Conference explores collaborative leadership models for challenging times

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

If you ask lay supporters their thoughts on how the Leadership Conference of Women Religious handled the Vatican's 2012 statement that it was guilty of undermining church teachings – not to mention the subsequent appointment of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee the group's activities – they'll tell you how inspired they were by the LCWR's prayerful, respectful response.

That response, many supporters will also tell you, is far from an anomaly, but is rather a manifestation of Catholic sisters' little recognized style of leadership.

"I think people are aware of the work that [sisters] do, but I don't know how much people think of them as being leaders in the leadership field," said Linda Plitt Donaldson, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. She also is a member of Solidarity with Sisters, a lay group formed to support U.S. women religious and the LCWR, which represents more than 80 percent of them.

But on Saturday, supporters had an opportunity to learn more about spiritual leadership – the LCWR's particular flavor of contemplation-based, collaborative leadership – at an all-day conference at the school, sponsored by Solidarity with Sisters and the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

"The goal for the event was to share the way of leading that LCWR and Catholic sisters have been showing us for years, for decades," Donaldson said.

Borrowing the name "Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times" from a newly published anthology of 10 of the group's presidential addresses, the conference came on the heels of the LCWR's most recent reprimand. It featured current and former leaders who outlined the essentials of spiritual leadership – not in a direct response to criticism, but as an endorsement of an alternative vision of leadership with universal applications.

The conference began with an address by Sr. Marie McCarthy, the associate director of program development for the LCWR, in which she emphasized that the organization's "wholearchical" rather than "hierarchical" leadership is not so much a theory or model, but rather a natural way of being, a desire for equality and mutual respect inherent in all people.

"If we feel drawn to it," McCarthy told the audience of about 150 people, "it's because we already know something of it. We experience a resonance with it." She added that the more corporate emergence in women's congregations of a democratic, spiritual leadership was an inevitable end as their consciousness evolved.

"Women religious did not set out to develop a way of doing spiritual leadership," she said, "we set out to live our lives with authenticity, faithful to our call, rooted in prayer and deeply grounded in gospel values. The particular way of doing leadership that has emerged among women religious is a direct result of that commitment – it's something we've grown into over time."

McCarthy's remarks were followed by a panel discussion with three former presidents: Srs. Pat Farrell, Helen Maher Garvey and Mary Hughes, who shared their personal experiences of sisters' early shift toward equality and contemplation as the hallmarks of leadership, both in their congregations and in the LCWR more broadly.

Hughes, a Dominican Sister of Amityville, N.Y., noted that after Vatican II, her congregation had dropped the term "superior" in order to foster equality. Farrell spoke about learning, as a leader, to foster respect for all opinions by creating space for minority or dissenting views and by eliminating judgment in conversation, positive or negative. Garvey, in a later question-and-answer session, discussed how contemplation has helped her to deal with negative accusations.

"I think one of the first things that's important is not to make the other the enemy," she said. "If you're thinking about some of the cardinals and some of the sisters – we all gave our lives to the same thing; there was a point at which we all said yes to a call from God . . . I remind myself that they love and continue to love the same church I love, but we're standing at different places, and we're seeing different things."

It was these personal anecdotes that resonated most with Gregory Robison, director of the John Main Center for Meditation and Inter-religious Dialogue at Georgetown University, who called the speakers' combined amount of experience "extraordinary." At the same time, he said, the conference's importance stemmed not from the introduction of new leadership concepts but the reiteration of old ones.

"We know that we need to listen, we know that we shouldn't be precipitous in making decisions," he said, "but we have to hear these things frequently. Just like why we go to Mass every week: we were the same readings, we hear the same scripture, but we're different. So we have to hear it again because we're not in the same place."

And in a sense, that was the goal of the conference – to send attendees back to their parishes and organizations armed with an enhanced knowledge of spiritual leadership.

"The addresses in the book were for a specific audience," said Sr. Annemarie Sanders, the LCWR's associate director of communications and editor of the anthology from which the conference stemmed. "But [the conference sponsors] could see that the application of the principles in that book could be beneficial to a much wider audience than just Catholic sisters."

Yet, Linda Plitt Donaldson was quick to point out that while she considered the conference a success, the day had been spent preaching to the choir – that is, people who already supported the LCWR and its way of leading. A more diverse base is necessary, Donaldson said, but she's confident Saturday's attendees will be key in fostering that diversity for the future.

"They are part of the voice. They are the instruments to help amplify and model," she said.

After a series of contemplative activities and small-group discussions, the conference closed as it began, with everyone singing "How Can I Keep From Singing?" an anthem of the defiant hope that seemed to permeate the crowd, even if there had been no direct mention of any critique of the LCWR.

"We will do as we always do," Hughes said during the Q & A, quoting an African sister she met at a meeting of International Union of Superior Generals. "We will listen, we will be respectful and, in the end, we will teach them."

The audience laughed.

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

Related – How are we called to lead? by Jan Cebula, about the book, Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times.