Churches around the United States are disappearing. Parishes consolidating, dwindling numbers of cradle Catholics that no longer attend Church, mixed signals from the leadership of the Church lead to a confusing situation for the Catholic Church.
Several questions come up. What is happening? How has it happened? Do we blame outside forces for the “failure” of the Church? Do the Church and its members share the blame for the decline?
First, the Church and its members should take a self-reflective inventory. It is quite easy to blame outside forces for the decline in Church membership. I have read and heard that the problems are outside of our control. Some of these culprits blamed: the overall culture has changed, is an aggressive secularism that permeates our daily lives. Pundits, newsmen, and educators act against the Church. It is just too much too handle.
Previously, the Church has struggled through more difficult times and despite such threats has thrived or recovered. This is not unique.
Looking towards one self is difficult, but most of the time that is where the problems are.
To help us better understand how the Church can recover, I think it may be wise to look at the reasons why some businesses that were once great have failed. Though the Church is not a business and its purpose is not to generate profits, there are many similarities. Both businesses and the Catholic Church involve human endeavors, are susceptible to human foibles, and require frequent introspective analysis.
After reviewing several case studies and reading dozens of books over the years, I think there are four main causes for the failure of a business: expansion outside its “core” business or mission, ignoring problems, victim of its own success, and relying on charismatic leaders.
While these are not all encompassing reasons for the failure of organizations and businesses, focusing on these causes will help turn around most organizations.
We constantly hear the mantra of the need to diversify. Diversify your portfolio, diversify your travel experiences, diversify your life. However, more often than not, diversification causes more problems than solves. These problems arise especially when a company decides to move out of its area of expertise.
One company that lost focus was Sears. Sears’ core business used to focus on retail. It was the premier store to buy anything that a household desired. But in the mid-20th century, Sears began entering into the finance, real estate, and credit business sectors. This caused needless diversion of resources. Sears is now a shell of its former self because it did not focus on its primary core business. As a result of failing to stay true to its mission, Sears’ business floundered.
The core business of the Church is to “To bring all men into communion with God, through Christ, and into the fullness of the Kingdom.” Unfortunately, many of the Church’s leadership and members have begun to diversify. They think the mission of the Church is to protest the construction of nuclear plants, protest laws over immigration, or pass out material goods.
Some of these are essential humanitarian needs but not the be-all, end-all of the Church. As Pope Francis said:
“The testimony of Christians and of parish communities can truly light the way and support their aspiration to happiness. In this way, the Church in Switzerland will clearly be more clearly itself, the Body of Christ and the People of God, and not only a beautiful organization, another NGO.”
Church leaders and laypeople diverting attention from the core mission of the Church have led many to feel that the Church is just a NGO. If the Church is just another NGO, then why not spend time with the ACLU, Doctors without Borders or the many other secular organizations that help the poor or needy? And that is what we have seen by the declining numbers of Church attendance.
Jesus charged his apostles in Matthew 28:1-20, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Many, many leaders and employees of companies ignore problems because it is easier than facing the problem. Eventually these problems come back to haunt them.
The Church ignored the biggest problem in its recent history, the child abuse scandal. While sexual abuse is not unique to or even higher than the general population among Catholic priests, the leadership covering up and ignoring the problem aggravated the issue and crippled the Church.
This is a most important lesson. Problems need to be tackled head on or they will spiral out of control and people will be lose trust.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Victim of its Own Success
Companies can become complacent when they have reached the pinnacle of success. Many leaders at companies think that once they have reached a certain point of success they do not have to be aggressive at marketing, continue to improve products or processes. This attitude eventually leads to decreasing market share and sometimes failure.
The Church also became complacent believes that people would naturally gravitate towards it. The Church thought since many people were baptized and were “cradle” Catholics that those people would continue to be faithful. The relative success of the Church in mid-20th century America caused many to relax and lose focus on the mission of the Church.
Christians and the Catholic Church in particular lost their way. The Church felt safe, thought that it did not have to stick with its core principles, and did not have to proselytize or evangelize. As a result, many “cradle” Catholics drifted away from the faith upon reaching adulthood.
“Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Relying on Charismatic Leaders
The success of a company cannot rely on one person. It needs to rely on the whole team that focuses on its core mission. If the company’s success relies only on a single charismatic, energized leader that company is doomed to fail. The leader is bound to die, get sick, move on, retire or simply become bored and divert his attention from the mission of the firm.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Pope John Paul II led the Church. He provided strong leadership that energized the Church. He helped fight communism in Europe and Latin America. Pope John Paul also had an interesting life story that people related to. He rallied followers to the Church and people were proud to be Catholics.
When he died I read and heard many disturbing things from Catholics. The Church is not the same, who will energize the Church? This new Pope is too old and too old fashioned. He won’t relate to young people.
Then Pope Francis was selected as the Pope. Oh, he’s young, he’s from Latin America, the Church will be more hip and welcoming. Oh, wait, he’s too liberal or he’s too conservative.
But the Church is not about any particular Pope. If the Church focuses on the Pope and not its mission, it will lose followers, as we have seen happen.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)
By reviewing the lessons of failures from for profit companies, the Church can learn, rebound and move forward with Christ’s mission.