Collaboration with the Laity

(From Human Development 11,3 (fall, 1990), 36-39)

If you're a betting person, here's a sure thing. Tell your friends that if they name any religious community at random, you will recite one of their recent chapter decrees without even looking at the chapter acts. Then, whatever community they name, just say: "We, the Religious of Holy --- , commit ourselves to increased collaboration with the laity." Collaboration with the laity is in --- that is clear.

When we ask why religious are setting this direction for themselves, however, the picture becomes a little cloudier.

In some cases it appears that the dominant motivation is sheer panic about survival. The size of the religious work force is shrinking, so we had better grab at the most obvious straw.

In many other cases one gets a slight sense of unease or even guilt. For twenty years the church has been telling us about the call of the laity to be as holy as religious ostensibly are, and other faiths seem to be 'trying the same thing. We don't want to look bad by comparison, do we?

And there are doubtless instances in which the community --- or at least individuals within it --- has experienced a genuine conversion, a transformation of the very paradigm that gives shape to its sense of mission. Such individuals and communities are embracing an energizing vision and are willing to allow that vision to challenge all that has identified them heretofore.

In the final analysis, however, motives may not be all that important. The significant thing is that in one way or another, the Lord is goading us into a new way of being a church.

So let's leave motivation aside. It remains true that the simple tag collaboration with the laity can embrace several very different things. Even the most primitive of them will set in motion some new human dynamics and call for a constant renegotiation of our expectations of both ourselves and each other. Although these days we can scarcely glimpse the final contours of what we are setting in motion, religious can ill afford to be totally naive about the commitments into which they are entering. At the very least, human lives are on the line --- and that means the shape of the Kingdom of God is implicated.


External and Internal Employment. In its minimum application, collaboration with the laity will mean, for some religious communities, employing laypersons in the works of the religious community. Most active communities that sponsor institutions such as schools or health care facilities have done this for a long time. These communities may not be aware that this is only a recently adopted or as yet untried venture in other communities. This could be true, for example, for communities involved in staffing retreat or spirituality centers, running a religious bookstore, or providing Eucharistic breads. More common is the community that conducts a variety of apostolic works, in some of which laity are employed, in others only religious.

A significant new level of collaboration is created when religious invite laypersons to be employed in providing services to the members of the religious community. This can involve at least two changes that are significantly more penetrating.

One occurs when the laypersons' roles involve movement into the private life and quarters of the community, as is the case when they are employed in such areas as the community kitchen or dining room --- or, most significantly, when they serve as nursing personnel within the living quarters of the community. Such changes can spark issues that are rarely touched on in chapter documents. Privacy, for example: Do we eat with "them"? Are they around when we are at our "unbuttoned ease"? How will we look? What will they see and hear? Is the house going to become like Grand Central Station? The more ideological issue might be the concern that the community will lose its religious distinctiveness.

Internal service by laypersons may raise another, perhaps more stressful, issue: religious' accountability to laypersons. Say a community hires a layperson to run the accounting office or to be the treasurer of the community. "Do you mean that person can tell me when I have to get my budget in? I didn't join religious life for that," a community member might think.

It would be unfair merely to caricature such attitudes. People have been socialized into them by long years in communities that consciously or unconsciously fostered them, and human caring calls for sensitivity to the pain that their uprooting can occasion.

The point is that even these minimal forms of collaboration --- employment of one sort or another --- can give rise to consequences that need to be foreseen and confronted in the decision-making process. Those responsible for community leadership will need good interpersonal skills to deal with the resistance that will emerge in the carrying out of policy decisions.


The decision to hire laypersons, whether for the community's works or its internal services, has consequences not only for the community but also for the persons employed. Even at a minimal level of interaction, the community needs to ask itself about the responsibility it is assuming in terms of justice and equity for lay personnel. I should note that some of the things said thus far also apply to laity being hired by parish or diocesan churches; for example, pastors or bishops take on responsibility and accountability when they hire laypersons to direct programs or offices.

