What has happened since the FORUS study gave religious life 10 years to make life-saving changes?

What has happened since the FORUS study gave religious life 10 years to make life-saving changes?

A year-eight report

By Miriam D. Ukeritis C.S.J.

When David Nygren, CM and I published the study, “Future of Religious Orders in the United States” (FORUS) in 1992, we suggested that religious congregations had a 10-year window to make changes needed to ensure their viability. Failure to do so would likely set them on a path of irreversible decline. As I write this article in early 2001, religious are well into that critical period. What changes can we see in the landscape of religious congregations in the United States?

A good point of entry for answering this question are the factors identified in the FORUS study as significant for ensuring a future. The chart on page 10, in the style of a commonly used social science tool known as a “force field,” identifies those factors.

Individualism and vocation

Researcher David Nygren and I noted that “the future lies in the ability to decide between the high cost of Gospel living in a religious congregation and the demands of an exclusively private understanding of vocation to the religious life.”1 It is no understatement to say many religious congregations have struggled in recent years to balance the needs of the group and the individual. As members of religious orders enjoy increased freedom in selecting their ministerial commitments and living arrangements, congregational agendas often take a back seat and communal living frequently yields to personal preference for “space.” Members whose incorporation into religious life took place during a period of intense individualism in American society (the late 1960s and 1970s) add to this picture. During the period of their formation, a deep sense of individualism permeated their learnings about the meaning and expressions of membership in religious congregations.

At the same time, we celebrate a deepening desire among members of religious orders to “return to the essentials.” Examination of the spirituality of their founder/ ress and a reappropriation of the founding myths of the congregations reflect members’ yearning to move beyond themselves and to join with a larger group whose focus is other than selfinterest. A heartening sign of movement toward renewed understanding and living of the religious vocation has been the many conversations that have taken place among religious concerning their new understanding of the costs of membership, and the sacrifices it necessarily entails.


As part of the FORUS study, we identified skills, qualities and competencies that outstanding leaders possessed. Rootedness in God, a desire for both personal and congregational achievement as related to the furthering of the mission of Jesus, and a personal sense of compassion and objectivity were core elements. For some leaders, poor use of consensual decision-making and team leadership flattened and diffused decision-making and governance, decreasing the effectiveness of these leaders. Over the past decade, members of religious orders have come to understand better what is needed for their groups to set congregational direction, articulate vision and implement necessary changes. Congregations are increasingly aware that their form of leadership is not an end in itself but, rather, a means to an end: the accomplishment of the mission of Jesus.


When the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the National Association of Treasurers of Religious Institutes (NATRI) and the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO) published the results of their analysis of factors affecting the viability of religious institutes in 1996,2 they were clear in naming the critical role of leadership. It is crucial both to have quality leaders and to have a pool of viable leaders among membership. Given congregational demographics, a question remains about whether a pool of potential leaders exists. This is so not only because of the small number of younger members but also because of the varying career paths that many younger members have chosen. It remains true, for example, that religious orders continue to sponsor health care and educational institutions. It is somewhat of an understatement to note that, over the years, issues related to these institutions have become increasingly complex. Leaders of the future will need experience in working with such complex structures and an understanding of organizational dynamics. It is critical to use mentoring and other means to ensure that newer members have ample exposure to the complex situations that leaders will face. The need to do this, and the manner of its accomplishment, will vary from congregation to congregation as a function of the skills, interests and experiences of their newer and younger (under age 50) members.


Resolving authority issues—conflicts, ambivalence, power struggles and other incomplete or misunderstood fragments of early life experiences—is, for most people, a life-long task. Doing so in the context of a religious congregation can be especially challenging. This is all the more true in light of the abuse of authority that some members of our church have experienced in recent years at the hands of ecclesiastical leaders. It is heartening to note that the role of authority is one that surfaces more and more frequently on the agendas of congregational chapters and assemblies. Often connected with leadership, the concern may be heard in questions such as, “What authority do our leaders have?” or, “What do we want them to call us to?” or, “What does it mean to be a leader?” Religious also demonstrate a growing awareness of the “mutuality of obedience.” They express an evolving understanding of shared authority in religious orders as they engage in conversations concerning, “To what can we call one another?” and, “What does it mean to be a member?”

The factor of authority intersects poignantly with many of the questions that relate to individualism. Addressing it in new ways, rather than reverting to a model of “superior/inferior,” offers a significant step toward new understandings of who we are as religious. Failure to address it will reinforce a tendency to live our lives in an isolated laissez-faire manner rather than interdependently.

