Last week I was in Rome, facilitating a General Chapter for a male religious congregation.


Democracy: insights from religious congregations

Religious congregations are a very interesting type of organisation. In many ways – and despite all the fantasies and projections we might have about them being very hierarchical and authoritarian – congregations are one of the most democratic system still around, after several centuries.

The foundation of its democratic structure is that the General Chapter is the highest decision-making authority in this organisation. It is made up of ‘simple members’, more than half of whom have been elected by their peers to take part in this Chapter – an event that happens every 6 years usually, and lasts for about 3-4 weeks. The remaining members (always fewer in number than the elected ones), are called ex officio – they are members by right because they have been appointed to leadership roles in the congregation.


Broadly speaking, a General Chapter sets the key strategic orientations for the congregation over the next 6 years, decides on any changes to be made to its Constitutions (the canonical text that governs life in this specific congregation) and elects the leadership team to implement it. Just pause a minute to appreciate the depth of this democratic practice: the “people” set the main strategy of the following 6 years; the ‘people’ write and rewrite the law; and the “people” elects its leadership team, whose job will be to implement the strategy decided by the Chapter, and who will be accountable to the next General Chapter for how well they achieved that implementation.


Crisis of democracy

Despite this strong democratic principle at the heart of their functioning, religious congregations too have been going through a ‘crisis of democracy’: a rise in individualistic behaviour (I do what I want where I am, regardless of congregational strategy or policies); a loss of belief in the relevance of the strategic orientations discerned at an event that happens only every 6 years, when the world around us keeps changing in an exponential way every month; and a struggle for leaders to find new ways of exercising their authority in a way that fosters active participation, hovering between old models of authoritarian, top-down approach, and a non-interventionist, laisser-faire approach that recurrently fails to address organisational and human dysfunctions.


The congregation that I have been accompanying here for two weeks have been through their own version of that crisis. For them, it’s a particular loss of belief in those orientations decided in Chapter that has weakened organisational engagement of its members. To put it another way, Chapters, in the past, have tended to bring great minds together, who think through complex issues and come up with brilliant strategies – but that no one implements on the ground, because members feel that those plans are far too removed from their everyday reality and concerns.


Unfortunately, because of several other critical situations that this congregation is facing (diminishment, ageing, financial sustainability, care of the elderly, formation and support of the young…), they have never been in greater need of finding a strategy forward. So how can they resolve this dilemma: seizing this opportunity to discern a transformative way forward – but do it in a way that the rest of the organisation feels they can engage with?


From solutions to scenarios

A year ago, I invited them to use a different approach, called ‘Transformative Scenario process’. It is based on the famous approach that Adam Kahane has been developing since the early nineties, in socially-torn countries such as South Africa and Guatemala.

The approach we developed with this congregation invited all its members to contribute to co-create scenarios of possible futures for their congregation, that would offer pictures of what the congregation could look like once the transformation around those key, fundamental issues would have happened.


Scenario-building is very different from envisioning. It is not about dreaming what a better future could look like, nor is it about giving expression to our highest aspirations and values. Rather, it is a very structured planning process, that starts with assessing the current state of the organisation, and its environment, identifying challenges and opportunities, as well as emerging trends that we can already perceive. On that basis, it invites people to access their creativity in imagining how the organisation, 5-8 years from now, will have solved its main challenges, and what it would look like as a result.

The invitation is to build several scenarios – again, contrasting with envisioning processes that tend to seek convergence towards ‘one’ vision. And to test those scenarios, to see if they are really ‘possible’ futures, or just ‘wished-for’ futures.

By inviting the creation of several scenarios AND insisting on them addressing all the challenges that the organisation faces (not just the ones that fit my vision of a wished-for future), it accomplishes the difficult task of enabling different visions, perspectives, aspirations, to find a place to be heard; whilst at the same time offering fairly objective criteria (the challenges and opportunities named at the beginning of the process) against which to test the feasibility of proposed scenarios for the future.


