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.