Category Archives: Theology

We need to face up to Five Dysfunctions of the Church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2013

An admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders is the key to a successful New Evangelisation.

If the New Evangelisation is to have any hope of success, we Catholics must surely solve a problem that has been hanging over us since Vatican II. If we are not to continue repelling strangers by our divisions, if we are to convince them that we are indeed the body of Christ, we must learn to work together as an effective team. What is it exactly that prevents the church from operating with real unity of purpose?

Knowing that this problem interests me, a friend alerted me recently to a highly rated fable for business executives who want to build effective management teams: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni, 2002). Intrigued, I bought the book. I feel that its central argument deserves attention for the light it throws on the current state of our church.

According to the fable, the five key dysfunctions of a failing team are:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

For Lencioni, ‘trust’ is the confidence that every member of a team needs to have that even when opposed or criticised no personal harm is intended. This in turn will permit necessary conflict – that is, the conflict that may need to occur to resolve differences over how the overarching goals of the team are to be reached. But for this trust to exist, every member needs to put those team goals before personal status and success. Otherwise disagreements will be papered over, disillusioned members will focus on their own individual careers, commitment will be lacking, and individual and team failures will be ignored.

Far from being separate dysfunctions of a team, these five are therefore all interlinked in a circular chain, and the building of trust is essential for the building of an effective team. Lencioni sees the chief obstacle to mutual trust as a strong human tendency to avoid vulnerability – that is, to build defences and habits of avoidance that conceal the personal limitations we all have.

1. Absence of Trust

For me this fear of vulnerability is a diagnostic feature of what we call clericalism in the church. It begins at the summit with the unstated expectation of the magisterium that all wisdom and policy must begin and end with it. Although clearly our managers don’t know how to stem the outflow from the church in developed societies they cannot admit this, and must unceasingly claim to know, in minute detail, what we must all do next. There is no willingness to consider that in our present parlous state an admission that they don’t have all the answers might well be perceived as a welcome sign of humility and spiritual strength.

At present, for example, we are all supposedly waiting for the pope to provide us with a master plan for the New Evangelisation. In Ireland we are promised that a key to this will be a new catechetical directory called Share the Good News. This also emerged out of a summit process in accordance with the key principle of clericalism: we the ordained have all the answers – just you lay people sit there (again) and listen.

Meanwhile, many of us lay people are perfectly capable of seeing that it was a clerical fear of vulnerability that led to the most devastating modern scandal in the church – the preference for secrecy in dealing with clerical abuse of children, sometimes at the awful cost of further harm to other children. This too has deeply undermined the mutual trust our Catholic team needs if it is to welcome strangers.

As to the psychological dangers of that fear of vulnerability, are many Irish priests currently in danger from this, and from the burnout and demoralisation that comes from lack of honest ongoing dialogue? In this deepest of crises, are they in danger from the expectation that clergy will always be above it all – supermen apart who must not ever just be human, fallible, and in need of the most basic emotional support of ‘ordinary’ Catholics? Wouldn’t the first Christians have functioned often as a very vulnerable team whose members admitted to one another that they just didn’t have a clue what to do next? Wouldn’t they have prayed in a heartfelt way about that – together? (Could everyone please entertain for a moment the possibility that this may be exactly what we all need to do next?).

2. Fear of Conflict

It is the fear of conflict surely that prevents clergy, and especially bishops, from meeting with regular assemblies of the people of God for the open and honest raising of issues that concern all of us. All other regular church assemblies involving the unordained are carefully designed to avoid the possibility of frank disagreement and exchange of views. So a host of difficult questions raised by decades of scandal, of rampant social change and of ongoing crisis, remain unasked in regular open forums — and mostly unaddressed.

It is therefore unfortunately predictable that there will be an attempt to launch the New Evangelisation in a context of artificial harmony, in which all are expected to not raise uncomfortable issues. One can foresee the tone of this in recent entirely upbeat assessments of our situation from some of the most senior churchmen in Ireland, in the wake of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress. Unbalanced positivity, in the absence of any close analysis of the most challenging issues, is clearly designed to disarm any challenge or deep questioning. It may well culminate in a superficial tranquillity in place of an honest squaring up to deep crisis. This leadership pose is surely fully persuasive only to the dwindling number of lay people that is still convinced of the boundless and bottomless wisdom of the unchallengeable magisterium.

3. Lack of Commitment

I was present at an Irish diocesan meeting in 2003 where the bishop expressed broad approval of a plan to introduce a model of collaborative ministry in the diocese. The plan had been the product of years of work by a group that he himself had commissioned, called the ‘Ministry and Change’ group. The bishop now undertook to establish a new group, consisting of both clergy and people, to implement the report. He invited members of the now disbanding Ministry and Change team to volunteer for it. Three lay people did so. But that was the end of it; they never heard another word from the bishop about their report on collaborative ministry.

