Tag Archives: leadership

To lead in fog, we must be led

I am spending this week steeped in the wisdom, presence, inspiration and challenge of my sisters in leadership at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious annual assembly. This is my fourth assembly, the second I have attended in my role as an elected leader of my own congregation (the first two I was here representing Giving Voice).  As one sister shared yesterday, this experience of contemplative listening and dialogue with 800 other sisters has been balm for my soul.

Yesterday, Sister Pat Farrell, OSF gave one of the keynote presentations, “Leading from the Allure of Holy Mystery: Contemplation and Transformation.” Pat was of course the president of LCWR during the kerfuffle with Rome. Her integrity and contemplative leadership helped us shift the narrative and reality of our relationship with the hierarchical church from one of conflict to one of faithful dialogue. I was particularly moved by this passage of her talk:

“This is our moment. The world around us teeters on the edge of both peril and promise. Breakdown and breakthrough tussle with each other. The path forward is hidden in fog. It is your time to lead. To do so you must learn to be led and to listen deeply. Together we will discover personal and communal processes for deep prayer and dialogue. We will be given what we need to tend the soul of our communities by nurturing contemplative spaciousness.”

In other words, to lead in fog, we must be led.

Yesterday, another sister shared an image that came out of her small group contemplative dialogue experience.

“When the redwood sits in the fog (rooted in contemplation) it absorbs the moisture within the fog and nourishes the entire tree and allows the moisture to reach the earth which nourishes other creatures. We (LCWR and our congregations) are a forest of redwoods focused on contemplation that the world may thrive.”

A northwesterner at heart, I immediately imagined this picture in my heart, which I took this summer on retreat in Oregon not of redwoods but evergreens in fog.

Fog

Truth be told, I have been feeling a bit lost in the fog of late. The fog of fear, hatred, and isolationism which seems to be taking hold among much of our body politic. The fog of grief and loss that is such a part of religious life these days, as our elders transition to the next phase of their journey with God.  The fog of uncertainty about exactly what the future holds for our communities which are in the midst of yet another period of transition and transformation.  Lots of fog.

This week in Atlanta has given me companions in the fog and given me a clarity in the mist. Contemplation is the way.  And so, once again, I recommit to my own regular contemplative practice, in my own life and in my life in community. As another group shared during our contemplative dialogue process, contemplation is essential to leadership.

I remember many years ago when I was discerning religious life, I felt like I was driving down a mountainous road in the dark, where my headlights only showed the way a few feet ahead. I felt an invitation to trust that when I turned the bend, I would see the next steps, and so it has been. At this particular moment, to be honest, I feel like the high beams would only reflect back to blind me. I cannot see the way forward. And yet, I feel called to stay on the path by my loving God.  Jesus is the way, even in the fog, and it is in the still quiet moments that the Spirit speaks. We need only to listen, to listen often, and to listen deeply.

Endings and Beginnings

Another new year is coming, ready or not. Balls will drop, champagne will be drunk, some will go to bed early and most of us will wake up in 2016.

This year my new year musings coincide with the end of my first year in elected leadership of my religious community. 2015 meant:
-an end to my grad school experience
-a move to New Jersey and revisiting familiar territory with new eyes
-building community with a new group of Sister housemates
-meetings and travel and opportunities to visit our csjp community in all three regions
-and every thing in between.

It has been a good year filled with endings and new beginnings. January 7, our Community Day of Thanksgiving,  will mark the beginning of year 2 of my leadership adventure. Much is in progress, some important projects are just beginning, and there are others still on the horizon, not to mention those surprises good and bad which are bound to come.

There is lots of uncertainty,  some anxiety, but a deep peace and faith that the One who calls us together will guide our feet into the way of peace, through the next set of endings and beginnings on this path called life. And that is a good place to be as we say goodbye to 2015 and move into the new year and all it will hold.

Be the Present – latest Global Sisters column

Sisters in leadership attending Giving Voice
Sisters in leadership attending Giving Voice

For a little more than a year now I have had the honor and privilege of sharing a virtual space over at Global Sisters Report with other younger Catholic Sisters. The weekly Horizons columns are published every Friday and feature some great writing and important perspectives on religious life, justice and the world.

My own latest column was just published – “Be the Present.” It is my attempt to put my experience spending four days with 70 Catholic Sisters in their 20s, 30s, and 40s at Giving Voice into conversation with spending the next five days with 800 elected leaders at LCWR.  There was an incredible movement of the Spirit at both gatherings–real synchronicity.

My generation is known for its ability to multi-task, and perhaps that is a good thing. So much is happening in this present moment in religious life. We are tending to what is passing. We are discerning and nurturing what is emerging. We are building a bridge between the two. And all the while, as faithful women of the Gospel we are reading the signs of the times and seeking to meet the thirsts of the world. This is a moment which needs all hands on deck, all perspectives, all capacities, all wisdom. This moment needs us fully present.

