Applying Your Criteria

In Making Choices About Ministry

(From Human Development, 15,2; Summer, 1994, 9-12)

The community is in chapter. The issue on the floor is what kinds of ministry the community will support. The delegates are debating the list of criteria that are to be used in making such decisions. Its hard going. Finally, one of the delegates says, with some exasperation, "This can't be done. On the one hand we say we want to have ministries in which we can perform direct, 'hands-on' service to the economically disadvantaged. On the other hand we say our ministries have to be financially self-supporting. We've got two criteria that negate each other."

Such situations prompt us to explore a bit more deeply the business of developing criteria to guide subsequent decisions to take action. Whether or not the delegates position on the question is logically consistent is not of concern. What we need to examine is what the delegates are doing --- or, perhaps more important, what they thought they were doing.

But first we need to step back a bit and ask where all this discussion about criteria is coming from in the first place. We didn't hear much about it in an earlier era. Now its part of almost every religious chapter. What has happened?


Our society entered a new stage sometime during the past twenty to twenty-five years (I leave it to others to pinpoint the onset and causes). Suddenly we were confronted with the issue of limits. It showed up in the realm of natural resources, as we began to realize that the basic elements on which our world depends for its survival are in fact not available in unlimited supply. In business, the issue of limits arose when changed conditions made big corporations realize that they could no longer maintain the large work forces they had built in an earlier era. In health care we began to ask ourselves how we could use limited human and financial resources wisely in the face of ever-expanding demand and considered saying no to some technologically available options. At the macro level, the image of our planet as a tiny, fragile space traveler began to take hold in our consciousness slowly --- ever so slowly --- and impelled us to raise questions and propose steps that previous generations had not realized they should be contemplating.

The church, of course, has not been immune to this change in consciousness. Though the issue of limits manifests itself in other arenas as well (most notably in terms of financial constraints), it manifests itself most dramatically for the church in terms of the diminishing pool of personnel available for lifetime service in religious congregations or as ordained diocesan clergy. Where to situate these precious, scarce resources? Where is the greatest good?


One consequence of a new experience of limits is that the kind of decision making required if people are to be responsive to the situation takes on a different psychological cast. At the very least, the realities inevitably evoke a greater intentionality in making choices.

When individuals or groups have more than enough resources at their disposal, there is a natural tendency to be liberal, almost unthinking, in expending or committing resources, lmelda Marcos didn't have to devote as much thought to the decision to buy a pair of shoes as a single mother on welfare does. When things begin to get scarcer, though, we have to ask ourselves harder questions --- questions that may concern our basic identity. Consider the victims of the Los Angeles earthquakes, and how often they said things like, "It made me rethink what is important in life" or "I don't have the same priorities I used to." Some years ago, a priest who was the personnel director of a large archdiocese said to me, "We have to be much more attentive to the needs of our personnel today. When we used to have tons of applicants, we could burn personnel. We can't do that anymore."


Once a decision-making process becomes more intentional, the issue of discriminating criteria inevitably comes to the fore. If we can't do all the things we used to be able to do, what are we going to say no to? And what are we going to say yes to? What principles will guide those choices? What's more important to us? (The latter is really another form of the basic question. What do we stand for? or, in even starker terms. Who are we?)

Decisions have, of course, always been made on the basis of criteria. Superiors were always under the influence of certain values that led them to accept this work and decline that offer, to send this person and not that one. The criteria may have been no more profound than the fact that the superior had a good breakfast that morning or didn't particularly cotton to a given pastor's lack of manners.

Indeed, the superior might have been at a loss to explain just what the criteria were, but they were there --- implicit, to be sure, but operative.

Two things are different in today's world. First, there has been a paradigm shift away from a parent-child model of membership in religious communities

as well as other organizations. Second, adult members of organizations are less inclined to overlook evident discrepancies between the criteria that leaders profess to use in making decisions and those that are really operative. When authority is used arbitrarily or even abusively, the zone of legitimacy people will grant to authorities narrows correspondingly. In a large archdiocese that announced the closing of several parishes, a suburban woman who is generally supportive of authority was heard to say, "The bishop may say the closures were dictated by economics, but from the choices made, its clear to me that the

church is turning its back on the poor in the city." In a time of scarcity, decisions presented without clear rationales are no longer acceptable --- and members of organizations want some say in determining the rationales for all decisions. Conscious articulation of, and basic agreement about, criteria for choices becomes a prime determinant of organizational cohesion.


