Tomorrow's leadership today

Recently I was invited to give a talk to a class of university students. The topic was one I am fairly familiar with: vocation.

As a young woman religious, you get used to telling your vocation story. The twist to this talk, however, was that it wasn’t just my vocation story I was sharing. I had been invited to explore vocation in a broader sense and, on a deeper level, to consider how the call to leadership is being issued in the church today.

By and large, leadership is a topic overlooked in regard to young adults in the church today. I can’t count how many times I have been at meetings where it’s been conjectured about what church will be passed on to the next generation. Questions and murky answers fly back and forth as if I and any other young adults are not seated there.

What will be the church of the future? What will the young people of today take on tomorrow? Is there a future? How do you attract young adults?

These questions aren’t bad in themselves, but they ignore a critical fact: The leaders of tomorrow are here right now. 

Younger people – whether vowed religious or not – are members of this church, not some future church that we are imagining. And, in order to ensure that the church does not just eventually become “theirs” but is instead “ours” here and now, we need to seriously look at how we understand and live out the concepts of vocation and faith-filled leadership.

At its core, vocation is a call to be who we are with intention and to live intentionally in relationship with others and with God. Being your vocation means fully embracing who you are and being open to discovering how you can most fully be yourself, the person God calls you to be, someone seeking life, showing love, and witnessing to the gifts of God in the world. This isn’t a new concept. Yet inviting members of the church to this vision of intentionality and vocation is key. 

For me, that call has come in the form of vowed religious life. I have found life and love in the midst of the twists and turns of this life. And as I look at the church today, I imagine that no matter the path one chooses, life in the years ahead will offer the same series of twists and turns. It is not any one way of life that will or must change . . . it is our entire understanding of life in the church and way of being as church that will need to change.

If we are intentional in our living as individuals, we will also be so in our life as a community. In religious congregations, this means truthfully evaluating and discussing who we are meant to be and the actuality of how we are living in relation to these ideals.

As Pope Francis said at the close of the recent extraordinary Synod on the family, “God is not afraid of new things.” Change is inevitable in our world, and in order to read and proactively respond to the signs of the times, we as a church – as the People of God – need to adapt in ways that take ownership and promote leadership among all people. This is a part of each and every person’s vocation. It is part and parcel to the way in which we are with one another, and ultimately the way in which we pass on the Gospel through the example of how we interact with the world. 

True leaders are servant leaders,  the leaders each and every one of us are called to be, and the model of discipleship that Christ gives to us is one based on dialogue. To lead and to find our way, we need to be able to listen. Listening is what lays the groundwork for true dialogue. If we are open to hearing another – not just for what they have to say but for who they are –  then and only then can we respond with words that draw us into union.

In this way, dialogue becomes a pathway to encounter. Good leaders are able to consider what is different, and even when they may not agree or may find fault in one’s reasoning, being engaged in dialogue allows them to see not just a position or an argument but a person. When we see one another in this way we can work together for the common good. We can love in a way that holds our neighbor dearly. We can be in relationship with one another and we will find that the church is not just a structure or a system but rather it is a community.

The church is a community based on right relationships. When we lead and love in this way, we see people as they truly are and in the midst of conversation – with all its give and take – we discover that Truth has the ability to unite and ignite passion in our midst. When we can harness the power of such dialogue, when we can find common ground, we are able to build something amazing, something revolutionary, something called the Kingdom in our midst.

As I experience the way in which women religious operate in our church, the ideal that is lifted up over and over again is dialogue. Our lives as women religious are rooted in this ideal. The vows we take bring us into dialogue with God and with the world. We must listen. Listen to the will of God as it calls us; listen to the needs of the world around us; and listen to the call of the Gospel to radical discipleship that witnesses to a God greater than all else. Our governance is communal and so dialogue is essential. We aren’t perfect and so often miss the mark of intentional dialogue. When we fail to hear one another, we fail to listen to the Spirit in our midst. The same is true of the church. We must listen to one another without judgment, acting out of love and finding the conversion that conversation allows for.

By listening, we come to better know our God and so better embody who we are called to be – our vocation. The life we live is ultimately a dialogue with the One who has made us. God calls, we respond. Leadership in the church models such dialogue – the way I respond to God is my action in the world, it is how I draw others into community, and how I witness to God in the everyday. Such witness is what we discover in the leaders of our day and the saints we emulate. Edith Stein, once said, “The nation . . . doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” The same is true of the church and of the leaders of tomorrow.

The church doesn’t simply need what we have; it needs who we are to lead it into the future. It needs people who are passionate, who think and love deeply and whose passions blossom into compassion – a love that knows the pains of the world, feels them, and strives to embody Christ’s love and vision by working for justice and peace in our world and our hearts. 

In religious congregations, it is often said that our greatest leader may not yet have even joined us. Recognizing and fostering leadership among our ranks and not just in the concentrated hands of an age group that predominates is part of the dialogue that needs to continue to happen. The same can be said of the church as a whole.

If we are intentional about fostering leadership and opening dialogue, we will have a future beyond what we can imagine. It’s a matter of recognizing that vocation is who we are and who God made us to be. When we can do that together, as a larger community, we will discover that the possibilities for greatness and grace are limitless.

[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]