Four marks of healthy church culture

By Sister Cynthia Nienhaus C.S.A.

THOSE MINISTERING in vocation ministry today are doing so in interesting times. Stories of sexual abuse, cover ups, and bankruptcies have dominated the Catholic Church for decades. Yet, in the midst of all this turmoil, God continues to call men and women to consecrated life. How does the church need to reform itself so that its culture is one where vocations can flourish? This article focuses on church culture exhibiting four marks that lend themselves to both interior work and external action: tefillah (prayer), shalom (wholeness), kehilla (community), and malchut shamayyim (reign of God). It is my hope that vocation directors and their religious communities might embrace these concepts, make them part of their communities, and thereby model practices that can help heal the larger church.

Tefillah: Prayer

“I do believe. Help my unbelief!”—Mark 9:24

For church culture to be a healthy environment where vocations can flourish, all members—leaders and followers—must be rooted in both personal and communal prayer so that we can see each person as our sister and brother. Tefillah is a Hebrew word to describe prayer as opening our hearts to God for the sake of evaluating our relationships with God and with others. Tefillah requires us to examine honestly and daily how we are prayerful witnesses of the goodness of God to those around us, and to the world at-large. Dutch theologian Father Henri Nouwen said that “the heart is the place where we are most ourselves … if you enter deeper and deeper into that place, you not only meet God, but you meet the whole world there.”

When church culture is one that encourages this type of prayer for all its members, then any desire to maintain a powerful image to the world at the expense of those hurt and excluded from the church fades away, and a stronger desire to meet God and all God’s people and their experiences emerges. Church members, when practicing tefillah, can then join in with Samuel and recite his wholehearted, humble response to God: “Here I am” (1 Samuel 3:4), thereby casting aside any temptations for clericalism and dominance, silence, and control.

Enveloped by tefillah, church culture becomes less of the spirit of the world trapped in any real or perceived power and becomes more of the spirit of faith that is compassionate and caring of one another as brothers and sisters. As Pope Francis points out, “The spirit of the world is conquered with the spirit of faith: believing that God is really in the brother and sister who are close to me” (from a homily of Pope Francis paraphrased by Linda Borndoni on A church culture rooted in tefillah gives space and encouragement to those seeking to respond to God’s distinct call to them, including those who may hear a call to consecrated life.

Shalom: Wholeness

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”—Galatians 3:28

There is a crisis of trust in the Catholic Church today due to the experience of various types of abuse perpetuated by some of its leaders. Some members have lost trust in the ability of their leaders to look out for the well-being of the most vulnerable around us. People feel betrayed by the way they see leaders exercise power, rather than display true acts of service. Members feel their leaders have failed to live out what Peter encourages: “Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3). For church culture to be healthy, then it must be about shalom. Shalom is concerned with wholeness and seeking restitution for what has been taken away. For church culture to be whole, it cannot give up on anyone due to their race, sexual orientation, economic background, or country of origin.

Instead church culture must be in tune with people’s life experiences, of service, of honesty, and of transparency. Followers and leaders in the Catholic Church must be shepherds who offer shalom to the outcasts of our church and society whose trust in them has been taken away. We must offer outcasts the relief only the love of God can provide. Followers and leaders must collaborate to speak as one voice when one group is unfairly targeted. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” Healthy church culture that embodies shalom is one that values the importance of encounter with the other, thereby diminishing any form of xenophobia.

No one has all the answers, and leaders and followers in the church must be able and willing to encounter one another and learn from one another so that the church can be whole. Those in vocation ministry can model this by how we interact with women and men interested in living the consecrated life. A healthy church culture allows followers and leaders to share one voice in speaking up against atrocities happening right now in our families and society, such as the ongoing anti-immigration rants. We must speak as one voice when members of other religious traditions are violently attacked in their hometowns and in their places of worship. We must speak out together when people on the margins in society are unfairly treated and killed. Silence is complicity, and we live in an era where we, as Catholics, cannot remain silent and thus, broken. Not everyone will agree with us. It will be frightening. It will cost us. But it must be done. Shalom requires it of us.