Reenergised engagement

For the past 6 months, those religious men have been very busy in engaging in deep, generative conversations across the globe (thank you Zoom !), with confrères that they rarely get a chance to talk to – some of whom they’d in fact never met. Africans, Indians, Europeans, Americans; old and young; retired and active members: suddenly all these people were engaging on Zoom sessions to imagine together their own congregation in the future.

They created about 80 book-covers: a beginning of a scenario, which just a title and 3 or 4 key points, to give a flavour of what is being proposed. They then developed them into 28 scenarios, merging together those ‘book-cover’ ideas that seemed to be going in the same direction.


Just on Zoom, a third of the congregation (250 members out of 750) became very active, spilling over into conversations outside of Zoom, with confrères who were not taking part in the Zoom sessions, but whose interest kept growing.


By Christmas, though, the question became: what do we do with all these 28 scenarios? Who decides which one(s) we keep, and which ones we throw away?


Regenerating democracy

A month later, we opened their General Chapter, and 40 men came to Rome with that very question in mind. At stake was not only the success of the “scenario process”, but also the credibility of this newly tried approach of involving all the members in presiding over the destiny of their congregation, rather than letting a small group of elected members continue to do so.

But a Chapter has its own rules, some of which are laid down by canon law. Should we “trust the wisdom of the group” of chapter members, relying on the fact that they took part in the scenario process and therefore should have a good sense of what their confreres have been saying? Or should we find ways of integrating the voices – and the will – of the rest of the organisation on such a crucial matter?


A confrere within the facilitation commission had a suggestion: now that we’re all so practiced in meeting on Zoom, how about holding a Zoom session with those confreres outside of the Chapter who would like to contribute their sense of what the Scenario process has achieved, and how we should move forward with it? In other words, how about opening the doors of the Chapter and let anybody who wishes to, come and share their perspective?

By analogy, this is like opening the door of parliament, and letting any citizen who wants to, come and share their perspective on how the country should move forward on its most critical issues …


As I mentioned earlier, the Chapter is the highest decision-making body in a congregation. So such a decision of altering the way it operates had to be put to the Chapter, for it to decide. Interestingly, such an innovation was met by similar reactions to those that any deep innovation meets: a mixture of sheer enthusiasm on the part of some, of a need for time to integrate it for others, and of resistances from a few.

But after a round of generative dialogue, the Chapter decided to go with it, to take a risk, to innovate. And then three things happened:


  • When they came back into the plenary room of the conference centre, after spending one hour in Zoom breakout rooms with confreres from the four corners of the world, a new kind of energy literally swept the room. Those men who, the day before, had been doubtful and sometimes morose at the prospect of hearing again what they thought they’d heard before, came back highly energised by very profound conversations.
  • We then actually heard, in this place usually reserved to a select few, the voices of hundreds of men who shared some wonderful nuggets of wisdom and creativity
  • The men out there, who, for 60 min only, had taken part in the Chapter, were now clearly claiming this Chapter as theirs, and owning its outcome, whatever it would be


Life creates the conditions for more life

This experience had such a positive effect on everyone that the following week, the Chapter decided to repeat the experience, this time on an even more symbolic issue: the election of the new leadership team of the Congregation.

Again, historically (and legally in fact, through Canon law), the right to elect the new team has always rested in the hands of the Capitulants only. Whilst respecting this fundamental, canonical procedure, the innovation this time consisted in holding Zoom sessions with confreres across the congregation, inviting them to share their perspective on the kind of leadership that the congregation needs at this time in its history – not offering names as such, but skills, capacities, qualities.


Again, the energy in the Chapter room following those 2nd rounds of Zoom conversation was phenomenal – and so was the wisdom brought into the room, in great coherence and convergence with the reflections that had been taking place in the run up to those zoom calls.

For example, one of the issues that the Chapter got in touch with had been the importance of honouring, and even leveraging on, the diversity present across the organisation. In perfect echo to that, some of the confreres on Zoom urged the Capitulants to get away from a “male, pale and stale” leadership team, and embrace the diversity of ages and continents in forming their next team.



As we were all leaving Rome, there was a shared sense that something completely new had been experienced, yet something that seemed to give them all a sense of renewed energy, and of greater connection to their primary purpose, primary mission in the world. Something that we call Regeneration.