How Catholics Work Together: Ten Common Strengths and Weaknesses of Church-based Organizations

JAMES BERLUCCHI

The Spitzer Center has worked with dozens of Catholic organizations, from parishes and dioceses to schools and health care systems.

Our experience has shown us that there's a constellation of traits – both strengths and weakness – that define the type of culture more typically found in a Catholic workplace. There are areas in which Church-based organizations do well but businesses tend to struggle. There are also practices more common in the business world that Catholic leaders might wish to emulate.

Please bear in mind that what follows are generalizations. They aren't true of all the organizations we've worked with, or all groups within a given organization.  Let me start with the strengths and move on to the weakness, since the latter sometimes results from taking the former a bit too far.


Five Common Strengths

  1. Concern for people and empathy.  If you ever read Dilbert, you know that one of the primary sources of humor is the way some business use and abuse their employees. That's not a problem you often find in Catholic organizations, where concern and respect for people is the norm. I see this anecdotally as well as in formal surveys in Catholic settings, which have always affirmed that people see their co-workers as friendly, caring, and encouraging. I'm sure the commandment to love your neighbor plays a large part in this attitude, but it's much easier to live this rule when people around are trying to live it as well.

  2. Loyalty and respect for leaders.  In many organizations today, words like loyalty evoke cynicism, and leaders and staff have an Us-versus-Them relationship. But in Catholic organizations, it's rare to see open or private hostility toward leaders.  Respect for the Church extends to those invested with authority by the Church. People wish leaders well and give them the benefit of the doubt. They may not agree with every decision, but they don't badmouth leaders or try to undermine their authority. This is all the more true when the leader is a deacon, priest, or bishop.

  3. Strong principle-based ethics.  In a business setting, you're much more likely to see utilitarian ethics ("the end justifies the means"), which can easily be used to rationalize bad behavior. The Church has a well established tradition of moral theology and it shows in their cultures. Catholic institutions embrace a principle-based approach to moral decisions, where good outcomes can't be used to justify bad actions. Both clergy and lay leaders take this approach, and it's much the same with frontline employees. They may not have degrees in philosophy, but most have a strong faith life, an alert conscience, and a principle-based moral yardstick. That's why, when we decided to focus on Catholic organizations, we changed our name from the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership to simply the Spitzer Center. When we've discussed ethics with Catholic employees, we found we were preaching to the choir.

  4. An affinity for virtue.  While ethics isn't seen as a particularly urgent topic in Catholic settings, discussion on virtue are greeted as a welcome reminder of one of the Church's great tradition. In secular organizations, it's hard to talk about virtue for fear of sounding old-fashioned or preachy, but Catholics working in settings where they are free to embrace their faith are inspired by examples of courage, wisdom, justice and self-control.  It's impossible to be your best self without cultivating virtue, and it's easier to do so in places where virtue is discussed, esteemed, and pursued.

  5. Humility and freedom to admit mistakes.  One of the biggest problems you find in some secular cultures is arrogance, which leaves people highly reluctant to acknowledge flaws, much less change them. I've rarely observed this problem in Catholic settings, where arrogant behavior sticks out in a way that tends to discourage it. An active faith instills a greater willingness to admit mistakes and correct them. If arrogance is a headwind that makes it hard to fix bad habits, humility is a tailwind that makes it easier.


Five Common Weaknesses

  1. Less emphasis on personal and professional development.  In the business world, it's common for employees to have development plans to ensure they're gaining new skills and preparing themselves to take on more responsibility. This is not as common in Catholic organizations. Available funding for development is a factor, but it's not the only factor. Perhaps there's a tendency among staff to see personal development as unseemly self interest ("I'm here to serve the Church, not advance my own interests"). But companies don't promote development only as a service to employees; they do it to strengthen the overall organization. The more people develop, the better they can contribute. When you help people to grow, you're more likely to retain ambitious employees and to reduce problems like "nesting" or stagnation among less ambitious employees.

