Learning from the different definition of leadership

This story appears in the LCWR feature series. View the full series.

by Dawn Araujo-Hawkins

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Editor's note: For an ongoing list of all coverage of the assembly, go to this series link: LCWR 2014.

I was walking back to my hotel room yesterday after lunch when I heard someone call my name. It was Sr. Simone Campbell, and after we chatted about her nightmarish flight to Nashville (she had a five-hour delay due to weather and mechanical issues) she said, “This week is like a crash course in nuns, huh?”

She was right in a sense.

As a journalist writing primarily about Catholic sisters, spending all day, every day with 750-plus congregational leaders has certainly been fruitful. But I would have to say that I’ve actually been in a continuous crash course on all things women religious since May, when I first joined the Global Sisters Report. After all, Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s remarks from LCWR’s Rome visit were released on my very first day on the job.

One thing I quickly learned was that women religious do leadership differently than the rest of the Catholic church. This was first driven home when I went to Washington, D.C. to cover “Spiritual Leadership in Challenging Times,” a joint project of Solidarity with Sisters and the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies to educate the world-at-large about Catholic sisters’ unique brand of contemplative leadership.

It was also driven home during yesterday’s panel discussion on how leaders can discern holy mystery. The panel included Nancy Conway, a Sister of St. Joseph; Margaret Ormond, a Dominican Sister of Peace; and Ana Lydia Sonera Matos, a Sister of Divine Providence – and during her remarks, Conway made the first public mention (during this assembly) of the LCWR’s current tense relationship with the Vatican.

Listing four factors that had made her more apt to rely on discernment rather than individual competence as a leader, Conway declared that the 2008-2010 apostolic visitation of women religious was a key part of what has made her a better leader.

“What I learned from all of you and from how we handled that situation,” she said, “was that when we come from a place of deep integrity, it matters to people outside of this room.”

She wasn’t being trite. Likewise, it was clear – at least to me – to me that the warm welcome the sisters extended to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain on opening night was sincere. And I don’t think you have to agree with the sisters to understand that they try earnestly to act and lead from a place of love and community. They seek to lead from a place of integrity, as Conway mentioned, while also shying away from individual glory – something that is entirely countercultural in 21st-century America.

In fact, Conway actually opened her designated speaking time by declaring that, as a leader, she felt less competent than she did seven years ago. But, for her, this was a good thing, because she said she was also less driven to need to lead from a place of individual competence than she was seven years ago. Instead, she wanted to lead from a “softer, wider” place – a place of love and place of communal discernment.

When I interviewed for my position at GSR, Sr. Jan Cebula, our U.S. sisters liaison, told me that religious life was not a club – it was a way of life. I thought I understood what she meant, but listening to Conway yesterday made me realize that I hadn’t quite gotten it yet.

These countercultural choices are not the result of adhering to a philosophy or a leadership model; they come from a reality paradigm that is fundamentally different.

In some regards, this week definitely seems like a crash course. I’m barely sleeping because I stay up all night writing, only to get up early for Mass, and I’m constantly digesting new information. (I haven’t made flashcards yet, though I would probably benefit from them.)

But this week isn’t the start of my sisters education; rather, it’s one new step in what I imagine will be a lifelong learning experience.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]