“Charism Formation” vs. Empowerment Programs

by | Apr 26, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change | 1 comment

With all the focus on systemic change we tend to focus on changing civic systems. But what about systemic change within our Vincentian Family sponsored institutions? We often rely on more “charism formation” programs. Fr. Dennis Holtschneider maintains the answer is not informational charism programs but empowerment of the laity.

Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, CM, President of DePaul University, offers some thoughts on framing the question well and what is involved in the answer.

Framing the question well

The task in front of us is not merely to pass on the tradition to a new generation: a lay generation. The task is to hand over responsibility for the tradition to a new generation. We must replace a century-old process of cultural transmission at our universities (that is, priests, brothers and sisters teaching succeeding generations of lay collaborators) with a new process of cultural transmission (lay professionals teaching succeeding generations of lay professionals). If we fail to do so, much like those Catholic colleges that chose to become private non-sectarian institutions, our beloved Vincentian institutions run the risk of losing something that many have found quite precious indeed.

Advantages of Vincentian-sponsored institutions

Luckily, it seems to me, Vincentian institutions have an advantage as we approach this complex task. Unlike several other religious traditions associated with religious orders of priests, brothers and sisters, the Vincentian tradition was associated with lay people before it was associated with religious. In our present day, only a fraction of the two million persons who call themselves “Vincentians” are religious. Most Vincentians are members of lay movements and organizations dedicated to continuing Vincent’s mission to the poor. Lay people find the Vincentian tradition attractive and a source of meaning and purpose for their lives. There would be little hope that the tradition would continue after the disappearance of sisters, priests, and brothers if that were not so.

That advantage acknowledged, the project of handing over primary responsibility for the Vincentian mission and identity of an organization remains a complex one. If I may, allow me to sketch out what I believe is required if this transition is to be successful.

I am blessed with frequent opportunities to speak with sponsoring congregations, trustees, presidents and this new breed of administrator, “vice presidents for mission.” Working together, they have undertaken numerous initiatives to broaden corporate familiarity with the spirituality and/ or values of the founding congregations. They have rewritten their mission statements; developed impressive training sessions for new employees; designed and distributed terrific brochures on the founder and the institutional mission; organized “mission weeks;” seen to it that religious artwork is added to the campus in strategic places; and added speeches at student orientations, faculty convocations, and other university gatherings. It is wonderful work. Unfortunately, it is not enough.

How “corporate culture” can “ruin you for life”

To understand what is needed, the notion of “corporate culture” can be helpful. It is instantly obvious, for example, that the U.S. Army has a different culture from Ben and Jerry’s. And, those on the inside know that the U.S. Army has a different culture from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines. People who spend their lives within these various organizations often internalize particular corporate values and traditions into their very bones. Sometimes they are not even aware the extent to which they have done so until they transfer to another organization and realize that they “don’t fit.” The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for example, understands this when they advertise to prospective volunteers that a year of service will “ruin you for life.” The message is that once you have spent time in their organization, the values and ways of seeing the world that you will adopt will make it hard to live in a society that has very different values and ways of seeing the world.

How can Vincentian institutions sustain themselves as Vincentian?

I believe the question at the root of our conversation is one of organizational culture: How do we leverage a Vincentian corporate culture that sustains itself over time, if the Vincentian priests and brothers are not present? To that end, it helps to observe how organizational cultures work. Edgar Schein, the grandfather of organizational culture studies, noted after a lifetime of research that “midlife organizations” – those several generations away from the founders – require strong leadership “to manage change of some cultural elements while maintaining the core.” He observed that a failure of cultural leadership has dire consequences for such an organization. “If the attempt to manage the change fails, the organizations may go bankrupt – and start all over again, building a new culture with new management, or be acquired and find a new culture imposed on it.” In short, leadership matters enormously.

To influence a corporate culture, the power of leadership comes not from written words, or even spoken words. The power of leadership comes when a leader embodies the institution’s values. For some reason, marines become marines because they meet marines, come to respect them, and then desire to become them. They become marines because they meet marines. No one ever became a marine because of a training manual. Anyone can get into great shape physically, and learn technical and physical skills. To be a marine, means so much more. It is a culture. It is a set of values. It is an adopted history: one writes one’s life into the group’s history. There is an honor to it, a camaraderie to it, and a willingness to go to the grave for it. It is the classic difference between knowledge and commitment. One becomes a marine because one has met marines. Cultures are transmitted to succeeding generations by living, breathing embodiments of those cultures. There is no other way.

So too with Vincentian Leadership. If our institutions wish the Vincentian mission to continue, then any solution or program must focus on creating a culture whereby living, breathing embodiments of the mission meet new recruits, and thereby transmit the culture to a new generation. There is no other way for cultural transmission to successfully take place. Simple information, such as education sessions when new employees are hired, or pamphlets explaining the Vincentian tradition, is not enough. Such efforts provide information, but they do not create conviction. They are enough if you simply want people to know about the work that others will be doing in the organization, but they are ineffectual if you want to create a cadre of people who will take on the project themselves.

In our specific case, Vincentian leaders must love the poor. Vincentian leaders must speak and act in a way so that everyone knows they would give all their talent, skill, resources and time to remake the world so that poor people are valued and assisted. Vincentian leaders must know the names of actual poor people. It can not be a romantic ideal, but rather it must be real love. As the students say, it must “be real.” Students know. They immediately know integrity and they immediately know when they are being fed a line, when the bearer of the message does not live the message her or himself. Our colleagues know too.