  2. Less emphasis on goals, performance and achievement.  If you ask leaders of Catholic organizations their ideal culture their ideal culture looks like, they'll describe a workplace where people set moderately difficult goals and do their best to achieve them.  In practice, it's not unusual to find staffs that lack clear goals or regular performance reviews.  Even using words like "achievement" and "performance" may seem out of place – like and effort to smuggle the highly competitive ethos of corporations into the collegial, caring environment of the Church. But without clear goals achievement can flounder. And failure to measure achievement can lower expectations and results. The best Catholic organizations inspire high performance, not out of fear or pressure but from a desire to serve God's people.

  3. "Don't rock the boat".  In healthy organizations, people feel free to provide honest feedback and constructive criticism. In some business environments, people may keep their mouths shut out of fear. In Catholic organizations, you can see similar behavior arise from deference. My own theory is that people misapply rightful respect for the Church's authority into how things get done. They can end up treating ordinary processes and decisions as vaguely dogmatic, and cling to conventional practices because "that's the way we do things."  It's good to respect authority, but it's not disrespectful to offer your own perspective and propose new and better ways to get work done.

  4. Higher dependence, lower initiative.  Another misapplication of respect is overly dependent behavior, where the mantra becomes, "Tell me what to do and I'll do it."  There are times when it's perfectly fine to take this approach, but organizations accomplish much more when people feel free to act on their own initiative. An overly deferential mindset can thwart initiative and make people reluctant to do anything without explicit direction from above. They may think, "Who am I to solve this problem or even say it's a problem?" But just as Jesus emphasized in the Parable of the Talents, true service requires full use of our abilities. Leaders need to continually encourage people to solve problems and seize opportunities on their own.

  5. Turning off talent.  One repercussion of some of the cultural traits described above is that they tend to inadvertently discourage certain types of talented people from working within the Church. If you're highly dynamic … if you love trying new approaches … if you like pushing yourself and others to excel … you could find yourself frustrated in many Catholic organizations. I've had people tell me, "I love the Church but I can't make it my career. I tried it for awhile, but it was too hard to get anything done." I'm not suggesting that Catholic organizations with a slow-but steady culture need radical change, but a really successful organization can accommodate good people with very different personalities and work styles.

Interestingly, when Catholic leadership teams are surveyed on how they view their ideal culture, they consistently choose behaviors which reflect high achievement and initiative. But when the weaknesses I've described above become the status quo, they're easy to overlook. It's only when you measure the current reality in an organization that these problems become easy to identify.  Moreover, it's our experience that when leaders address these issues openly, the staff enthusiastically welcomes the effort.

 


 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James Berlucchi, M.T.S. "How Catholics Work Together: Ten Common Strengths and Weaknesses of Church-based Organizations." The Spitzer Center (March 31, 2011).

The Spitzer Center's mission is to strengthen culture, faith and spirit in Catholic organizations for the new evangelization.

Reprinted with permission of The Spitzer Center. Endorsements for the work of the Spitzer Center are here. Spitzer Center programs are listed here.

THE AUTHOR

James Berlucchi helped co-found the Spitzer Center after packaging and delivering Fr. Spitzer's insights as an individual consultant for a number of years. He has served as the executive producer and editor for all the Center's media and written resources, personally facilitated multiple seminars and workshops, and trained all of the Center's certified associates. Prior to co-founding the Spitzer Center, Mr. Berlucchi served for ten years as the Executive Director of Legatus, an international association of Catholic CEOs. In that capacity he directed a six-fold growth of membership with a corresponding expansion of member services, conferences, publications, and educational resources. An author, publisher, composer, emcee and educator, he has hosted a national television series, founded a faith-based educational organization, launched a public relations campaign with major league baseball players, directed a performing arts company, and coordinated a graduate program of individualized instruction at the University of Michigan.

Copyright © 2011 The Spitzer Center




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