Chris Lowney is the author of Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church. It’s a book refreshingly honest about the church’s current crisis of membership, management, and Catholic identity, but straightforward about what’s needed in response: a more entrepreneurial, accountable church at every level.

Chris chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives, one of the nation’s largest healthcare systems. He is a one-time Jesuit seminarian who later served as a managing director of J.P. Morgan & Co in New York, Tokyo, Singapore, and London until leaving the firm in 2001. His other books include Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World and Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads. Commonweal publisher Thomas Baker spoke with him recently.


Thomas Baker: One of the things you say in your book is that transformation in institutions starts with a sense of crisis, and in our church’s context that could be the crisis in mass attendance, Catholic identity among the young, closing parishes, or vocations. The list could go on. Do you think that there is that sense of crisis?

Chris Lowney: No, I don’t, not in any overarching institutional way. I think the church manages to avoid this sense of crisis for several reasons. First, in my old world of banking, there was a single source of truth, a set of numbers by which we all agreed we were going to understand how things are going. We don’t really have that in the church. We have a headline number, the number of baptized Catholics, which grows inexorably every year, but under the surface there’s this enormous level of challenges and problems and data that we don’t really see. I also wonder if the church has been so buffeted by terrible abuse scandals, maybe people in position of authority see their role as boosting morale and cheerleading. I don’t mean that in a shallow sense, but maybe that’s what they perceive, that it’s better for me to make people feel encouraged and emphasize the positive rather than point to crises.

TB: Is there a parallel with the kind of denial that goes on in corporate cultures, or is this a specifically Catholic habit?

CL: Absolutely, this can happen in any organization, and I don’t mean this as flip or negative as it’s going to sound, but you see it a lot in corporate cultures right before they hit a wall. People tell themselves a story that it can turn around, it’s going to turn around, we’re doing all the right things, and then that story lasts until it’s literally no longer sustainable or believable. Take an example like Sears, where something has been sliding for years and then one morning we wake up and boom, we’re in a deep crisis because we’ve been telling each other or telling the public a story that is sort of plausible but doesn’t quite incorporate all the difficult but undeniable facts. In the church, you can sustain this kind of pattern even longer. In the corporate world you get a report card every quarter and have to talk about it, whereas the church can drip, drip through bad trends for decades and decades. 

Chris Lowney

TB: The culture of entrepreneurship that you want to encourage in the church requires a certain tolerance for risk and therefore failure. How do you think that there could come to be a greater tolerance for that kind of thinking in the church?

CL: It all begins with acknowledging that we have some very profound challenges, and that we don’t have easy answers at hand, things that we know will solve the problems. If people embrace those two facts, then the next steps are a little easier to fall into place. But even then, I believe the answers are more likely to come from the bottom of the church’s organization than the top. People at the top inevitably see more concerns, reasons not to do things, disincentives. My hope, though, is that they will help to create some small pockets of entrepreneurship that can ultimately influence the rest of the organization. And when I say “entrepreneurship” I’m not talking about starting the next Facebook. I’m talking about things that one person, three people, or a parish could take on and try.

TB: What are some examples of entrepreneurship you’d like to see?

CL: I'm thinking of smaller-scale creative initiatives that might occur to any of us, along the lines of, "Hey, here's a challenge, we clearly don't have all the answers; why don't we try this?”

So, to be concrete: We need to become a more welcoming church, one that reaches out more to those who have walked away or who aren't very interested to begin with. I bet that if we put a half-dozen parishioners of any decent-sized parish into a meeting room one evening and gave them that problem, they would come up with a few great ideas within a couple of hours. Nothing fancy. The new initiatives might be things like getting every parishioner to invite a friend to help one night at the soup kitchen, or for a tour of the church building. Or launching a campaign to call up former parishioners and ask them for feedback. I use those simple, "blocking and tackling" kind of ideas because I want to convey that any one of us could have the imagination to come up with good ideas: We just need to be invited.

Now, we absolutely need ideas that could draw on more specialized skills as well. For example, as a church we are way behind in social media and in serious trouble with respect to engaging young adults. I suspect that it is young adults themselves who hold the key to solving both those challenges for us. What if we invited tech-savvy young Catholics, in a dozen major cities, to come together to brainstorm social media or other apps that might help us in our mission, especially with respect to young adults. We could identify the best ideas, city by city, and perhaps then even convene a national "entrepreneur" competition where the top three ideas nationally were identified and given a bit of seed funding.

TB: What about the church’s culture makes this kind of entrepreneurial thinking difficult?

CL: Well, one thing is that the job of, for example, being a bishop puts a premium on a role as guardian of truths, preserver of the institution, whatever phrase you want to use. And that doesn’t sit easily beside the expectation that we need you to be a risk taker in your diocese so that we can do a better job serving the poor, attracting young people, whatever the goals are. In a way those are separate roles, knowing what’s doctrinally true or false is separate from being more creative and imaginative in our approaches. I don’t think it’s easy for one person to switch their heads from one mode to the other. And I totally understand the fear that if there’s too much creativity or enterprise, then people are going to wander outside of the doctrinal guard rails. But that can’t be our excuse forever. That’s a cultural problem we have to get over if we want the church to thrive more fully.