The Spirit is certainly moving among us. That was clear both at Giving Voice and at LCWR. “Your task,” Janet Mock told the LCWR Assembly, “is discerning where and how to be in communion with the activity of God in our world now, at this present moment.” I believe this is the task of all who are living religious life today. It is the only way we will navigate this tremendous time of change and build the magic suspension bridge to the future of religious life.

Head on over to Global Sisters to read the whole thing.

A Rose by any name

srrosefrancoisI was thinking this morning of Sister Rose Francois, FSPA, my great-great aunt. My friend Julia is making final profession today as an FSPA Sister.  But I’ve also just found myself thinking more and more of Sister Rose of late, even though of course she’s not a person I ever knew.

Sister Rose was born Elizabeth Francois in Weiskirchen, Germany (then Prussia) in 1842. She emigrated to the United States as a toddler with her father, my great-grandfather Peter Francois and his new wife.  The family settled in Wisconsin where they continued the family tradition of farming and the family grew. Their youngest child, my grandfather Joseph Francois, was born in 1852.

Five years later, at the ripe old age of 15, Elizabeth joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin.  Thanks to the efforts of my father and brother to gather our family history, I have a copy of her file from the community archivist.  Sister Rose was really one of their pioneer Sisters, joining the community a mere eight years after the first Sisters arrived in Wisconsin from Bavaria.

According to her obituary, she held many positions of responsibility in the new Congregation. Shortly after professing first vows she was named superior of St. Ameliana’s Orphanage. She was Novice Mistress, and in 1865 (at the age of 23 and after just eight years after entering the community), she was elected Assistant to the Mother General, a position she held for a total of 32 and 1/2 years!

So perhaps by now it is obvious why I feel a growing connection with Sister Rose, especially given that I was recently elected to the leadership team of my religious congregation about eight years after I entered.  There’s also another twist … family lore has always held that my middle name (Rose) is after my mother’s Aunt Rose and my Dad’s great-aunt Sister Rose, so she’s always been on my radar.  In any case, I’ve found myself thinking of her from time to time, as a spiritual companion of sorts on my own journey and adventures in leadership.  According to her obituary:

“Everyone felt at home and secure with her, for she was sincerely humble and approachable.  She always regarded failures that occurred from the best side and was indulgent in reprimanding.  It is evident that the good Lord directed her on the thorny path of life, but who ever saw her discouraged or dejected? It was just such equanimity in the most difficult situations that made Archbishop [Michael] Heiss of blessed memory, founder of our community, say: ‘One never knew when anything went crosswise with Sister Rose, she looked always the same. That was the characteristic trend of her life.”

Sister Rose was also administrator of St. Francis Hospital in La Crosse for 20 years.  Her obituary in the local newspaper had this to say:

“The predominant unity and progress in this institution is due to a great extent to her indefatigable activity. She worked faithfully and zealously in the service of the sick, was outstanding for her peaceful disposition and her vivacious congeniality.With exceptional skill she directed the administration of the hospital, and it won’t be easy to replace her.”

St Francis Hospital was also the setting for perhaps the most touching episode I read in her file, when her father (my great-grandfather) died in her arms:

“Mr. Francois  who was suffering for several days happily expired at 4:30 PM. About three o’clock he began to fail rapidly. Father Rheinhardt was sent for, he said the prayers for the dying. Mr. Francois answered the prayers with great fervor, then sat up to recover breath, in a few minutes he was supported by Sister Assistant (Sister Rose) and died in her arms. Rev. Mother and several sisters were present. Funeral will be Saturday.”

I must make the trip to La Crosse some day, both to visit some younger Sister friends I have there and to visit the cemetary.  Apparently both Sister Rose and my great-grandfather are buried there, my great-grandfather in an unmarked grave and Sister Rose beneath a tall monument to her memory.

As for today, I send my prayers and support to my friend Julia, and I ask Sister Rose to pray for her and to pray for me on our journeys as women religious.

Summer Camp Revisited

lawcampWhen I was in middle school and high school, my mother encouraged me to apply to attend summer programs for kids like me, or, as I liked to call it, summer camp for nerds.  Generally held on college campuses, these were residential weeks on a college campus with other kids with similar interests.

These talented and gifted summer programs were organized by the State of Maryland Department of Education, and apparently they still happen.  One year I attend history camp in at St. Mary’s University in Southern, Maryland, where we participated in an archaeological dig.  The next year I attended a creative writing camp at Washington College on the Eastern Shore. And another year I attended a public service camp at the University of Maryland.

Flash forward 30 some years. I am back on a college campus this week with folks with similar interests, learning about interesting and important things.  Only this time, I’m here with a bunch of other elected leaders of religious congregations learning about aspects of civil and canon law which are particularly relevant to our ministry of leadership.

