Close this search box.

Leadership and Cultural Change in the Church (or the search for the Rabbit)

Share this blog


Storytelling is one of the most important skills of a leader especially in a time of cultural change. Early this year I was reading Joan Chittester’s newsletter and the story of the rabbit has haunted me ever since. I have shared it here and it might have the same impact for you. It leads me to some reflections on cultural change in the Catholic Church which follow.

“My gift to you is always a story; something to think about more than once; something to keep your mind alive and touch your soul so that you can see life fresh and leaping once again.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.
The old monk responded:
“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert, and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit, but the chase went on into the night.
After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”
“Do you understand,” the old man said, “what I have told you?”
“No,” replied the young monk, “I don’t. Please help me with it.”
“It is simple,” said the desert father.  “My dog saw the rabbit!”

The gift? A reminder to keep our souls focused on the critical dimensions of life, on the purpose for which we have been born, on the gifts we are meant to give to others as life goes by. Otherwise, we merely drift through life: one minute attracted by this; at another moment confused about what we’re doing. Over the long haul, then, we become pilgrims without purpose, looking for what can’t be found.” Vision and Viewpoint – Chittester

Many years ago, I worked for a major institution in the Catholic church, and I was invited to attend a National Conference on cultural change. Many attended, and there were many presentations on the recruitment and the formation strategies of the different organisations.  There were many conversations on changes that were being made and that were needed. It was evident then the system was in crises.  While I have forgotten much, I do remember saying in one Conference session any business entity confronted with the existential turmoil facing this Institution would not spend any time worrying about recruitment and training. The conversations would address the core issues! What did the future look like? Who we were serving and what were their needs in this time?  I have no recollection if these issues were even discussed!

What was even more symbolic was in the closing ritual the hymn chosen was a hymn sung in Latin!

As one of the few lay people in attendance, I left profoundly disillusioned!

This was a significant body of the Church who just didn’t or couldn’t get it! I have no doubt as a body they were doing the absolute best they could within the constraints of very traditional culture.

This event occurred in the late 1980s, and the Institution of the Catholic Church has not renewed or experienced any positive cultural shift in that time. There have been “grassroots” renewal programs and exercises, but the leadership is ossified around an archaic feudal system dominated by a bunch of well-educated but out of touch men many of whom are pontificating on issues which are irrelevant (wording of the mass) and/or propping up a system which is beyond repair. It appears to an external party that they are floating around in an ethereal bubble solving (or not) random problems.

The results of the recent Royal Commission in Child abuse is just one indicator of a system in profound crises.

At the very core of the system, there is a “rot” which is slow-moving cancer.  It does not matter which indicator is used: Numbers attending mass; numbers of vocations; numbers who identify as Catholic in the census; it is all bad news and getting worse!

Sadly, nothing is likely to change and even if it did it will take decades/centuries to rebuild.

I have no doubt the Church has faced crises before and it will survive, but the hope that I experienced in my early adulthood has sadly diminished. It is over in its existing form.

A colleague of mine who worked in the Catholic education system said to me once:

“No institution characterised by such knavish imbecility could have survived for so long without the intervention of a God!” 

It is at that level intervention is required!

With the recent Royal Commission and the subsequent Report, the Australian Catholic Church appears to have “rolled with the punches”. The system has battened down made some barely appropriate remarks and what? A few senior clergy have responded in a way that could only be described as underwhelming.

The report has been sent to Rome for consideration. I understand in a Global system change takes time, but this problem has been evident for at least 30 years – the results of the Royal Commission indeed only confirmed the scale of the problem. So how is it the leadership was not ready with a radical response?

As someone who is a ‘cradle’ Catholic who still avails himself of some church services and who consider myself to be a mature Catholic I have some thoughts on cultural change which are not new, but it needs to be repeated. If enough of the population stand up instead of walking away, maybe something will happen? I am confident there is a generation of Catholics with these thoughts but why would anyone bother at this stage?