A decade later it’s clear that the problem of ministry and change in that diocese has followed the general pattern and become even more acute. Those lay people who volunteered years of their free time to no purpose will be slow ever to do so again. Lay people all over Ireland share very similar stories of having been misled up the clerical garden path ever since 1965.

There is an overwhelming danger that impending efforts to turn the tide will be frustrated by similar inadequate meetings to launch the New Evangelisation. Any denial then of the need for a culture of radical honesty in the church will inevitably create the opposite of that – a feigning of enthusiasm for a plan into which most have had not the slightest input. Ambiguity – a tendency of different people to speak differently about the prospects for success – accompanied by much covert disaffection, will probably reign once again. The deep commitment, mutual trust and unity of purpose that result from a passionate team engagement in resolving major differences will probably be lacking.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

We Catholics have seen this at the highest level in the church – in the failure of the Vatican to summarily dismiss bishops who have covered up the abuse of children by some clergy. Indeed, some bishops who have done so have been rewarded with key responsibilities in the church’s central administration. As I write, a US bishop convicted in a civil court for this offence of failure to report abusive behaviour to the civil authorities is still in charge of his diocese. If bishops cannot be held accountable by one another for such grossly disloyal behaviour, why should any Catholic impose accountability upon herself for obedience to Gospel values? News of highly visible unaccountability inevitably travels everywhere in the church, setting low standards and demoralising all of us. This problem too will help to frustrate the New Evangelisation.

It would seem that there are only ever two possible reasons for the dismissal of a bishop: personal sexual immorality or a mildly questioning attitude towards some aspect of the magisterial church’s positions on, for example, mandatory clerical celibacy or female ordination. It’s clear that, in the minds of our leaders, endangering the sanity and the lives of children do not compare with these failings in the scale of dangers to the church. This is a malignant wound in the body of Christ that continues to foster disbelief and distrust at every level.

5. Inattention to Results

What exactly is the overarching and immediate goal of the magisterium in promoting a New Evangelisation? Is it to reverse the outflow of members from the church in developed societies, or to tolerate (and maybe even encourage) an even lower membership in the interest of strict conformity to magisterial teaching on contentious issues? What model of church is envisaged? Will genuine dialogue be part of that? How will success in advancing the New Evangelisation be measured? Will we, for example, be prioritising the retention of those aged 15-35, and setting out to measure this on an annual basis?

As to the power of egotism to undermine team trust, harmony and collaboration, I have never in my life heard an adequate homily on the plague of self-absorption that so obviously threatens community at every level in modern society. This is in spite of the fact that Catholic social teaching idealises communal solidarity and spells out the need for individualism to be overturned by an ethic of service.

Informed lay Catholics are also well aware of the disillusionment often expressed by clergy themselves about egotism and careerism in the church. In 1999, following his retirement as prefect of the congregation for bishops, the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin publicly lambasted bishops who ‘put career before God.’ He lamented his inability to stem a trend of bishops in ‘less important dioceses’ applying to people like himself for a transfer after just a few years. Despite several papal warnings about the danger that the church’s hierarchical system (which turns popes into global celebrities and bishops into local ones) could foster egotism and lack of dedication to service and the welfare of the church, the emphasis is still upon the need to safeguard the hierarchical principle at all costs, as though God himself could find not the slightest problem with it.  Isn’t there a huge beam in the hierarchical eye here, a beam that prevents the church from even noticing the cult of celebrity as a key dysfunction of modern society?

Turning Things Around

The greatest strength of this five-fold diagnosis of why teams fail is that it also offers a surprisingly simple strategy for addressing the problem. The key is for team leaders to understand the paradoxical strength that lies in admitting vulnerability, (e.g. “I too have made serious mistakes of leadership and may do so again! I need some advice here”). This can unlock everyone’s capacity for honesty and humility and create an entirely new binding dynamic. There is probably no other way.

Could Jesus have attracted so many of the vulnerable had he not always modelled vulnerability himself? Could anyone be more vulnerable than the babe in the manger, the wandering healer who had ‘nowhere to lay his head,’ the resolute leader who disturbed the peace of Jerusalem with a whip made only of cord, or the man who wept and then disarmed Peter at Gethsemane? Isn’t the crucifix above all else an icon of human vulnerability?

Didn’t St Paul insist that his only strength lay in his weakness? Wasn’t it the martyrs of the amphitheatres who converted brutal Rome? Would so many have been drawn to St Francis of Assisi had he not been so gentle, so careless of his own safety and comfort? Aren’t we also drawn now to the plight of so many of our priests, suffering humiliation so often from the secular world, and now also too often from tensions with the magisterium?

If vulnerability can foster a strange kind of strength and unity, doesn’t a posture of invulnerability from the magisterium (“only we have all the answers”) actually help to explain the distrust in and decline of the church at present? And how can there be real communion now, to resolve our crisis, if the leadership of the church cannot model Jesus’ courageous humility? Is a genuine togetherness possible without that? Could a change of course, an admission of radical managerial fallibility on the part of the church’s leaders, be the only key that can now unlock the secret of a church-wide New Evangelisation in the West?