It is sad to have to report that for many religious, although the meaning of collaboration with the laity may be couched in lofty spiritual rhetoric --- even platitudes about peace and justice --- it comes closer to serfdom in practice. In many situations the relationship of responsibility flows in only one direction: these are the community's expectations of you, the employee; the community assumes none toward you.

It would be tempting at this point to go into a long treatise on the requirements of just relationships. Fortunately, the groundbreaking work of setting forth such principles in the American cultural context has been started for us by the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators and in particular by Barbara Garland, S.C. For the purposes of this article, it may be sufficient to emphasize that we as a church can simply no longer tolerate the behavior of pastors or superiors who dismiss church employees in arbitrary and unaccountable fashion. When higher superiors accept such action, they make a mockery of our image as a gospel-proclaiming church.

Even assuming that conditions of justice and equity are maintained, however, it is clear that the concept of collaboration is hanging by the thinnest of threads if the mind-set of religious is that laypersons are only employees of the religious enterprise. If the meaning of the word collaboration, in practice, is exhausted by its root verb, the laity merely labor for religious. They're no longer serfs, but they've only come as far as the fields of the plantation.

Colleagueship. Collaboration reaches a new and more humanizing level when it becomes colleagueship. Co-laborers all too frequently work for or under; colleagues work alongside or with.

The transition to colleague status takes place in the internal, psychic world of the two parties. It involves a transformation of the attitudes of both parties. It is relational in nature and, as with any relation, it can be impeded by obstacles arising out of long-embedded social patterns on either side. Just as there are religious who are conditioned to treat laypersons as second-class citizens, so are there laity conditioned to image themselves in exactly that way. "It's your church/school/hospital, Sister" can be a smooth way of avoiding responsibility. It's always disappointing, even to people who have ingested it for generations.

Colleagues are peers. They may not all have the same function or position in the enterprise, but beyond the respect that people deserve just for their personhood, they give each other equal respect for the contribution each makes to the corporate effort. The challenge of creating peer relationships can entail a lifelong conversion. It involves

dealing with people's need to control or be controlled, with their sense of competence or lack thereof, and with openness to mutual critique. If it is achieved by some of the religious, it will probably shake up relationships between members in the same community. It would behoove the religious community calling for collaboration to think carefully about what its goal is and what reaching it will cost in terms of attitudinal shifts.

Empowerment. We move now to an even more significant level of collaboration involving a deeper facet of corporate identity. Howard Gray, S.J., has helped immensely to advance the dialogue on this subject by urging religious to consider that eventually the real issue will turn out to be not collaboration in its minimal sense, or even the achievement of colleagueship, but what he calls co-determination.

As people begin to see themselves as peers, it is a natural next step for them to raise the issue of psychological ownership of the project. They want some say --- some sense that they are shaping what it is they will be asked to commit themselves to. Gray's term frames the question nicely: Who determines what-we are going to do or be? Or, put another way: Whose university (or retreat center, or agency) is this? Does the community's legal title to the facility, or even to its name, give it the power to shape its program or its mission?

The issue is one of empowerment. To raise the question is not a form of arrogance on the part of lay colleagues; it is the reasonable outgrowth of expectations raised by inviting people into peer relationships. To treat it as an act of unwarranted chutzpah is to unmask one's religious colonialism.

Within the realm of empowerment, there are two levels to be noted. The initial one, operational empowerment, concerns the power to determine how to carry out one's role in the enterprise --- that is, how to do one's job. To encourage people to be self-starters within the role delegated to them is more than just good management; it involves fundamental respect for people's competence and adulthood.

Usually, when people demonstrate their commitment to the corporate project through the investment of their life energies, they also eventually want to make an impact on --- even to co-determine --- the larger goals, direction, vision, or mission of the enterprise. They will want some degree of policy empowerment.