Let us return to, our chapter delegate and his or her dilemma of the competing criteria. The problem with the delegate's statement lies not with the assessment that the two criteria under consideration might be inconsistent. Rather, it lies in the expectation that any two criteria won't be in tension with one another. In any decision worth the time to debate it, the criteria are always multiple and therefore always in tension with one another. Build your ministry priorities solely on the basis of the discerned gifts and leanings of the individual members, and you make the possibility of continued corporate sponsorship of anything problematic. Bring into the equation the views of those you are presently serving (because they deserve tp be considered), and you may find that the criterion of risk taking for the sake of the gospel is in jeopardy --- because those who have enjoyed the services of the religious community for so long will tug at the community to continue the good work it has been doing.

The mistake lies in unconsciously assuming that once the community has completed the hard work of hammering out a list of solid criteria, making specific choices will simply be a matter of tallying up the bottom line. Criteria don't work like that. Perhaps the word criteria inclines us to expect more of them than they can really provide; maybe we'd be better off calling them indicators. Taken in isolation, that is what each criterion is --- one indicator to be juxtaposed with several, or even many, others. By endorsing a particular criterion, the community is really saying, "If a given option exhibits a particular potentiality, we will consider that fact a serious indicator that we should choose it --- but we need to put it up against other indicators as well."


The deeper roots of this misunderstanding may lie in the over-rational ideal implicit in contemporary American culture. The rationalistic model of science (further reinforced by the digital, yes-no mind-set engendered by computers) leads us to see the application of criteria to the making of a choice among alternatives as if it were a mechanical summation of discrete quantities that produce a self-evident answer. One provincial, after an extended conversation within his province, voiced his disappointment this way: "I thought they would give me the answers." Ironically, it is probably true that rather than providing answers, what the articulation of criteria does is to help us ask the right questions. When we have a clear set of criteria, we know better what we are looking for when considering any given option. And if we are attentive at all, we will know how complex is the process of actually choosing among real options.


Ultimately, what is at stake in human decision making is not science but wisdom. It involves the always imperfect matching of a gestalt constructed of multiple criteria against the gestalt of each option under consideration. Because each concrete alternative is finite, it will fulfill some of the criteria (perhaps very well) but will also fall short (perhaps very far) of fulfilling others. At the end of the laborious process of chiseling out and adopting the criteria to be used, there will still be a moment of actual commitment to an incamational alternative. And that will involve further choice and freedom and responsibility: saying no to one mixed good in order to say yes to another mixed good.


Our reflections seem to have put us in a quandary. If, after the hard work of trying to stake out common ground about the criteria for eventual decisions, the decisions themselves still remain genuine choices among non-commanding alternatives, what have we gained? Those who do the final deciding remain free to do as they please. What's the use?

Well, first of all, the debate about what criteria to apply, what values to give greater attention to, helps us define ourselves and shape our identity. That is no mean goal to pursue when the panoply of needs that surround us might pull us in so many directions as to immobilize us from taking any action at all, or so disperse our efforts as to dilute their impact on anything. Without some focus, however diffuse, the collectivity ceases to be a body with an identity.

Furthermore, the articulation of criteria, like any effective policy, provides guidance to the leaders who have to make the incamational choices. Positively, it helps them narrow the field of their discernment; some alternatives can be removed from the playing field almost at the outset. Negatively, the effort, while leaving room for discretion and judgment on the part of the leaders, has the effect of challenging them to self-critique and minimizing the potentially harmful effects of their personal whims and unexamined biases. The intentionality of the process generates in the psyche of any serious leader a voice that must be heeded.

The criteria conversation will not by itself eliminate all arbitrariness on the part of deciders. They will remain human and fallible, just like the people they are called to lead.

Nor can it generate in the people who are being called to support the leaders' eventual decisions the willingness to put their trust in them. A community that, for whatever reason, has arrived at the conclusion that its leaders are simply going to ignore the voice of the membership and do what their personal visions or interests dictate, has a far more difficult task ahead of it than even the arduous task of clarifying its common priorities. Its leaders have to earn again the precious gift of the members' trust, and that can be achieved only by performance, by demonstrating their trustworthiness one step at a time. The members of the community will still have to reach down into their wounded psyches and find the gift of the Spirit, which will free them to let go of their fear of yet another disappointment and to place their confidence outside their own egos.


What the effort at developing common criteria for executive decisions can do is regenerate a community voice --- the common challenge that commands the attention of members and leaders alike. When a list of agreed-on criteria has been brought forth from the calls experienced by each individual member, and then brought into coherence by listening and debate and modulation, something new exists --- a song that will not go away. Once voiced, it has the power to move mountains of inertia and fear.

Agreeing together on the right questions to ask ir the midst of our choosing will not do the work of selecting our specific responses. It can, however, help us resist the pull to fragmentation when our leaders have to call us to support quite different concrete choices than we ourselves might have made. Anc that is much indeed.