The church is like any large corporation in one respect. In its early days, either the early church or the early years of Microsoft, you see all kinds of creativity, innovation, invention, people have nothing to lose, they’re trying to find what works. Then you wake up and you’re a vast enterprise, and it’s very hard, when you have all kinds of buildings and structures and hierarchy and so on, to hang on to these very creative impulses that helped you get your great success in the first place. As a church we’re going to have to figure a way out from under this. In big corporations, sometimes they say, let’s accept the fact that this is the way it is, so let’s try to create some little thing off to the side where we can have a bit of a laboratory, because we accept that neat new ideas are not going to bubble up through 15 layers of hierarchy and survive. So let’s identify some folks who have this gene, and we give them a little room to run and try to nurture a few ideas. If we just give a little bit of permission, it will happen.

We need to become a more welcoming church, one that reaches out more to those who have walked away

TB: What are some concrete steps that dioceses or other church organizations might take?

CL: One question I often ask is why the church doesn’t set aside funds specifically to seed new ideas. A lot of our money tends to go into existing, literally physical buildings, or existing parishes, programs, and schools, and we have nothing that is very explicitly dedicated toward new ventures of all kinds that would help parishes, help education, help catechesis. Why can’t we very explicitly put together a pool of money which could be national, that’s available to fund good ideas and we could even have competition, just the way the corporate world does. Let’s solicit good ideas, find people we really want to bet on on behalf of the church, and give them a little seed funding and see what happens.

I guess I would also say, though, is that much of what the church needs will not cost money. It’s not always going to cost money to turn a parish into a more welcoming parish. But it does take a willingness to change a lot of assumptions.

TB: When people think of church management at this point, they often think of the processes of parish and school consolidations that have happened in many dioceses. How can you generate ideas for growth when so much energy is going into the process of contraction?

CL: One thing I know makes the whole process worse is when the closings seem to go on in waves, and never seem to be quite over. The textbook solution would be to get the bad news out of the way, and say now we turn to the future. For some reason that doesn’t seem like an option that’s very available to the church in most places.

That drawn-out closing process creates even more of a need for some real initiative that people can relate to and connect to and feel like yes, I can see a positive future, I can see the church will turn the page, I can see what we’re going to do next after these closings. In other words, here’s the good side. The one is every bit as essential as the other. I’m on the board of a hospital system, and from corporate life one of the mantras is: You cannot cannibalize yourself to health. You can go through cost-cutting exercises, whether it’s closing factories or closing parishes, but that alone never fixes the problem, whatever the problem is. It may be essential to bring your costs in line, but presumably there are reasons why you had to close those things, and unless you address the underlying problem, and unless there’s a hopeful, constructive strategy for doing things differently in the future, to me it’s very rare that cuts solve a problem on their own.

Some of the new evangelical churches, even when they get large, try to preserve some of the best features of a small church as well. I wonder if Catholics will be as imaginative. If the unfortunate reality is that some of our parishes are going to close, and we’ll have larger and larger parishes and clusters, will we say to ourselves, fine, this is the hand the world has dealt us right now, can we also get a new kind of parish experience that combines the best of big and small? Or are we just going to pretend the new parish is the same as the old parish, and that to me is not going to be a winning strategy.

We have to find a way in our organizational life to get out of their way, clear the path

TB: In your book, you point to all the hierarchical energy that went into the New Evangelization as an organizing project for the church. There were conferences, books, and lots of ideas sent out into the world about how to do this. And yet very little happened. Why do you think it failed to take hold in a deep way throughout the church?

CL: I had a classic Catholic upbringing, Irish Catholic, Catholic high school, Catholic college, the whole works, so I have my own Catholic demographic history, and by and large my friends are fairly well educated, some still go to a church, some don’t. If I mention the New Evangelization to them, even a lot of people who regularly go to church don’t know what that’s about, or if they know the phrase they certainly don’t know what they’re supposed to do. But, if I say, how are your kids doing, more than half of the time the kid no longer goes to church and the parent really feels discouraged, sees a problem and wants to know what could have been done. The concept of a New Evangelization may mean nothing to them — but my kid, that means a heck of a lot to them. The point I’m trying to make is that impulses like these would be much more successful if we were a little less intellectual about it. It struck me as very intellectually packaged in the way it was rolled out, and instead we could just speak as human beings about how you feel about your own kids, your neighbors, the fact that your church’s viability is now in question. We have to learn to talk about these issues in a way that makes me care about people I know, about my own church, my own parish. Then, people themselves would come up with actionable ideas. 

TB: Are you still optimistic about the opportunities for the church to find some creative solutions for some of its challenges?

CL: The more time I spend in the church I come away with a sense of how many dedicated people there are, with a lot of good will for the church, talented people who in their professional lives are real problem solvers, who know how to deal with difficult challenges and figure a way through them. To me the problem would be a hundred times worse if you felt everyone has written the church off, they don’t want to know, there just aren’t people to turn to. But it’s exactly the opposite: there are such people. We have to find a way in our organizational life to get out of their way, clear the path to find more of these people, and empower them.

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.

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