Genuine Cultural change in the Catholic Church is unlikely in our lifetime! Too much history and tradition!!

What is likely is the system will decay even further – if the average age of “worshipping Catholics” is now about 60 – it will increase – and at some point, in the future there will be “millions” of cultural Catholics, i.e. people who claim a heritage of Catholicism, those who have been educated in the Catholic school system but their commitment will be to some of the celebrations and maybe continuing the  education system

There are so many I know who have just walked away disillusioned!

The clergy crises:

It has been evident for many years that the clergy numbers were in decline and the relatively recent introduction of “international clergy” is really only a band-aid at best.

In Australia, in the communities of which I am a member, it is challenging to find one that is understandable, or you can relate to. They are no doubt good men but attending mass on Sunday is like attending Mass in another country – I understand the ritual, and that’s it – the notion of actually hearing the gospel or understanding the sermon is a distant memory

At this point I need to say I am neither a theologian or a philosopher – I am an average punter on life’s journey who struggles with the big questions? So how do I address them? The Institution of which I am a member is “dead or dying”. There are faint glimmers with a Pope but – it is generations away!

The human search is alive and well, and we each manage it differently – many by denying it and getting on with their lives.

For me, it is my wife and my family, some great writers and a few friends on the journey. Wrap this up with a coffee and a whisky on a regular basis with colleagues, and we have a community of faith! The contribution I make to this community and through other bodies completes the journey.

The cultural change required seems to be beyond the existing Institutional leadership.

Some final thoughts:

As it happens my working life has been devoted to working with business culture to affect change, and I have some understanding of the difficulties and the time frames involved.


The Church in 21stCentury:

  1. At so many levels, church leadership in Australia (and globally) has lost all credibility! The leadership after the last twenty years has led the whole system up a dry gully from which it will take centuries to recover – if, in fact, it is recoverable?
  2. The prospect of transformation (cultural change) is not likely or even possible with current “mental maps” in place in the establishment.
  3. Fighting to go back or retain the status quo is not an option.
Playing it safe!

So, what to do?

Cultural change was the buzzword of the eighties and nineties in business. While much has been written about it …… we do know there are some essential elements to it.

  1. Leadership is a critical component of culture and can make a difference, but real cultural starts at the base. (Martin Luther King)
  2. Symbolic action is essential: Pope Francis has engaged in some symbolic acts, but can anyone remember a symbolic action from the Australian leadership? The Synod planned is too little too late!
  3. Changing the language and behaviour: The recent response was at best pathetic and at some levels absent.
  4. Cultural change of this order does not start at the top!! (Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!!)

Symbolic Action:

  1. The Spiritual dimension of the church needs to separate from the assets. The religious orders have done this out of necessity over time by establishing separate entities at arm’s length from the Orders themselves – to be led by competent lay people. The process needs to be completed for the whole Church.

It is no guarantee of success BUT….

  1. In the 21stCentury, there is no place for a “club of men” ruling the world. Movements are occurring globally which are changing the world at an accelerating pace. Men have conspired for centuries to deny women’s rights for a range of philosophical and theological reasons which now stand “naked”. Surely that time is over? For the Church to survive the 21stCentury, it must initiate profound and symbolic changes.
  2. The system of ordained clergy as we know it needs to be deconstructed. The notion of a “God-ordained” position with special “powers” is a concept from another time.
  3. Leaders must be elected/ discerned from the community.
  4. The ‘blind’ faith model with an infallibility dimension is a long way from credible. It has been subverted by a successful education system where adult Catholics can think for themselves. People now don’t need the Church and/ or male priests to be the font of all knowledge in a community!
  5. The notion of going to The Church (Father) to get advice (or permission) is historical nonsense.
  6. There may be a place for ordained ministers? Questionable? If there is –only by election – men and women? Then some education – seven years in seminary (in a community of men is at best unhealthy at worst “crippling” at every level). Look at the results of the system. All sacraments can be administered by the community leaders
  7. The concept of the Catholic Church running alternative systems of education health and welfare is a function of history – the Church needs to withdraw from Education and Health to allow those systems to function autonomously.