Work absorption and corporate identity

Perhaps no other factor has received as much attention by religious orders as corporate identity. Initial dismay at a perceived call to once again regroup and come together in institutional settings to do the same work together has yielded to an informed understanding of corporate identity. Seen not as living and working in a single place, a renewed sense of corporate identity reflects the congregation’s ability to focus its resources—material as well as emotional—on a particular facet of the Gospel message, on a clear expression of the order’s charism, or on addressing an aspect of today’s unmet needs. It helps both members and external observers respond to the question, “Why are we here together?” A clear sense of corporate identity enables the group to develop strategies for influencing the social structure and furthering the message of Jesus in a way that individual ministries cannot.

In the absence of a sense of corporate identity, members of religious orders risk becoming identified solely with their work. Oftentimes, the foundations of work absorption are rooted in the zeal of individuals unable to find an expression for their ministerial energies through their religious orders. As a consequence, the resulting emphasis on individual ministry (or, at times, on simply procuring a position) has eclipsed the symbolism and statement of commitment and permanence previously made by corporate commitments. Also related to the absence of community and spiritual support, work absorption may be connected to the experience of a religious brother who noted that, “Rather than living together as poor brothers, we live together poorly as brothers.” Work—ministry—can provide an easy locus for finding needed affirmation and support.

Affiliative decline and role clarity

Role clarity—defined as an understanding of what it means to be a member of a religious congregation in the church today— was one of the most discussed elements of the FORUS report. In particular, religious women (a group for whom role clarity was least defined) have created opportunities to explore and articulate their understandings of their roles in today’s church. External factors, such as the clear move from church-related ministries and the recognition that, for the most part, religious congregations can no longer look to the church as their main employer, have helped to sharpen the focus of these conversations. Bishop Kenneth Untener noted that one of the mistakes of church ministers was to have seen religious as a “labor force” in the church. As religious themselves have grappled with this distortion of reality (a realization forced upon them, in some cases, as a result of financial realities), they have begun to see more clearly the possibility of their charismatic role in the church.3

Less often discussed is affiliative decline. In our report, we noted that the data indicates that individuals who are currently members of religious orders obtain a high degree of satisfaction from membership in their congregation. In many instances, what holds them to their commitment to religious life is their personal need for a sense of affiliation, rather than their sense of communal purpose or mission. . . . Congregations will continue to decline if affiliative motives are stronger than a concern for the mission of the church and the extension of the charism.4

The tendency of some religious to prefer “nesting” over “questing” reflects a challenge that accompanies affiliative decline. Balancing concern about this dynamic with the recognition that leisure is needed for contemplation, the hope that members will develop healthy relationships within their congregations, and the pursuit of tasks appropriate to their life stage, especially on the part of aging members, is no small challenge.

Racism and multiculturalism

Since publication of the FORUS study, multiculturalism is an ever more significant factor in our lives. Shifts in the population of the United States have been dramatic. For the most part, newer members of our congregations are only beginning to reflect these demographic changes. Common areas of concern are issues related to the changing demographics and the need for religious to learn how to provide a space of welcome for all. Other sources elucidate these concerns more eloquently than is possible here.5

Materialism and the gospel

One of the disappointing surprises in the FORUS study was the lack of awareness of the manner in which religious are influenced by the surrounding culture. There is little evidence that this has altered significantly.

A significant development in this regard, however, may be noted in the growing commitment of religious to efforts directed at systemic change. Recognizing that the works of justice are basic to the living of the Gospel message, religious focus more and more energies and resources at addressing unjust systems and alleviating causes of poverty. While direct service continues, there is a growing recognition that religious can be effective agents of change on a larger scale. A few examples of this shift are the witness of religious at the School of the Americas as well as the increase in the number of congregations filing shareholder resolutions and voting their proxies.

Parochial assimilation and recognition of charism

During the past decade, the tension has intensified between the call to reappropriate the charism of religious life and to meet the needs of the institutional church. As the number of Catholics in the United States increases and the number of ordained ministers decreases, diocesan and parochial leaders call more and more on religious to serve in both parishes and diocesan offices. While these positions have some potential for prophetic witness, it is more common for the individual religious who finds him or herself serving in a diocesan agency or local parish to experience the pull between ministerial demands of the institution and the call to participate in the life of the religious community. In some cases, intense involvement in the parish provides a place where the individual religious may find the affirmation and support that is lacking in a local group, or that may not exist for those who choose to live singly or whose geographical constraints necessitate this.