To illustrate: a religious community is holding an assembly to celebrate its educational system. When the possibility of the community's withdrawal from some of the schools is raised, one of the religious asserts that the general administration should appoint a visitator to do a survey to determine which institutions to withdraw from. At which point one of the lay colleagues says in amazement, "I can't believe that the community would think it perfectly appropriate to make such a decision without even bringing us into the conversation."

Some congregations (for example, the Congregation of Saint Joseph, in Concordia, Kansas) make it a practice, at time of chapter, to invite a broad spectrum of people related in any way to the mission of the community --- bishops, priests, other religious, lay colleagues --- to gather and reflect with the members on how the community is "coming across" and how it might serve more effectively. The chapter heeds that reflection when making congregational policy. The Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor, in Ossining, New York, have some nonmembers serving on the board that decides major policy for the community.

Admittedly, in organizations that have been birthed and nurtured by the sacrifices of religious men and women over many years, it is not an easy task to design structures that can equitably give committed lay colleagues an appropriate sense of policy empowerment. This involves a complicated balancing of many values and is not my focus here. My aim is simply to point out that movement into collaboration will raise the issue. In fact, if lay participants in a project of a religious group don't sooner or later claim ownership, along with its corresponding responsibility, the group would be wise to ask if it is recruiting the right kind of people to effect its mission.

As religious move into collaboration, they need to ask themselves. Will we be ready, in a timely way, to share those forms of power? Or, if they have no intention of doing such a thing, the question becomes. Are we ready to assume the consequences of our colleagueship-without-power approach?


If it unfolds organically, the empowering relationship between religious and their collaborators may blossom into a mutual desire for co-membership. I am not referring to those forms of association in which persons join themselves to religious bodies in a number of volunteer forms. Whatever the content of their mission statements, such associations can be many different things in practice. Some are leagues of prayer for the mission of the community; some are fund-raising networks; some provide another form of connectedness or personal support for people living in an over-individualized society; some are combinations of any or all of these. Each model has its own value and integrity. The only time these associations cause mischief --- or even injustice --- is when people are not clear about what expectations are being fostered on either side of the relationship. For example, when one side's perhaps unrealistic expectations are not met, there can be disillusionment, temporary wounds, or even deep reluctance to risk new commitments.

On the other hand, when association flowers into genuinely new forms of organizational membership, a whole new kind of organization is born. The old members must know that they cannot simply add on the new; rather, everything must be consciously transformed and re-appropriated by all involved in light of the adoption of a radically new mode of membership.

There are communities, for example, that have gained a rather substantial body of experience from forming lay volunteers in the charism of the religious community and sending them out for extended periods to carry on the mission of the group. Maryknoll and the Scarborough Missionaries come quickly to mind. Some lay missioners have ministered to, and lived so closely with, canonical members for such extended periods of time that the old categories of "temporary" and "permanent" missioners no longer adequately describe the real situation. In some instances the lay missioners have more years of overseas missionary experience than do the canonical members. It should not be surprising, then, that such evidence of long-term, intensive commitment begins to challenge any language that equates only canonical membership with full commitment. It would of course be arrogant for anyone outside those groups to even suggest how they might deal constructively with the situation they have created in response to a vision whose consequences they might not have been able to foresee. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the experience is real, and to alert other groups that intensive and extended sharing of a profound charism is new wine --- and we have all been taught authoritatively what that does.


As we have seen, collaboration with the laity can take many forms and may involve a variety of expectations. It seems clear that as satisfying modes of inclusion are experienced, a natural dynamic toward greater empowerment --- and perhaps new forms of co-membership --- will emerge. What will matter is not the form that any of these relationships take but the authenticity, wisdom, human care, and mutual respect with which people create them. And that involves the demanding discipline of clarifying and negotiating expectations together. God the potter will go about the work of smashing the imperfect firings and shaping new ones, in any case. Our part is to bring our human passion, imagination, and critical analysis to the creative process.