The challenge, then, exists not in disseminating information about Vincent or the poor or the university’s heritage; though all this is important and useful. No, the challenge is to create the conditions whereby lay professionals feel empowered, encouraged, and rewarded to live, breathe and speak the culture; and thereby impress and encourage others to follow.

What is involved in the answer

So, what could that mean for a university? I offer eight quick reflections …

1. When it comes to creating corporate culture, many people throughout the organization (at all levels of the organization) can leaven its culture. At Niagara University, everyone on campus knew Rose Bonaro, her love of her God, and her love for those in need. Rose worked in the copy office and spoke to everyone who ever dropped off copy work. It will be critical for the university president, VP’s, and deans to live and breath the culture, to be walking embodiments of the culture, but the man or woman who vacuums the dormitory can also become the person who changes a student’s life. There is an opportunity for “Vincentian Leadership” that goes beyond the organization’s traditional leadership structure.

2. That said, senior leadership is critical. A few months ago, my research colleague interviewed a college president and asked about the college’s core values. He paused for a moment, got up, walked to the door and said, “Hold on, I think we had them framed and put on the wall of the outer office.” The president, VP’s, deans, department chairs, and others must know, but more importantly must embody the institution’s values. This is quite serious. If they are not walking embodiments of the mission, they should be replaced. Yes, it would also help if they spoke of the values and tradition from time to time, but words are far less important. I always liked Saint Francis’ suggestion to his friars: “Preach the Gospel, sometimes use words.”

3. Symbols are powerful things and there may not be a more important symbol than the lay person who is charged with tending to this corporate culture. Whether it is a director or co-director of mission, a mission committee member, a VP of some functional area or the CEO, some lay person must embody the culture, but also take responsibility for creating the conditions whereby others feel safe to do the same. To put a religious solely in charge of this project is to send a message that this is really the religious’ project. I mean no disrespect to those religious who currently lead these efforts; they do magnificent work. But lay people will notice an effective lay leader and begin to see themselves and measure themselves against the commitment of that individual in ways that they simply do not when a religious is leading the effort.

4. There will be no more effective way to form people to share Vincent’s convictions than simply introducing them to the poor. It has notably changed some faculty’s teaching at Niagara University, as they have become involved in trying to revitalize the city of Niagara Falls, a city with desperate poverty. The students receive an amazing education about the poor, because their faculty have come to know the poor. Bringing our colleagues in contact with the poor will do much of the work for us. Vincent did not teach his collaborators about the poor, he introduced them to the poor and then reflected with them on the experience.

5. Stories are fundamental to corporate cultures. At Ben and Jerry’s, every employee can tell you about the founding of the company. At Microsoft, the stories about Bill Gates and his early collaborators fuel the company’s ongoing quest for building the most widely useful and adopted technical products. At Nordstrom, stories about personal service abound, highlighting employees whomade personal deliveries to customers’ homes after work in order to assist a specific customer’s needs. A Vincentian Leader must have a knowledge and facility with the stories of Vincent’s life and the writings from Vincent’s pen that hold within them the heart of our culture. Telling those stories and repeating those maxims from Vincent’s writings will make all the difference. That said, organizations also need stories of heroes from within the organization. Our institutions tell stories all the time of famous “heroes and villains” who were priests and brothers and sisters, but if lay leadership is to take hold, it will be critical that stories of lay heroes from our institutions be identified, told, celebrated, honored, and put in artwork and on the names of our newest buildings. Lay leaders need lay stories and lay heroes.

6. Organizational cultures benefit from clarity. Far too many Catholic universities have mission statements that use inspirational but ultimately vague and vapid language. In our case, let me suggest that to be a “Vincentian” University adds three components to our already estimable mission as a university:

  • That our institutions make every reasonable effort to educate the poor, and thereby break the cycle of poverty and change their lives;
  • That our institutions introduce all students to the poor and to the Vincentian tradition, creating a magnificent pool of alumni who show concern for the poor throughout their adult and professional lives;
  • That our institutions direct our considerable resources to the service of the poor in the world. This could range from research that examines the underlying causes and solutions of poverty, to offering our buildings to groups who wish to serve the poor in their own ways.

Educate the poor; introduce all students to the poor; direct our resources to the service of the poor. That is my formulation, and yours may differ. I offer it merely to say that a very clear mission has a power that a diffuse mission does not. Say it dearly, and you will generate energy.

7. A corporate culture should be true to the whole organization or it is not truly a corporate culture. In my observation, Catholic universities often focus their mission activities and planning on the resident undergraduates,but they often forget the commuters, the graduate students, the part-time evening students, the external programs, the adult learners and the distance learners. It helps to ask whether these students know that they are attending a Vincentian university in any meaningful way that changes their lives.

8. Our institutions have existed for more than a century each, and many generations and cohorts have passed through our halls over the years. What has enabled that culture to remain consistent throughout those changing years and many transient populations of faculty, staff, and students, has been a small group of Vincentian priests, brothers, and sisters at the center who were recognized by the larger organization as responsible for and embodiments of the tradition. It may be necessary for our colleges to recreate a similar core group at the center of the organization that is recognized as responsible for and embodiments of the mission, and who accept the task of keeping the culture vibrant and alive. I say this simply, but I realize this eighth and last reflection raises extensive and important questions that could become the focus of an entire conversation.

Note: The conference at which this paper was presented focused specifically on the Vincentian nature of these institutions. As might be surmised, the Roman Catholic nature of these institutions is similarly vulnerable. On this, see Melanie M. Morey and Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., “Leadership and the Age of the Laity: Emerging Patterns in Catholic Higher Education,” Current Issues in Catholic Higher Education 23:2 (summer 2003): 83-103.

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