More than 100 younger sisters will gather in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend to compare notes, renew old ties and continue preparing for the future of religious life.
The get-together May 25-28 at St. Xavier University is for alumnae of the Collaborative Leadership Development Program, which works to develop the next generation of leaders among women religious. Those who finished the program wanted to find a way to keep building on what they learned and forming their relationships, so they created separate alumnae gatherings held every other year.
The leadership program itself, which consists of three four-day sessions over the course of a year, is funded by a grant from the GHR Foundation and sponsored by a coalition of religious communities and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The GHR Foundation also helps fund the alumnae events.
"[The Collaborative Leadership Development Program] started with sisters in leadership recognizing that communities are shrinking, and for younger sisters, there was nothing to train them for leadership," said Religious Sister of Mercy Sandy Prucha, one of the alumnae event's organizers. "So several sisters approached the Mercy Sisters because they had a really defined program and asked if they would share it."
The first yearlong program began in 2013.
"I was in that first group myself, and it was phenomenal," Prucha said. "There was such a range of 19 or 20 communities, so we had sisters in everything from full habits to flip-flops and T-shirts. Among women religious, there are so few of us in this younger age spectrum that when we met together, it was like finding new life. … We said, 'We cannot let this stop.' "
The first national alumnae gathering was held in 2015; there are also regional gatherings of program graduates.
"The first one, in 2015 in Chicago, it set us on fire," Prucha said.
That fire comes from the leadership skills they're developing through the initial program, subsequent alumnae meetings and the relationships they are nurturing, she said, as well as from the reality that as religious life as we know it today changes, their generation will be the leaders guiding whatever comes next.
"We say to one another, 'Our numbers are shrinking, so how do we want to mission and minister together?' Can you think of ministries you would want to share with others?' " Prucha said. "We know sisters are coming to this event with ideas of ministries that haven't yet happened. We need to know their vision of helping those in need in the world."
Kathleen Mahoney, a senior program officer at the GHR Foundation, said the not-for-profit is pleased with the peer networks and relationships that the program has developed but is even prouder that alumnae are showing their leadership by preparing for what comes next.
"The future of women's religious life is in the making, and some of these relationships the sisters are developing may hold the seeds for the future," Mahoney said.
Wheaton Franciscan Sr. Glenna Czachor said what makes the alumnae gatherings so powerful for her is that combination of developing leadership skills, peer support and planning the future of religious life.
"My community is very small. There's only 46 of us in the United States, and at age 50, I'm the youngest," Czachor said. "So this gives me peers. They're not in my own community or tradition, but they are in my age cohort. It's not that my community isn't supportive — they are — but I don't have the age peers there."
She said she loves that the gatherings show the range of leadership possibilities.
"We're all in different stages of leadership in our own communities — some are in elected positions, and some are not, but they're in other leadership. For example, I'm the director of our education and retreat center," Czachor said. "This lets me find peers doing similar work."
She said the gatherings also help with a more subtle divide between themselves and older sisters: Most older sisters in leadership were in formation before the Second Vatican Council, while Czachor's generation all came to religious life after.
"We didn't have those same kinds of restrictions or limits that were put on women religious pre-Vatican II," she said. "The sisters that lived through Vatican II still have a sense of that hierarchy that exists in the background, that more linear point of view that whoever the leader is has the final word, where we tend to be more collaborative."
Czachor said sisters in her cohort tend to prefer a leadership model like that of LCWR, which has a president, a past-president and a president-elect working as a team.
She said her generation also tends to be more open to other types of ministry, rather than those women religious have typically been involved in, such as teaching or nursing.
Prucha said many of those new ministries may in the future be run by sisters born outside the United States, meaning openness to new ideas and a willingness to collaborate will be more essential than ever.
"The data [on foreign-born sisters] is telling us we have some fabulous opportunities ahead of us," Prucha said. "We know that leadership in the future is not going to be what it has been in the past."