legal issues that face small and aging institutes and explore the options open to them. Click here to register. The workshop will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays in April, and sessions will be recorded for those who can't be present for the live-session.

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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