When The Creek Begins To Rise: Ethics For A Straitened Diocese

(From Church Personnel Issues, NACPA Bulletin, September, 1990)

It seems safe to say that U.S. dioceses are already in, or on, the verge of entering a new stage of organizational development. The era of organizational expansion, in which local churches could create new offices or programs almost at will and be assured that resources would be available to support them, is at an end for most dioceses. Limits are in the air.

Was the expansion itself wise? When measured against the outlay of resources, has the array of new offices created since Vatican II demonstrated its worth in contributing to the development of vibrant Christian communities, as its defenders would claim? Or has it been a mindless proliferation of unneeded bureaucracy, to parrot the charge of its detractors? We should probably anticipate that a measured study of such questions would show that the bag has been quite mixed -- like most human efforts.

I leave it to researchers more skilled than I to analyze the pluses and minuses of that mix. My purpose here is not to review the past but to reflect on the present and probable future, to explore the range of options available to us for dealing with it. My hope is that by exploring options before the situation has reached the crisis point we may place ourselves in a position from which we can respond to the emergent future on the basis of the deepest values we claim to hold as church, rather than react out of a (potentially unethical) lifeboat anxiety.


We start from the level of values. For in spite of the cries of the simplistic ideologues, the moral resolution of major policy questions will always involve the effort to enact a complex mix of values. That is why it is so humanly excruciating. In the incamational order of reality we can't achieve all our values to the same degree, some must yield to others. It also explains why people of good will may quite reasonably arrive at different answers to the same situation, why trust and respect for differing prudential judgments are the bedrock of any human institution such as the Christian community.

The fact that the starting point is values means that it is incumbent on the leadership of a local church to engage the people in clarification of just what mix of values they are trying to create. A church, even in the best of worlds, will fail to live up to its highest aspirations; if conscious intentionality is also missing, we can be even more sure that baser motives will come into play (cloaked, to be sure, in the language of lofty religious pieties).

Though the task of naming a people's values is a privilege that falls to the local church itself, I will take the risk of suggesting some of the values that might be held in tension when decisions must be made about impending shortage of resources. (This will doubtless expose the gaps in my own vision of church. But we all came in naked and will go out that way anyhow, so why pretend to be an emperor?) Perhaps I can suggest a key set of competing values by posing a series of questions to be addressed in decisions around declining resources:

1. Human persons have made commitments to serve the church's mission in these offices and have demonstrated commitment by their investment. How will we evidence our respect and appreciation for their gifts?

2. How will we make the necessary decisions in a manner which reflects our church's commitment to the sharing of responsibility for policy decisions?

3. How will we maintain the effectiveness of service which has been provided up to now?

4. How will we live out a commitment to justice for those who have expectations of long-term employment in church service?

5. How will we retain the necessary freedom to risk creative new ways of serving instead of settling just for maintenance of the ways we have organized our services up to now?

6. How will we respect the unique ethos and history of this local church as we make these difficult decisions?

7. How will we integrate reliance on the Holy Spirit with the human planning skills needed in our decision-making?

8. How will we achieve these values in ways which are fiscally sound and accountable to the church members who have entrusted their resources to the wise stewardship of church leaders?


With some such mix of values in place, we are ready to explore some possible strategies for confronting the situation.

At the level of broad strategy it would seem that there are only four approaches to deal with the situation of declining resources. You either make do with the limited pool of financial and human resources already in hand by realigning them to serve shifting needs; or you make new efforts to increase the resources in the pool; or you find ways to do with less resources; or you try a combination from among these three.

Let's examine the concrete options which emerge as we explicitate each major alternative in order.


When a diocese wishes to open up new forms of service while staying within the boundaries of its present limited resources, the clearest and first alternative is to offer lateral moves to current professional and support staff.

The second alternative is to offer re-training to any personnel whose positions might be eliminated by shifting priorities. In the simplest case the organization would give priority to finding an opening within the unit where a person is already serving (say, in the school office) and offering to re-train the person to provide the new services to be offered to the people. If that is not possible, the leaders would try to place the person in another unit whose capacity is being strengthened in line with new priorities. It would seem fair for the system to give priority to asking a person to assume the position most similar to the one the person is vacating in order to keep the cost of re-training at a minimum.

