Discerning decisions

by Susan Rose Francois

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Growing up, the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November was always a special day in my family. Years before I would ever be legally old enough to cast my own ballot, I knew when Election Day rolled around. My parents were very active in local politics and this involvement included their five children. I grew up canvassing neighborhoods, knocking on doors with my Mom and attending election night parties with my Dad. It’s no wonder that my first post-college career choice was to work in city government myself, where, as it turns out, I spent eight years as an elections administrator.

The decisions that we make together matter, especially decisions that impact the common good and our future. This is something that I firmly believe. It is why I take my right to vote, earned through the literal blood, sweat and tears of my foremothers, very seriously. Yet I also can’t help wondering, especially after another election season filled with negative campaign ads and outrageous corporate spending . . . is our system broken? Is there another way we could be doing this?

There’s a book that was recently released by Jo Piazza with the catchy title, If Nuns Ruled the World, highlighting the stories of 10 Catholic sisters. I’ve not read the book, but I did read an interview with the author where she shares her experience of interviewing sisters. Piazza admits that while she held certain stereotypes, the women religious she “met on the road began to shatter those stereotypes. They weren’t these stuffy, ruler-wielding automatons. They were independent bad-asses.” Her words, not mine.

While I myself know some amazing sisters who take incredible risks inspired by the Gospel on behalf of people on the margins, I’m not sure if “independent” is the word I’d use to describe what would be different if Catholic sisters were in charge. Instead, the word that comes to me is “interdependent.”

In contrast to our winner-takes-all election system, colored as it is by the influence of money, misinformation and negative campaigning, sisters have developed a habit of making decisions by consensus. My limited experience of communal discernment and decision making in community has helped me realize that this is by no means easy. Yet we try, in good faith and with a lot of reliance on the Holy Spirit, to reach consensus before major decisions are ever formally made. This takes prayer, presence, participation and patience, but it is worth it because in the end, the decision made is the decision of the whole. 

Could anything be more different than the way major decisions are made in the “real” (non-women-religious) world? I wonder, inspired by the title of Piazza’s book, what if the rest of the world made decisions the way that sisters do?

Earlier this fall I spent two weeks in the company of 150 sisters and associates at the 22nd general chapter of my religious congregation. This is a meeting we have every six years to discern our future direction and to elect the sisters who will serve the community in the ministry of leadership. I have attended two chapters now, and I continue to be amazed by our commitment to communal discernment.

No doubt, a stranger familiar with the way things happen in Congress or even at a local city council meeting would be a bit mystified by what happens at a chapter. For one thing, we started each and every day together in prayer. As a congregation, we have made a commitment to a contemplative stance, and so we began each day together, all 150 of us, in 20 minutes of contemplative silence. I can’t help but imagine how things would be different on Capitol Hill if our representatives and senators sat together in silence for 5 minutes, let alone 20 minutes every day!

We also make time to listen to each other. We sit together at round tables and use a variety of conversation processes, with the help of a skilled facilitator, to ensure that every voice is heard. At our most recent chapter, we adopted a comprehensive community plan. Yet this was not a plan that dropped out of the sky, or even out of the hands of our capable sisters in leadership, to be rubber-stamped or debated by the membership. Instead, it was a plan that had been developed over the previous year by the entire community of sisters using a communal discernment process. The end result was that by the time the plan came to chapter for approval, it had been discussed and adapted to reflect the desires of the whole. Again, I can’t help but imagine how different our national or local policies would be if they were developed through a process of speaking and listening with a contemplative heart.

Truth be told, I don’t really know what we can do about our current political system other than show up, speak out and act for the common good and the needs of those on the margins, always with respect and integrity. I think this is part of the great popular appeal of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus efforts. Yes, people enjoy the novelty of nuns rolling around on a campaign-style bus in the great tradition of whistle stop tours. But even more, I think people who are really paying attention appreciate the way the Nuns on the Bus and their supporters engage the issues respectfully and with a common heart.

So what would it be like if the rest of the world made decisions the way that sisters do? I have to believe that the world would be at least a little bit kinder, gentler and focused on the common good.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work on her blog At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]