Other factors

Clearly, over the past eight years much has changed, and other forces have surfaced that will either further the vitality of religious congregations, or will inhibit their life. The scope of this reflection precludes an exhaustive assessment. However, there are two areas worthy of mention at this point.

The first is related to the new cosmology: our sense of the earth and universe as home and as necessarily within the sphere of our concern as religious. Our willingness to grapple with this new understanding of our relationship with the cosmos and to act responsibly as we recognize the interconnectedness of all creation will have major implications for who we are as a people and for how we minister. Paul’s observation that “all creation is groaning” takes on new meaning in this context.

The second pertains to the dynamic of collaboration between and among religious congregations. Spurred at times by their own limits, communities and their individual members are learning the blessings as well as cautions inherent in collaborative efforts. Many new and creative ventures in social services, educational institutions and specialized health care ministries bear the mark of collaboration among religious orders. Collaboration also extends beyond the familiar boundaries to include those who share similar aims and values.

There is also a force in opposition to collaboration that insists on control and influence. In addition to the exciting collaborative ventures we see in Catholic health care, this realm also provides examples of the opposite dynamic. Some congregations struggled to provide health care through their own long-standing institutions, heedless of the signs that called for examination of traditional ways of doing business. As a result, decisionmaking that favored the group’s own institution took precedence over planning with others to ensure viability of the ministry. Usually, both the institutions and the ministry suffered.

Concluding reflections

Admittedly, 10 years was not a firm figure for working out congregational viability and many events may have shifted the critical period for various groups. However, the reality remains: given the demographics and resources of many religious congregations, a limited time period remains within which congregations may act in order to ensure that the expression of their charism in the context of a religious congregation will continue into the future.

What to do? Some groups have already passed their critical period and are preparing intentionally for congregational demise. Some have tried to address critical issues and see initial signs of new life. Many groups are now at that point where they are ready to implement crucial decisions and risk into the future. Inviting religious to this movement, Katherine Hanley, CSJ, cautioned members of religious congregations regarding five traps or temptations on this journey. They involved the writing trap (believing that by writing something we bring it into being), the holiness of diversity trap (that causes us to relinquish focus), the temptation to spiritualize (trust God and all will be well), over-intellectualizing (searching for more data, getting another speaker), and denial (of facts, their impact or their timing).6 There is no quick fix and we know by now that familiar solutions rarely apply.

Perhaps a key to successful transition to the future lies in Albert Einstein’s adage: “No problem can be solved successfully by the same consciousness that created it.” The question remains: have we, as members of religious congregations, opened ourselves to new ways of seeing, being and doing that foster and support a consciousness capable of responding to God’s call in this new millennium? Now, more than ever, all members of religious orders must devote the necessary time and energies to action: action based on the wisdom of the Gospels, on reflection on the lives of those who have gone before us, on an informed reading of and listening to the signs of the times, and on a fierce determination to choose (and create) life. For most of us, the path will not be easy. For many, it will be lonely. Yet, we believe that the journey will bring us to the time when “we will know, as we have always known, that the effort was worth the gift of our lives, the best of our years, the length of our days.”7


1Nygren, CM, David J., and Ukeritis, CSJ, Miriam D., The Future of Religious Orders in the United States: Transformation and Commitment, Westport, Conn., Praeger, 1993, p. 246.

2McDonnell, SSND, Rea, and Merkel, Jeanean D., (editors) A Critical Juncture: Assessing the Viability of Religious Institutes. Silver Spring, Md., Leadership Conference of Women Religious, National Association of Treasurers of Religious Institutes and the National Religious Retirement Office, 1996.

3Untener, Kenneth, “Is the Church In Decline?” Church Magazine, National Pastoral Life Center, Summer 1999, p. 5-10.

4Nygren and Ukeritis, p. 249. Italics added for emphasis.

5The work of Eric H. F. Law is notable in this area. See The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community, 1993 and The Bush Was Blazing but Not Consumed: Developing a Multicultural Community through Liturgy and Dialogue, 1996. Both are published by Chalice Press, St. Louis, Mo.

6Hanley, CSJ, Katherine, “Some Frequent Traps in Community Chapters.” Human Development, Winter 2000: Volume 21, Number 4, p. 28-30.

7From writings of Clare Dunn, CSJ and Judy Lovchik, CSJ, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Los Angeles Province.

Miriam Ukeritis, CSJ, a member of the Albany Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, coauthored the FORUS Study with David Nygren, CM in 1992. She is currently a member of the Province Leadership Team and ministers as a consultant to religious congregations and other valuebased organizations.



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