Officially, it’s the Institute of Law and Religious Life, but some of us have taken to calling it “Law Camp.”  And that makes my inner nerd very happy.

On being Matthew Crawley – Reflections on Leadership

GlobalSistersReportMy latest column has been posted on Global Sisters Report, in which I reflect on religious life through the lens of Downton Abbey, specifically comparing being a younger catholic sister in elected leadership to the experience of Matthew Crawley being the heir to the Earl of Grantham.

“There I was, sitting in the chapel with my Sister housemates, when I found myself thinking: ‘It’s almost as if I’m Matthew Crawley.’ … I am grateful for my random Matthew Crawley thought because it has helped me to come to grips with some of the responsibility I feel for the future. If I am honest, at times it is a heavy weight on my shoulders, as I suspect it is heavy on the shoulders of many younger members. How can we possibly follow in the footsteps of the women who answered the call of Vatican II so fearlessly? … “

Click here to read the entire column.

Angela Merici: “Do Something”

companyursulaToday is the feast day of St. Angela Merici who died in 1540. She was a visionary woman who gathered others around her.  She won approval from her Diocese for the first rule written by a woman for a community of women.

Just before I embarked upon my new adventure in leadership, a friend recommend a book to me – Redeeming Administration 12 Spiritual Habits for Catholic Leaders in Parishes, Schools, Religious Communities, and Other Institutions.  (If this fits you, I highly recommend it!)

The first chapter speaks about the need to have  a breadth of vision and includes this powerful quote from Angela:

‘This charge must not be a burden for you; on the contrary, you have to thank God most greatly that he has deigned to see to it that you are among those he wants to spend themselves in governing and safeguarding such a treasure [as] his own … Do not be afraid of not knowing and not being able to do what is rightly required in such a singular government. Do something. Get moving. Be confident. Risk new things. Stick with it. Get on your knees. Then be ready for big surprises.’

She wrote these words just before her death. They were written for the Company of Ursula, the small community she had gathered just five years earlier.

Given my new adventure, I have been struck by her words in a particular way, but I think they apply to so many people and situations.  If we waited until we had everything figured out, then nothing would ever happen. Sometimes we have to just do something. To move. To risk. To stick with it. And to pray.  And when we do, to be sure, God has even more surprises in store.

Closing Chapters

I’m writing this in a room which no longer feels like my own, getting ready to pack up my final batch of belongings and complete my move to New Jersey. I actually started my new adventure two and a half weeks ago, but I still hadn’t closed up shop here in Chicago.  I knew I was coming back for my Dad’s 81st birthday celebration this week, and so I staged the work of moving into two phases. Hence, while I left my grad school life on January 6th to begin my adventures in leadership land January 7th, it’s only now that I really feel closure on this wonderful chapter in my life.

As I woke up this morning, I found myself feeling very grateful for all the learning I was blessed to experience in this room. Reading late into the night, writing drafts of papers, etc…  I also thought of all the skype calls and conference calls I participated in from this room, helping to plan the Giving Voice Conference, engaging in theological reflection with CSJP people, praying together across the miles. I remembered the great conversations with friends, the silly movies and episodes of Project Runway I watched as I colored with markers to reset my brain.  The good nights of eight hours of sleep. Much of the past two and a half years has taken place in this CTU dorm room. It has been so very good and I am incredibly grateful for this chapter of my life.

These days of finishing up packing and finalizing the move have also held chances to visit again with family and friends. Relationships have also been an incredible blessing of this time. This has been the first time in my entire adult life that I have lived in the same city as  family members.  I’ve also been blessed to have a group of Giving Voice friends in town, and even living down the hall! Then there are the wonderful friends I’ve made through CTU. I know the relationships will continue, and for that I am very grateful, but it was also nice to have a chance to visit in person one last time as a fellow resident of Chicago.

In my prayer this morning, I also found myself remembering with gratitude all the chapters of my life so far. Some of them ended quite clearly, as this one has. Others sort of faded out into the next chapter before I even realized it. But each one has had its blessings, its learnings, its opportunities for growth, its challenges and sad moments too. All of it adds up to who I am today as I step onto the pages of the next chapter.

Early last month I shared a video prayer reflection I created set to “Write Your Story” by Francesca Battistelli. I share it here again because it was part of my morning prayer, and seems entirely fitting as I close my CTU Chapter and step more deeply into my new adventure in community leadership.

“I’m an empty page, I’m an open book, write your story on my heart, come on and make your mark.
Author of my hope, maker of the stars, let me be your work of art.
Won’t you write your story on my heart?”