Of course, making adjustments on a job-by-job basis may not enable the organization to achieve all its objectives with its present human resources. In that case the leadership might move to a strategy which is admittedly more difficult to effect but also, if successful, potentially more rewarding for the collective body. In this option the leader informs everyone affected by new priorities that the whole network of positions is to be renegotiated and invites the entire body of persons involved to create together a new deployment of personnel which might achieve the body of objectives with the least re-training cost and the lowest loss of personnel to the system. Such an approach calls for great human maturity in the personnel involved, and it would probably require a process facilitator from outside the system lest the leader's unconscious biases prejudice the group's freedom to create a whole new approach to the way things get done.

On reflection it is clear that these re-training approaches go farthest toward the values of honoring demonstrated commitment and dealing justly with church personnel. The second one invites genuine "out-of-the-box" creativity and most clearly incarnates shared responsibility. In each the individual is dealt with, not simply as an employee, but as a person invited to name his/her gifts and desires and to negotiate the best ways to accommodate unavoidable limits. Assuming that the system was already fiscally lean, both would show fiscal accountability to church members.


It may happen, of course, that the leadership of the diocese concludes that the present body of offices (with perhaps some realignment) is both needed and largely effective, and that in order to address new priorities more energies must be devoted to new methods for generating increased resources. (This may be the place to identify who is meant by "diocesan leadership." It could mean the bishop, or the bishop along with a cabinet or management team, or the bishop together with his diocesan pastoral council. The unique ethos and history of each diocese would suggest which model is appropriate.)

Presumably the methods used thus far for securing resources have been applied to the fullest and still the resource pool can be projected to be inadequate to desired priorities. Having assured itself that present offices and their personnel are committed to quality performance of their assigned responsibilities. the leaders have two avenues open for potentially increasing the pool of resources to effect the new priorities.

One is system-wide. In this approach the leader turns to those responsible for fund-raising and calls for a plan to increase the support base for the diocesan mission by totally new measures. Such a plan might include a long-term endowment drive; new efforts at encouraging bequests and wills; a whole new stewardship or tithing campaign; and so forth.

In an alternate approach the leadership might encourage new measures at the level of particular units. The leaders might initiate new policies authorizing or even encouraging individual units or divisions to search out better methods for funding their own programs instead of relying only on system-wide funding methods. They might be supported in searching out grants so that people could participate in their programs. They might be asked to develop new fee schedules to be asked of those who formerly received services gratis. Or perhaps there might be authorization of fund-raising ventures by particular units for special projects formerly supported by allocations from the general operating funds.

Generating new resources may not be the most pleasant route for leaders to contemplate. Begging is always humbling. More to the point, it exposes the leaders to the painful critique of their own management of the resources already entrusted to them: "You're coming to us again? What did you do with the funds you collected 3 years ago?" Even benign publics deserve honest accountability.

But unless the leadership at least weighs seriously the alternative of seeking more resources, it can do positive injustice to personnel who placed an act of trust in the church community by committing themselves to church employment To say simply that "it looks like we won't have enough money" and then act on that assessment by cutting jobs is an inadequate response. It is true that church managers and agency personnel are bound to offer reasonable justification for the requests they make of church members; the case must be cogent and the personnel credible in the performance of their service. But it is also true that church members can be allowed to be irresponsible if their leaders do not challenge them with the call to carry their financial share in support of the church's mission. If leaders genuinely believe in the value of the services they have been offering to the community, they owe it to committed church employees to exhaust all potential avenues for increasing financial support before turning to the more drastic alternative of discontinuing services, and therefore, jobs.

This is perhaps the place to insert some related observations about the interaction between parish communities and diocesan services. Unfortunately, in many instances, parish and diocese see themselves as almost adversaries. This can show up most clearly in efforts at generating monetary support from the people: "Why should we give to them? We've got our own needs right here in the parish!" If such parochialism is prevalent in a diocese, the local church has much deeper issues to confront than diminishing financial support. It has lost its moorings as church and become a loose federation of sects. Until the renewal of a deeper sense of corporate solidarity has been achieved through education and formation in shared responsibility and empowerment, patterns of alienation and irresponsibility on all sides will continue to produce destructive and even unjust effects.

Even with a healthy sense of commitment to the well-being of the local church, and with all measures for generating income taken, there can come a time when realignment of positions won't work because the pool of resources simply won't reach. Retrenchment is called for.


