“Financial sustainability, a major challenge for women religious” in Africa: Research

A collaborative five-nation study examining the sustainability of the apostolic life of women religious found that financial sustainability is one of the major obstacles to the apostolate of nuns in the African countries sampled in the research.

Dubbed “Religious Life for women in East and Central Africa: a sustainable future”, the three-year research (between 2016 and 2019) involved close to 650 nuns across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia.

“Financial sustainability is recognized by all sisters as one of the major challenges to religious life. The majority recognize that both internal and external poverty significantly affect them and their apostolates,” the UK-based Centre for Catholic Studies of Durham University and Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, which jointly undertook the study reported.

“In some cases, Sisters have had to withdraw from parish ministries where there has been an inability, or unwillingness, to remunerate them appropriately,” the study, which was led by Dr. Catherine Sexton of Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge, and Dr. Maria Calderón Muñoz of Durham University established.

According to the testimonies from the research respondents, “Sometimes lack of resources can affect the delivery of their mission: when a congregation does not have enough funds to cover their needs and those of the people around them, apostolates have to be stopped or reduced.”


Funded by  Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters’ Initiative, the study demonstrated that financial sustainability is further complicated when nuns live in poorer communities and yet they have to respond, “with material things,” to their own needs as well as those of the people of God they serve.

“Sisters say that it is not fair for them to cover their own basic needs and tell the poor around them: continue praying and God loves you and all the beautiful consoling words on a hungry stomach,” the researchers explained in their summary report released Monday, April 27.

The report, which was published by the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG)  adds, “In their work with the poor many Sisters see empowerment as the greatest gift they can give.”

The 20-page report has noted that the income received from a variety of sources like donors, international congregations abroad, NGOs and sisters’ earnings are “not always sufficient.”

A nun who participated in the 36-months research said, “Initially when we had our missionary sisters coming [from outside Africa] … they had sources of income. Today we have to think and plan for ourselves; how are we going to live? How are we going even to care for ourselves in old age?”

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To tackle the challenge of financial sustainability, the study recommends a theology of apostolic and religious life that contemplates “ways of taking empowerment further by questioning unfair aspects of the status quo or by advocating for greater self-sufficiency, choice, and agency in society.”

Other significant challenges, which the study established include identity crisis occasioned by African cultures and the confusion around the concepts of charism, apostolate and spirituality.

“Local cultural and gender norms make religious life difficult for many lay people to understand and accept,” the researchers have reported and explained that adult women living together in community, not getting married, remaining chaste and not having children is counter-cultural and can be seen as deviant.

According to a respondent, their vows as women religious “are not understandable in African culture; that is, the religious life does not exist in the tradition and culture of Africans. And the community does not understand us who have volunteered to dedicate ourselves to live this life… they are surprised to see an African girl [not] married or bearing children.”

However, a respondent noted that though women religious are not mothers in the African context, “their model is the ideal motherhood of the Virgin Mary” who they exemplify by offering their whole life to the Church, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary offered hers to God.


“As women, we have the feminine gifts, which the Church cannot do without...The Lord in His wisdom has not given anyone all the gifts. So, we have the feminine gifts … and they are all needed. I can’t imagine the Church without women, impossible,” one of the respondents has been quoted as saying during the study.

Regarding the confusion around the charisms, apostolates and spirituality of the various Orders, the study recommends “the development and enrichment of religious life that this examination of congregational charisms continues.”

“One question to aid further consideration may be: how do sisters wish to be seen, spoken of and understood in the local Church?” the researchers recommend in their report.

Implemented in partnership with the leadership conferences of nuns in each of the five countries, the study also explored the nuns’ relationship with God and their life of prayer, community life, mission, evangelization and apostolates, as well as the role nuns in the Church.

The study was an extension of the initial research that examined “vitality in female religious life in UK and Ireland.”

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