Renewing Apostolic Religious Life, by David Coghlan, S.J. Dublin: Columbia Press, 1997.


Book Review



Many religious are skilled in a whole range of religion-related disciplines. They have studied scripture and liturgy; the spiritual life and moral qeclsion making; perhaps social justice and pastoral theology and spiritual direction. All too frequently, though, they have not been exposed to the disciplines that explore the nature of human organizations, the way they are created and grow and disintegrate, and the implications of all that for leadership in organizations. When such religious are then called to positions of leadership in their apostolic community, they tend to act out of an unexamined assumption that the collective body is nothing more than the sum of its individual members. As a consequence, their energies are frequently focused on the health and well-being of each individual member — that is, if they are not consumed by the effort to care for their most difficult people, using 90 percent of their time on 10 percent of the members. The job of leading the organization can easily slide off the screen.

      In this brief work, David Coghlan offers such leaders a crash course in some key concepts and constructs from the field of organizational development. For religious who have never been exposed to these ways of viewing the life of a community, the book provides a helpful service indeed. At the least, it can serve as a healthy critique of the limits of therapeutic leadership, focused only on each person in isolation from the body as a whole.

In a few short chapters, Coghlan provides succinct introductions to some of the milestones in the story of this young field. He invites the prospective religious leader to reflect on her or his preferred leadership style through the use of the Blake-Mouton leadership grid, with its two axes of concern for people and concern for results. He exposes some of the key insights of the pioneer of group dynamics, Kurt Lewin, and their further expansion in the work of the author's mentor and friend Edgar Schein. And he touches briefly on the work of Carl Rogers and the use of T-groups.

The book discusses important distinctions that religious leaders need to keep in mind. Coghlan reminds us that leadership of an organization is something quite different from management and administration. He counsels provincials to be clear about their intended outcomes before they jump into organizational interventions. His advice about being clear regarding the difference between a consultant and a facilitator could help to prevent a lot of messy situations. And his observation that it is no easy matter to generate a "sense of the province" among apostolic ministers who tend to focus only on their ovm individual work will win quick assent from those who have tried to lead apostolic groups. Finally, one can only encourage leaders to pay attention to his salutary distinction between the formal and iqformal life of the community.

It is to be expected that some of Coghlan's emphases may be challenged by leaders of apostolic communities who view leadership, membership, participation, and collegiality from a different perspective than the author. For example, although Coghlan acknowledges that leadership in the past was too autocratic and needs instead to be exercised throughout a system, the work as a whole tends to assign to the provincial (his generic term for leader) role descriptions that some apostolic communities would find too "top-down." His assertion that the provincial is 'the strategist' (his italics) would be too bald a statement for many. That the leader needs to make the "arguments" for a particular change or to "convince" the team suggests a perception that the leader gets the ideas and then sells them to the rest of the community. Congregations with a much more participatory mode of consensus building would not be comfortable with such a style. The author wisely stresses that "creation and ownership of a sense of province is essential"; one might question, however, whether the selling of the leader's program will ever produce that kind of genuine ownership.

Although the title of the work refers to "renewing" religious life, a major focus of the reflection is on change. For the author, and the school of development he espouses, the word change refers not so much to what is happening as to the actions taken by some to transform others. The term change-agent is prominent in this particular approach to organizational development. Better balance would be achieved by noting that there are other valid approaches to organizational health in which organizational facilitation assists the community to discover within itself the resources to bring about whatever revitalization-or change-the body chooses to make. In using the language of change, change-agent, denial, and especially dodging of change, Coghlan runs the risk of suggesting that it might never be effective leadership to stand pat for a while and take time to integrate the changes a group may have just been through.

By this time we have edged closer to that point at which the reviewer begins to imagine the book he wishes the author had written rather than the work actually under review. Stepping back from that precipice, and using the good Ignatian practice of returning at the end to what was said at the beginning, I will close by repeating that this is a good introduction to a lot of ideas that many provincials will find valuable.

 

 

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