Study praises Camden Diocesan merger process


bishopcahill-webBishop Joseph A. Galante accepts a copy of a study written by Alice Cahill, an organizational consultant, that praises the parish merger process in the Diocese of Camden.

CAMDEN — There’s much to be learned from the parish merger process in the Diocese of Camden, where 70 parishes have been formed from 124 parishes through a process that began seven years ago.

So notes a Columbia University dissertation written by Alice Cahill, an organizational consultant based here and in Silver Spring, Md.

In the dissertation, Dr. Cahill notes that relatively few organizational mergers succeed, whether done by corporations or non-profit agencies. In the business world, mergers are often like shaky arranged marriages, in which companies reluctantly come together, often under duress.

“It’s usually not a merger, it’s an acquisition,” she says in an interview here after presenting Bishop Joseph Galante a copy of her study. Such mergers are often “a huge and painful process.”

The merger process in the Diocese of Camden, now close to concluding, was also a large and sometimes painful process. But Dr. Cahill says the leadership skills that emerged through the arduous process served the church of South Jersey well.

Often, organizations merge with a simple directive commissioned by a single leader: Get it done. By contrast, the Diocese of Camden brought together teams from parishes getting ready to merge. They were to get it done, but how they did so relied on their own efforts.

Those parishes that were able to achieve successful mergers were led by pastors who convened a process that welcomed a diverse community to iron out issues, Dr. Cahill notes. By contrast, previous studies of change efforts indicated that more homogenous groups were more successful than diverse ones.

“You got the best outcomes when you build up the relationships,” she says.

She credited successful parish mergers with those led by pastors who scored high on “emotional intelligence” measures, a concept in social science which argues that intelligence is not solely an intellectual trait, but can also can be measured by quantifying traits such as empathy and the ability to bring people together in a common task.

Emotional intelligence was needed in a process that dealt with highly emotional content. The stakes in the diocese were unusually high as parish communities adjusted to changes in their spiritual homes.

“It was a time of mixed feelings,” said one respondent quoted in the study who was a member of a parish merger team. “We had to be sensitive to the feelings of loss that came with such change, but also anticipate the blessings and gains of the future.”

Those who participated in the study indicated that in many cases, parish merger teams began with wide differences. But good leaders were able to bring divisions to the table and were comfortable in dealing with conflict.

“We were able to respectfully challenge each other and even to disagree without becoming disagreeable,” said another.

When the merger process is completed, says Dr. Cahill, corporate and non-profit change agents will be able to look to the Diocese of Camden as an example of doing a difficult process in the right way.

“That they did it was brilliant and courageous,” she says.