Kehilla: Community

“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”—1 Corinthians 12:12-14

The lives of the earliest Christians were centered around community (Acts 2:42-47). They held things in common, gave to those in need, prayed together, and ate together. Kehilla requires that we look out for one another and provide for people’s physical, spiritual, and communal needs. Doing so is not optional— it is an obligation. We need to be there for one another.

A healthy church culture allows followers and leaders to know what is going on in the world, the church, and the local community so that people know how to respond and care for one another, and so that we can become even better at kehilla for the sake of valuing each person’s distinct call to holiness. It requires that Catholics understand the spiritual and physical development of the various generations under their care—from those who prefer to pray for an hour during eucharistic adoration to those who practice cyberspace spirituality.

The 16th-century mystic Teresa of Avila reminds us that “prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” Within a healthy church culture, Catholics help and support one another and share in the awe of how people’s distinct friendships with God are lived out. A healthy church culture supports the idea that the church needs both followers and leaders. However, a follower is not better than a leader, and a leader is not better than a follower. All are members of the same Catholic Church community. External trappings, such as where we live, or what we wear to Mass, or arguments about who is right and wrong must be avoided when we understand and live the nature of kehilla.

The best service that leaders of the Catholic Church could provide followers, therefore, is to empower them to also lead, so that leaders may be with followers, seeing through their eyes what is entailed in good leadership. In this way, leaders reflect back to followers what is working well and what is not. For their part, the best followers will offer leaders their life experiences and help co-lead with them, participating in the realization of the overall vision of the Catholic Church, and reflecting back to leaders who will earnestly listen to them about what is working and what is not. Kehilla requires all people—leaders and followers—to be ego-less, thus to be centered on what is good for all people, especially those living every day on the margins, and those seeking their place within consecrated life.

Malchut shamayyim: Reign of God

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”—Matthew 6:10

One of the earliest scripture passages about obedience is the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). Here we learn of Abraham’s desire to honor the will of God by killing his own son; without doubt, a very difficult decision to make, but one done from the heart. This is an example of malchut shamayyim, or submission to the reign of God within our hearts. Abraham committed to, and internalized, the commandments.

A healthy church culture does the same by providing the space where followers and leaders internalize the external religious beliefs fostered by the church, and thus live lives of submission to the will of God. Doing so clarifies our vocations and helps us live out our calls in ways that are compassionate and humane toward all people, especially those who are the most vulnerable and those living on the margins of society and the church. Thus, a culture of malchut shamayyim gives way for people to be who they truly are.

Twelfth century Benedictine Hildegard of Bingen encouraged people to embrace their true selves: “Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.” A healthy church culture encourages people to be who they truly are as they submit their wills to God, and it welcomes into its loving embrace how they understand themselves. Healthy church culture empowers everyone, leaders and followers, to submit their wills to God and accept themselves as they are. It provides a supportive community to live with purpose and meaning. Therefore, the choices that followers and leaders make will be done out of a deep understanding of, and commitment to, the will of God, knowing well that some decisions may be very difficult to make.

A healthy church culture, then, will not be steeped in clericalism, dishonesty, or mistrust. It will be well grounded in faith and prayer. It will be saturated with people eager to know the will of God for them. It will be an outward sign of God’s loving presence within each person’s hearts, especially when we are at the threshold of making the most challenging decisions for our lives and for the good of all people. Sister Cynthia Nienhaus, C.S.A. belongs to the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, serving as a general councilor-vocation liaison on the leadership team. She is also an associate professor of religious education at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

Related reading

“What does a healthy church culture look like?” p. 17, Fall 2018 HORIZON.
“Scripture insights for difficult days,” by Father Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., p. 7, Fall 2018 HORIZON.