By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

It’s hard to accomplish anything positive if you’re trying to do it in a hostile culture.

Don’t believe me? Ask General Custer.

Of course, building a healthy culture – at work or at home, in your parish or in your community – involves more than just ending ongoing hostilities.

We’re talking building a life-giving, nurturing environment where people grow as individuals and contributors, thereby building up the whole milieu for everyone in it.

Robert Greenleaf, founder of the term servant leadership, probably said it best when he described “the best test” of sound leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?

Clearly, he is talking about the impact of a whole culture, not just one human being.

And his test is a test of any culture, whether you find it in a home, a workplace, a parish or a community organization.

In the family

In the family, the issue should be obvious. Families exist to help their children develop into healthy, productive and happy adult human beings. Healthy families are all about healthy, holistic growth. As anyone who has done it knows, it’s a process. It takes time. There are good days and bad. Conflict is inevitable. So are stumbles. That’s one of the ways we learn – parents and children alike.

In the workplace

If it wasn’t always obvious in workplaces, it is becoming more so every day. Strict command and control environments are not the best for achieving excellence, no matter what the boss argues. Today, U.S. military academies teach servant leadership. They want their leaders to be good listeners. Can you believe it?

In civic communities

In civic communities the issue often arises when an organization’s members are all about to age out. They no longer have the energy to contribute to the common good. It’s then that the leaders realize instead of nurturing an open system, they have created a cohort clique and conveyed the message, usually inadvertently, that others need not apply for membership, much less leadership.

Barring active and successful membership outreach, such organizations pass on much as we all each eventually do. I’ve seen it happen with Knights of Columbus councils and service club chapters. Without new blood, they die.

In parishes

You wouldn’t think parish problems are driven by aging out processes, and in truth the problem is not so acute there. New pastors are assigned every so many years -- seldom much more than a dozen, often less. People move in and out regularly, and most parishes regularly issue invitations for people to volunteer for various ministries.

That said, parishes do not come with guarantees of permanence. In fact, between 2000 and 2020 the number of parishes in the U.S. has declined by 2,533 – more than 13%.

The process, of course, has included mergers, consolidations and any other number of terms to describe how two (or more) parishes suddenly become one.

In the same period, some parishes have grown to become “megachurches” while many others are just barely hanging on – nearly always a function of changing demographics and quality of leadership.

We know that in recent years overall Catholic membership has declined while attendance and participation have dropped precipitously.

The nation had 71.7 million self-identified Catholics in 2000. By 2020 that number had grown to 72.4 million. But here we have to drill deeper. By 2005 the number had actually risen to 81.2 million, so today’s total represents an almost 11% decline from its historical high.

Moreover, the number who say they were raised Catholics but no longer self-identify that way has grown from 15.5 million in 2005 to 29.5 million in 2020 – a 90% increase[OP1] . And in that same period, participation in the sacraments has declined. For example, between 1999 and 2019, infant baptisms dropped by over 45%.

Given these trends, expect the number of parishes in the U.S. to continue to decline.

Choosy consumers

And don’t be surprised if those Catholics who continue to affiliate with a parish and attend Mass become more choosy about parish cultures and pastoral leadership styles. In many respects, American Catholics are first and foremost American consumers, in search of and expecting whatever it is they prefer.

Of course, some would prefer Masses in Latin, ideally using the old pre-Vatican II rite – although their numbers are relatively small and such Masses will be progressively more difficult to find under Pope Francis’ new rules about permitting that.

Nonetheless, the vast majority who show up on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings are looking for warm, friendly and inviting atmospheres, bright and comfortable environments, inspiring music and engaging homilies.

And if they don’t find those things, they will go elsewhere – or not go at all.

That may be a shame. But it’s also a fact.

Four levels of culture

Whatever the setting, there are four levels of culture possible, corresponding to the evolution of leadership wherever people are gathered with the expectation of accomplishing anything.

They are identified in what I call it the C4 Cultural Framework:

  • C1 -- Compliance;
  • C2 -- Cooperation;
  • C3 -- Contribution;
  • C4 -- Communion.

C1 – Compliance: At the most basic level, leading is all about getting people to do what you want them to do -- however you choose to make them do it. It works so long as you have the means to compel behavior, but it can easily break down. And in the meantime, it’s all about followers doing the minimum to avoid punishment. No one strives for excellence.

Of course, all cultures have some elements of compliance. In healthcare, for example, there are many rules, regulations, protocols and procedures that everyone has to comply with. But in healthy cultures, compliance is never the primary purpose of the organization. It is just one means to an end.

C2 – Cooperation: A big step up, cooperation cultures devote some resources up front to get followers to do what it is that the leaders want them to do. But the management task is still the same: getting people to do what you want them to do.

C3 – Contribution: Here is the big leap. In contribution cultures, it is no longer the focus of leaders and managers to get people to do what they want them to do. Instead, leaders and managers focus on creating environments where followers are encouraged to give and do their very best -- and they are nurtured to grow so that their capacity increases over time. These are organizations poised to be constantly learning and growing as those in the organization are constantly learning and growing.

C4 – Communion: Here we are talking about complete unity of purpose and effort. It’s very rare in this imperfect world. But sometimes you see it, usually only briefly, in the achievements of an athletic team or dramatic production. At the start, everyone is focused on self: what will their role be? But as success builds upon success, there’s a realization that we are achieving more than I ever could alone – and the we, the group’s success, becomes central.

Building healthy cultures

Wise, effective leaders try to build Cultures of Contribution, where each participant is encouraged – in very tangible ways – to give their best and grow their capacities from day to day. In such cultures, even mistakes are rewarded -- if they contribute to a person’s growth.

If you wonder what that looks like, look no further than the Gospel of Matthew.

In chapter 17, beginning with verse 14, we find a man complaining that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t cure his son. Jesus is not happy. But he deals with the problem. He heals the son and later, when the disciples ask him in private, he tells them what their problem is.

But he also assures them that they can fix it and, with sufficient faith, they can accomplish anything.

We know how the story progresses. Near the end of his ministry, Jesus assures his apostles:

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

What the apostles achieved is a matter of historical record. Their efforts, multiplied by the efforts of other Christians who followed them and stood on their shoulders, built a Christianity community that today numbers more than 2. 5 billion members, of which 1.3 billion are Catholic.

Jesus told his disciples that if they had sufficient faith, they could accomplish anything. Obviously, he wasn’t kidding.

Leaders who want better outcomes know what to do. Build better cultures … just like Jesus did in his own time.