When painful cutbacks are required and leadership believes that the array of services presently being offered is 'right' for present priorities, the first approach should be to the entire body of those serving in diocesan offices. To begin retrenchment simply by 'cutting' individual positions not only introduces a premature priority choice among services only recently presented as all valued and needed, it can in effect deny the ecclesial reality that persons were invited into when they undertook church service. The rhetoric said "we are all one family/community." Why not now call all together to share the hardship the way a healthy adult family or community does?

In such an approach the first alternative would be to propose that all take a proportional reduction in compensation or benefits so that the entire pool of personnel would share corporately and equitably in the more limited resources available. Ideally this would be for a temporary period, with a leadership commitment to restore higher levels once economic conditions warrant that. It may have to take a more permanent form.

Two addenda may help the body of employees to endorse such a proposal. The first should be obvious, namely, that the leadership itself assume parallel reductions; to ask hardship of employees without corresponding sacrifice on the part of leaders is hardly modeling the solidarity demanded by our notion of church. The second may not be as obvious: leaders would communicate publicly with the body of church members that those who serve them are undertaking this kind of commitment This models accountability, it gives due credit to the commitment being shown, and invites members once more to examine their own responsibility for the corporate good of the community.

A second alternative would challenge the assumption that cutbacks necessarily take the form of total layoffs. The managers should .invite the pool of employees to explore reduction of particular work demands and hours, and thus of compensation. Particular units may find that some personnel might appreciate 3/4- or -time service. People may be working full time merely because that was the only model hitherto available. Such an alternative would probably be feasible only at the unit level; a system-wide reduction of working hours is unlikely. But the savings through part-time service or job sharing could forestall more drastic measures. The important principle is that the approach values individuals' assumption of freedom, co-responsibility, and creativity.

When all the strategies listed thus far have been attempted, a diocese may simply have to confront the reality that no amount of new resource generation or realignment of personnel resources will bring expenditures in line with resources, that the harsh necessity of eliminating positions is at the door. Even in this extreme situation some options should be exercised before resorting to others.

Given the existence of some prior personnel planning (an ethical responsibility of management in any of these cases), with some call for flexibility and stretching of individuals' competences, a strategy of attrition should be initiated prior to direct firings. As individuals reach the point of choosing to leave, whether by reason of personal choice or retirement (and leaders may reasonably invite some to retire earlier for the benefit of those who might otherwise have to be let go totally), their positions are not filled by new personnel; existing employees are asked to adjust to new positions for shorter or longer periods, safeguarding both present jobs and priorities.

When planned attrition still seems inadequate individual units or programs may be asked to let employees go. But once again there are further specifying options which can give testimony to a caring church employer. The first would be to extend the deadlines for layoffs actually to go into effect, allowing employees whose jobs are being terminated to plan effectively for the transition. In a second step a caring employer would make a commitment of resources to provide out-placement services to assist those who have to be laid off: counseling, contacts with agencies for rehiring, etc.

It should be the absolute last resort for a diocese to take the step of a system-wide layoff of x% of its staff. The resort to mere quantity removes any semblance of pretense that there is any other value at work than sheer bottom-line survival.


These reflections have perhaps made clear that care in the planning and management of the church's human resources is not only an ethical demand laid upon its leaders, it is directly related to a diocese's mission as church, as a Gospel-symbolizing institution.

Implicitly they also highlight two ethical no-no's.

It is unethical for the church (or any organization) to promise things when its leaders have sufficient clarity about the future to be able to foresee that the organization will not in fact be able to deliver on its promise. On the other hand, it is not unethical for leaders to lay out in front of responsible adults a clear picture of the foreseeable risks involved in deciding to take a particular course with respect to the organization (e.g., to stay on in a position which may have to be terminated next year) and then invite the person to choose which risk s/he wants to take. Honest naming of hard realities at the outset, in spite of distress the news may cause people, is always ethically preferable to avoidance or denial followed by precipitous action.

In that light it should be equally clear that it is unethical to use a necessary reduction as a pretext for discharging someone whom the leadership wanted to 1>e rid of for other reasons, even if the honest presentation may mean that the person must confront difficult issues of self-presentation, counterproductive behavior, or poor performance. Every organization, and therefore surely the church, has a responsibility to contribute to the conditions which can at least be conducive to a person's growth, whether the individual chooses to take advantage of them or not.