On Unicorns, Anomalies, and GV

unicorn_little_sister_button-r0a0b34445bf44ee383d2299c9776189a_x7j1a_8byvr_324Last weekend as I was mid-way through my second week of congregation leadership, I found myself thinking of my friends who were gathering in Arizona for the annual Giving Voice retreat for Catholic Sisters in their 20s and 30s.  I prayed in gratitude for Giving Voice, a grassroots network of “young nuns,” and in blessing for the next generation of GV Sisters.  My prayer is that the relationships they forge today will sustain them well into the future.

As it happens, I aged out of the 20s and 30s retreat a few years ago myself, which is a nice (and unusual) experience as a younger vowed religious … actually being too old for something! But this summer we had our first GV 40s retreat. It was an amazing experience to once again pray, play, and be with my age peers in this life, if only for a few days.  It was also perfectly timed to aid in my own discernment, given that it happened directly on the heels of our discernment retreat for the group of CSJP Sisters invited to leave their names in for congregation leadership prior to our Chapter.  I had decided to leave my name in, and it was a blessing to sink into that reality with other religious from different congregations who were my own age. One friend had even recently been elected leader of her own congregation which made me feel more normal and helped me to think that I was not entirely crazy.

Tracy Kemme has a post on Global Sisters Report reflecting on last weekend’s 20s and 30s retreat. As I read her column, I found myself remembering the light and love and laughter that filled my heart after my first GV retreat when I was a novice. I could have written her words myself:

At the close of this weekend that went way too fast, we gathered for prayer and to share what the retreat had meant to us. I shared that I felt normal. Usually, I am one of just one or two sisters with a group of peers, or I’m one of a just few young adults in a big group of sisters. In this group of young adult sisters, there was a natural understanding and a relaxed spirit. Women in our circle said they felt grateful, renewed, affirmed, energized, accompanied, strengthened and more.

Religious life is unusual … there is simply no way around that. There is also no way around the fact that, with the median age of Sisters in our communities rapidly approaching 80, being a younger woman religious in your 20s, 30s, or even 40s means that you are pretty much like a unicorn, in that you are one of a rare and exotic species. In community, you have different experiences of church, pop culture, and life than pretty much everyone else. In your circle of friends, you are walking a different path which they most likely respect but to which they cannot relate, no matter how much they try. And with the general public, you tend to elicit sheer disbelief when people find out that you are in fact a young Catholic Sister. “Really? … are you a real Sister?” … I have been asked, many many times.

So imagine the relief when you get together with 5 or 20 or 30 or 100 other young nuns.  You get to stop being a unicorn and just get to be yourself.  When I was a novice, this was so very important. My discernment was greatly aided by having a network of religious life age peers. It helped me to filter out what aspects and questions and experiences were the byproduct of my age versus what were real questions I had to deal with related to community, ministry, and prayer. GV is a sacred space for which I give thanks. Again, Tracy captures it well:

Younger, newer women religious need these encounters. Of course, we dearly love our own congregations and all of our sisters. Nothing could replace that; the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati are my home. … Being with peers in religious life, and I mean true peers, is indispensable for a young sister’s health – and exciting for the unfolding collaborative future of religious life.

I have grown into my identity as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace in company with my Giving Voice Sisters. The sacred space of GV has helped me to own that I am not, in fact, a unicorn. Younger Catholic Sisters do exist. We are vibrant members of our communities’ present even as we step into a future we cannot yet imagine, but a future in which we deeply believe.

As I read Tracy’s column, I realized that I am in a different space now. My circle of feeling normal has expanded from occasional GV retreats and conversations to who I am in community every day. I carry this circle of friendship and support with me wherever I go. There has been a level of integration for which I am very grateful. GV is part of my context and identity as a finally professed Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, even as I step into the circle of congregation leadership.

To be sure, being a young nun elected leader makes you more of an anomaly than a unicorn. A good young non-nun friend used that word to describe my reality the other day. It caused me pause, but on reflection it fits my present, very unusual reality. I am humbled to realize that I am serving in leadership of my community, a community which I dearly love.  The vast majority of my CSJP Sisters have been Sisters longer than I have been alive, and yet, here I am privileged to give my all for our present and as we build bridges to a sustainable future for the generations yet to come.

Giving Voice has been the gift that keeps on giving, especially as I step onto this path of leadership. There are by no means many age peers in leadership (I can count them on one hand), but there are some.  I also know that as all of our communities live into the reality of demographic change there will be more who are called to this adventure.  I am grateful for the elder Sisters who are recognizing this reality and mentoring the younger Sisters in their community. (If you fit that category, I highly recommend reading my friend Tere’s Open Letter to the Great Generation on Global Sisters Report. I also had a GSR column  recently on how this is a unique and important time for all the generations living religious life today.)

Most of all, I am grateful to my loving and mischievous God for breaking through and leading me onto this wonderful crazy path with unicorns and anomalies and friends and laughter and hope and trust and love.