LCWR's new executive director looks to reflective decision-making

Holy Cross Sr. Joan Marie Steadman finds herself in a unique position: As the executive director of an organization, she must implement decisions, sometimes quickly. But Steadman is the executive director of an organization known for its contemplative, collaborative – and time consuming – process for making decisions.

As of Jan. 1, Steadman is the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the United States’ largest leadership organization of Catholic sisters. The LCWR, made up of Catholic women religious who are leaders of their orders in the United States, represents about 80 percent of the 51,600 women religious in the country.

The conference’s decision-making process includes contemplation, observation and exploration, then reflection and dialogue, and finally, decision and action.

The process yields a much more thoughtful decision, but also takes time. Steadman now finds herself in the fulcrum of the desire to use the process and the need for a decision – sometimes quickly.

“In my seven or eight weeks here, it hasn’t been a problem yet,” she told Global Sisters Report last month. “But there are all different kinds of decisions by different people and groups within the organization; some are needed quickly, and some are not. But my preference and my desire would be to take all the time that’s needed for a decision and include all the people that need to be part of that.”

And when a decision is “needed now?”

“Just because a decision needs to be made quickly doesn’t mean it can’t be done in a reflective manner,” Steadman said. “And when we take the time to reflect on all the aspects of the issue before us, you come to a sense of inner freedom.”

Sometimes, the decision is largely made for you, but going through the process still matters.

“Sometimes in the process, you make a decision, but you need to sit with it a little while,” she said. “Does it feel in the deepest part of ourselves that we’ve made the right decision?”

Last fall, the decision Steadman had to make was whether to accept the position.

LCWR has been under the shadow of a Vatican-ordered doctrinal assessment since 2009. Following the investigation, in 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced a five-year framework for the group to reform its statutes, and it appointed a bishop to oversee changes.

At the time Steadman was selected, women religious in the United States were also uneasily awaiting the results of the Vatican’s separate Apostolic Visitation, a three-year effort to examine “the quality of life” of women religious in the U.S.

The report from that effort was released Dec. 16 and was largely laudatory. But no one knew what the report would say when Steadman’s appointment was announced Oct. 28.

But instead of fear or apprehension, Steadman said she felt peace and freedom.

“I really had a sense of desire and a feeling that if this was were I was called, I would be glad to serve,” Steadman said. “I felt a sense of freedom, a deep sense of peace that if it worked out, then it was where I was supposed to be, and if not, then there was something else I needed to do.”

That sense of peace was what led her to say yes when the position was offered.

“That was probably part of the bedrock of my discernment,” she said.

And Vatican pressures are just one more challenge in a world full of them, Steadman said.

“I would say it’s the reality, but it’s one of many realities. It wasn’t a weight over my head,” she said. “And LCWR is about so much, that it’s a part of what we need to work on, but it’s not everything. . . . In a broader sense as religious women and religious congregations, we’re always trying to look at the signs of the times and discern how we can respond in terms of the Gospel, in light of our charisms and for the betterment of the global community. We’re always trying to do that kind of discernment.”

Of course, there were positive factors to consider in taking the job.

“I really think we [LCWR] have something to offer to the church and to the world,” Steadman said. “And if I can help do that in a contemplative and discerning way, I should.”

It helped that Steadman was no stranger to the leadership conference: As the leader of the Holy Cross community in Notre Dame, Indiana, Steadman was an LCWR member from 1994 to 2004, when she also served as chair of LCWR’s Region 7 and was on the LCWR board. She was a member and chair of Region 7 again from 2009 to 2014, and served a year on the executive committee.

“I found myself deeply committed to [LCWR’s] mission, its charism of religious life,” Steadman said.

Now, she’s trying to settle in to the new job and a new home on the East Coast. LCWR is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., far from snowy South Bend, Indiana.

“I think it’s going well. It’s a time of learning, a time of working with the team here and getting a deeper understanding of roles and processes,” Steadman said. “I’m getting to know people in the area, people LCWR has relationships with. It’s a time to understand my call and the initiatives we’ve committed ourselves to.”

Steadman’s experience is a mix of administrative and spiritual.

In addition to 15 years of leadership at Holy Cross, she has also been associate director of healthcare ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University; vice-president for mission at Holy Cross Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah; regional executive team member at Holy Cross Health Services of Utah; pastoral associate at St. Therese Parish, Fresno, California, and St. Elizabeth Parish, Richfield, Utah; novice director for her community; and administrator and teacher in several elementary and secondary schools. She currently serves as a member of the board of the Loyola University Health System in Chicago, and has served on several hospital boards, as well as the board of Saint Mary College in Notre Dame.

She holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Saint Mary College and a master of arts degree in spirituality from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Steadman said the position requires both aspects of her experience.

“There are certainly administrative aspects of this, without a doubt. But the context in which it’s being lived out is a deeply spiritual context. Even the administrative details have to be worked out in that broader context,” she said. “For me it’s a ministry, it’s not a job.”

Steadman doesn’t hesitate to say it’s not always easy to see a spiritual vocation in the day-to-day.

“I think we work on it our whole life. That’s why I find it so important to take time for prayer, both contemplative prayer and communal prayer,” she said. “Certainly, there are days when I wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’ But it’s about staying grounded, staying in tune with the moving in one’s spirit. Sometimes it’s just reflecting on the readings of the day. You go to Mass and you think, ‘Whoa, that Gospel was written just for me; I really needed that today.’”

And those efforts don’t ever stop, Steadman said.

“We live in such a fast-paced society, it’s easy to get swallowed up in that,” she said. “It’s about taking time and being thoughtful in what I do. It’s a lifelong journey.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]