Collaborative Governance in Religious Institutes

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade.

Religious institutes are placed under the governance of religious leadership. This governance is either elected by the sisters or brothers they serve, or it is appointed by a higher level of elected leadership, after consultation with the sisters or brothers. This tradition of selecting leadership through discernment and election goes right back to apostolic times. In the early Christian experience, some bishops were also chosen by the will of the people they would serve. While the selection of bishops has become more centralized, the selection of religious leadership is often done by election. The community comes together in prayer and discernment and calls forth from their midst some of their own sisters or brothers to serve in leadership for a limited period of time. Some language for leadership reflects this, as leadership may be referred to as servant-leaders, or in the Franciscan tradition: community ministers.

There are two elements of governance in religious institutes- the first and highest is collective governance, exercised in chapters and in councils. The other element is individual leadership, exercised by 'supreme moderators', superiors general, congregational presidents or provincial leaders. Even the individuals do not serve alone, as they are to be assisted by councils. Individual and collective governance should be in balance and complement each other, though the way they are balanced may vary from one institute or society to another, and may shift over time within the same institute. Often personal problems are better dealt with personally with an individual leader. When a broader base of wisdom and insight is needed, collective leadership comes to the fore. Administration of spiritual and temporal goods is best confided to more than one person. The chapter sets out the general directions for the congregation, or unit, and the leadership implements those guiding principles in the life of the community.

Some Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life (collectively “institutes”) in the U.S. and around the world are facing critical points in their life-cycle. Given the current demographics, it is likely that many communities are coming to the completion of their historical life-cycle and will be unable to provide canonical leadership for themselves in the coming years and decades. It may become necessary to seek assistance for governance from outside the community. This is a new and changing field, however we are beginning to see some models emerge and gather some wisdom and insight into this. 

In the past decades, merger has been one way to address the needs of declining institutes. However, most agree that the time for this restructuring is past, due to its demand on resources and energies of institutes. Instead, smaller institutes opt to collaborate in the areas of eldercare and administration. As these collaborations unfold, smaller institutes may find themselves also needing assistance for canonical governance. Since this is a newly evolving area, it takes time for an institute, its leadership and its membership, to understand their options, clarify their expectations and their call, and discern a way forward.

An institute may seek to align itself with a larger, more stable institute, without canonically merging. There are several models for doing this:

One on one covenant – a smaller community seeks the assistance of a larger more stable community in administration and/or eldercare but without any canonical merger.

Commissary – a smaller community seeks the assistance of a larger more stable community in administration and/or eldercare, AND in canonical leadership but without any canonical merger. This is sometimes referred to as a Canonical Trustee.

Completion – a smaller community recognizes that it is in its final decades and it begins planning for its final decades.

Refounding / Transformation – often, even as a community reaches its final years, it has pockets of energy for re-foundation or transformation of elements of community or mission. This may occur even as the community as a whole reaches completion.

Collaborative Governance – several communities collaborate to identify needs for administration, eldercare and canonical leadership. They establish networks to assist with community needs, and may assist in providing canonical governance as needed.

Each of these models has its challenges and benefits. Sometimes several are blended in the response of a particular community. While we can identify models, each community will have to flesh out the model to fit the particular situation in which they find themselves.

For more information on this topic, consider registering for November's webcast exploring these issues in further detail. Register here.

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