I am not sure it matters any more. The world has moved on. While “spreading the good news” remains the core mission, the current leadership appear both bewildered and entrenched in a model which is in today’s world make it irrelevant. That same colleague I mentioned earlier also suggested to me that “a unit of time in the church is 250 years!” A glacial pace of change!

The Christian tradition has at its core the metaphor of Life Death and Resurrection. Now it is dying a slow death – since I started writing this Blog more Child Abuse has been made public in the United States – in one State an estimated 300 priests and over 1000 children. That figure multiplied by 50 States and multiple countries inevitably means a DEATH of significant proportions. What hope is there?

This glacial response in Australia means a Synod in 2020!! I repeat:

What hope is there?

Richard Rohr (OFM) is a source of great hope.  In his newsletters, I found this reference in which there is little new, and I am confident that in the early Christian Church it was real and the basis of our Christian path – somewhere in our tradition we lost it.

He refers to the writings of a Quaker pastor

“Quaker pastor Philip Gulley superbly summarises how we must rebuild spirituality from the bottom up in his book If the Church Were Christian. [2] Here I take the liberty of using my own words to restate his message, which offers a rather excellent description of Emerging Christianity:

  1. Jesus is a model for living more than an object of worship.
  2. Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.
  3. The work of reconciliation should be valued over making judgments.
  4. Gracious behaviour is more important than right belief.
  5. Inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers.
  6. Encouraging the personal search is more important than group uniformity.
  7. Meeting actual needs is more important than maintaining institutions.
  8. Peacemaking is more important than power.
  9. We should care more about love and less about sex.
  10. Life in this world is more important than the afterlife (eternity is God’s work anyway).

If this makes sense to you, you are already inside of Emerging Christianity.”

These are a straightforward set of principles which make much sense.

If only?

Many years ago I discovered this insight by Carlos Valles in his book Unencumbered by Baggage:

The Conditioned Mind

We all carry in our heads a model of reality put there by tradition, training, custom, prejudice.  When the events of life and the behaviour of persons around us conform to this model we are at peace; when they don’t conform, we are upset

Thus what in truth happens is that events/people do not upset us – the model we carry around in our head does.

The model is arbitrary and accidental. Realise that, and you will not be troubled any more.


At the time I found it wonderfully helpful both in my personal life and in my working life. I have used it many times in my work as groups and individuals struggled to manage any change.

In this current environment where the concept of disruption pervades the milieu of living – where the major institutions we have looked to for leadership, guidance and stability have all been stripped naked -in Australia- The Church, The banks, the Union movement and even the Australian cricket team – where do we turn? These institutions are cultural totems – and they are absent! Even our political system is looking decidedly “dysfunctional”!

How do we make sense of all this in our current world

The search for meaning is an ongoing struggle for all of humanity – all of the religious traditions have emerged in this struggle to answer the big questions – in some cases those things which are unexplainable – the mystery of life!

For this to happen there needs to be four pillars in place:

  • Belonging
  • Purpose
  • Storytelling
  • Transcendence

These pillars are a necessary foundation for the healthy functioning of us all -in a society where mental health is now a very public issue linked to anxiety and loneliness. What is the future?

A possible solution is the formation of communities who are searching for the RABBIT?

Blog & Insights

  • All
  • Australian Business Environment
  • Blog
  • Building a Great Business
  • Business
  • Culture
  • Economy
  • Family
  • Innovation
  • Interesting Finds
  • Leadership
  • Learning
  • Life the World and the Universe
  • Marriage
  • Marriage
  • Personal
  • Politics
  • Science
  • Sightings
  • Strategy
  • Technology

Business Culture: Is it the secret sauce?

Read More →

Together Forever

Read More →

Industries of the Future: Maybe there is hope!

Read More →

A marriage story – everyone needs a mate

Read More →

Work with Ben Enquiry

Creating Prosperity for future Generations