Learning from Other “Movements”

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Scholar who  created the Center for Action and Contemplation in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

His writings focus on the universal themes found in all spiritual traditions.  Often his concerns are directed at the transformation of religious activity as a source of hope and societal betterment through love, to becoming part of established authority and values.

Richard: It’s possible to trace the movement of Christianity from its earliest days until now. In Israel, Jesus and the early “church” offered people an experience; it moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. When it moved to Rome and Constantinople, it became organized religion. Then it spread to Europe, and it became a culture. Finally, it moved to North America and became a business. This isn’t much of an exaggeration, if it’s an exaggeration at all. The original desire or need for a “Jesus” experience was lost, and not even possible for most people. Experience, philosophy, organized religion, culture, business—in each of those permutations and iterations, Christianity was seen as above criticism. It simply was the religion, the philosophy, the culture.

Parallels for the Cooperative Movement

Credit unions are just over a century old versus the two millennia of Christianity’s evolution.   But it is hard not to see a similar transformation occurring in this very short experience.  From a movement, to a self-supporting system, to an industry, and finally just becoming another option in the financial services business sector.

The “member’s best interest” has become a rhetorical phrase to justify leadership actions, organizational priorities and political lobbying positions that have nothing to do with member’s well-being.

While individual credit unions may pursue their own plans for a while, the two strategic choices would appear to be:

  1. Continue the transition to becoming an indistinguishable part of the broader banking industry, or
  2. A reformation where the member’s involvement and benefit are once again the primary reason for a credit union’s being.

Is there a third choice?




2 Replies to “Learning from Other “Movements””

  1. Excellent analogy Chip. Sadly, at any moment, these glacial trends are not that relevant to those in the here and now. The long view (backward and forward) are usually the musings of elders, no longer struggling to keep up with tactical challenges. You and I are clearly among the ‘musers’.

    I talk about another strategic choice that might have better resonance in credit union planning deliberations. It is a matter of competitive positioning. The choices:
    1) Become an indistinguishable financial services competitor, hoping to retain the government favor that makes long term success plausible, or
    2) Embracing a business model that leans into cooperative identity in order to differentiate from the for-profit (and non-profit) providers in a way that cannot be legitimately emulated.

    The possibility of moving in the direction of deeper member engagement or, more holistically, toward the emergence of a fairer economy depends on the leadership conviction around competitive differentiation. The reality is that the CU system may be at a fork in the path. We may not all head into the future on the same path. The challenge is to make sure that the path toward deeper cooperative identity is well-paved and free of obstacles. And, along that path, credit unions will discover co-ops in other sectors of the economy…willing to travel together.

  2. Interestingly enough, the early “Church” was really no church at all, just a small group of people that met informally outside the structure and rules of the day, growing organically in the homes of believers by virtue of person-to-person evangelism. It really began to flourish when the mainstream religious and government leaders doubled down in their active opposition, persecution, and threats against early Christians, and as a partial result the movement spread across different countries and cultures.
    In my humble view, to this day the structure of Christianity often parallels the credit union movement (servant leadership, giving, and most of all relationship). I’ve all but given up on the “industry,” and I’m led to the conclusion that the “movement” has a chance to not only persevere but flourish with programs like CDFI, CUDE, etc., where the focus truly is on relationships and building a viable business model upon cooperative principles. Too many credit unions have abdicated their responsibilities to their members by embracing the “easy” balance sheet model of indirect lending and courtesy pay which too often precludes one-on-one relationship focused financial services.
    Now that the CUSO lending rule has been liberalized to allow large credit unions to try and corner the indirect market, smaller and mid-sized credit unions would be diligent in looking to reimagining relational member focus.

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