Assembling the people of God like LCWR
Imagine an annual gathering called an "assembly." Not a "meeting" or a "convention": Those words at root mean no more than "to come into the same place." Instead, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) gathers each August for an "assembly." It makes me grin.
Think of assembling the pieces of a puzzle, connecting pieces into a whole that gives greater meaning to every part and creates new beauty in the world. Think of assembling the parts of a bike, a considered process in which the ultimate value depends on strong and thoughtful interconnections. Think of the kind of art called assemblage, where elements with very different individual origins and appearances gain fresh expression because of their relationships with each other.
Ever since I became aware of LCWR assemblies in 2012, I've been fascinated and frankly awed at what I witness in my reading and following online and watching videos. What awes me is the grace with which they assemble. I've never been there, but I pay close attention to absorb the wisdom even at a distance.
I'm not a sister, certainly not a leader of a congregation of women religious like most of the hundreds who will come to Scottsdale, Arizona, for the Aug. 13-16 assembly this year. As part of Solidarity with Sisters, I've been a companion of the LCWR national office staff since 2012. These relationships have profoundly changed each of us in the group. Each year, the words and actions at the annual assemblies deepen our understanding and solidarity. Imagine what the people of God can learn from LCWR's assemblies. How could we assemble like that? Could we find the courage LCWR shows in its willingness to continue evolving in its process of assembly?
One of my favorite bosses used to warn, "The urgent is the successful enemy of the important." At assemblies, there are urgent matters requiring the members' attention. But instead of hurrying up and getting them done, LCWR slows the agenda and creates space for honest communal discernment around illuminating addresses that speak to huge fundamental questions: "An Apostolic Call for our time in Religious Life"; "Transformation: An Experiment in Hope"; racism and religious life; and more.
It's one thing to speak truth to power. But sometimes, it's much more daunting to speak truth to each other. Do we know how to create inclusive processes of truthful illumination and contemplative discernment in parish councils, church-reform conferences and beyond?
The theme of the 2019 assembly is "Imagining Leadership in a Global Community." Take a moment to let that sink in.
Suppose in our personal and liturgical lives, we stopped praying for "the world," with its implication of a "world" separate from you and me and with its historical use to connote sin, death and all that is un-sacred. Suppose we prayed for "our global community." That phrase reminds us of relationships and calls us to active presence. It invites us to know and name our part in this community. It suggests accountability to the global community. It resonates with Catholic social teaching and with Laudato Si' and other words and deeds of Pope Francis.
At the assembly, the sisters will reflect on their responsibility to lead like this. In our own small and large ways of leadership, how can we help ourselves and our groups become more intentional and committed as members of our global community?
With keynote speaker Sr. Pat Murray, the congregational leaders at the assembly will consider their own leadership in light of current realities, global need and emerging movements of religious life. Murray has vast experience of global religious life as the executive director of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).
At the assembly, the questions will become personal as LCWR applies this global perspective to its own "emergent planning" work over the course of the past year. Previous assembly addresses show there's been candid, thoughtful, prayerful consideration of the new realities of religious life for years. For the past year, LCWR has undertaken an extensive process to intensify that focus. LCWR members, congregations and staff have engaged with each other and with a wide range of other organizations, experts and researchers to understand the facts of the present and the call of the future. It's a time of serious communal attention and systemic analysis. As the people of God, how do we focus together on current realities and the movement of the Spirit?
I'm eager to see how it unfolds at the assembly. So are the sisters. Like other recent assemblies, the 2019 assembly will create space for that unfolding in real time, another remarkable experiment in unscripted communal discernment. That's what "assembly" means at LCWR, right?
The congregational leaders will not be alone in assembling the pieces into a new whole. You know the adage: "To change the conversation, change the people at the table." That's also an effective way to see reality more clearly through more lenses. Each year, LCWR invites guests from about a dozen national organizations that serve religious life. This year, they've sought additional diverse voices to welcome the richness of more perspectives into the conversations and discernment.
What will it mean to incorporate new pieces into the puzzle being assembled? Nobody knows the shape or colors or interconnections of what they will form. What emerges will depend on careful, generous listening to one another and willingness to follow the movement of the Spirit in the whole. How do we people of God catalyze that kind of openness?
I can't personally change the processes of the church as a whole in order to create more of this vulnerable, humble, bold, contemplative way of being an organization. I can't change the processes of my country directly. I can ask — we can ask — how these qualities and some of the assembly process can become more deeply a part of groups we belong to, whether family or neighborhood or parish or national, whether for mutual support or for action or for advocacy.
How can we invite a wider, deeper, more candid grounding in reality, including difficult and diverse realities? How can we introduce structures for more careful, generous listening? How can we help to create intentional space for the movement of the Spirit among us? How can we help to build the kind of resilient faith that welcomes the action of God even if it means endless evolution, as the sisters have done since at least the 1960s and as the cosmos does for eon after eon?
This year, for the first time, we can all see the assembly online. LCWR will live-stream some key elements and then will post recordings. If you'd like to pray for the assembly with us in Solidarity with Sisters, here's our contemplative prayer service. I'll be watching (and following GSR!) in real time Aug. 13 through Aug. 16. I expect to both support the assembly in prayer and learn from LCWR's willingness to let God assemble them, reassemble them, and abide in them.
[Betty D. Thompson takes care of the online presence for Solidarity with Sisters, a D.C.-area lay group of companions with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Catholic sisters.]