April 30, 2014

The Ministry of Leadership and Religious Life - Elizabeth Davis rsm #1

Editor: Over 5 days (11-15 May) Elizabeth Davis rsm (Newfoundland) will lead a group of Mercy Sisters at Mercy International Centre in an exploration of the ministry of leadership through the metaphors of beauty, poetry, teaching, healing and sacred word.

Sr Elizabeth, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Mercy Newfoundland, has held a number of positions of  leadership in society, in church and in community and so is well qualified to speak out of her own broad experience.

An opportunity to converse with Elizabeth about leadership recently presented itself. It began with the question 'What does the word "leadership" evoke for you'?


Elizabeth is in no doubt: 'I definitely see leadership as a particular calling, a vocation. But I think each one of us is called to leadership at different times in our lives, depending on the circumstances, depending on the experience of the moment. So it's not you're "Once a leader, always a leader". Every single one of us has within her or him that gift of leadership that can be exercised in multiple ways. I find as I go through life what leadership means to me changes. It doesn't get better or worse, it just changes, because of where I'm responding, or how I'm responding '

Not only are individuals leaders, but so are organisations. 'We also know today that leadership is about a community or an organisation, so not only does an individual exercise leadership or experience leadership, but so too does a community or an organisation experience leadership - again, depending on the circumstances of the time.'

In thinking about leadership in her own life, Elizabeth first recalls her childhood experiences. 'There was an expectation in our family that each one of us took responsibility for the community somehow and that was a form of leadership, although as a child I could never have articulated it that way.'

Elizabeth distinguishes between natural leadership roles and appointed leadership roles, both experiences of which have been threaded through her lifetime. 'I've been blessed to be named to leadership in my paid work in health care administration and then the Congregation chose me to be one of the leaders of the Congregation at a point in its history.'

'I was put into leadership in the Congregation - my present leadership role - by the Congregation. In other words, for this moment in time the Congregation called forth from me that particular gift. I myself believe my richer gift is teaching. But right now the Congregation said, "No, the gift we're calling forth from you is leadership. And we expect you to work as a part of a leading team, not by yourself, but as part of a leading team and we expect you to call forth what is good in our Congregation in that term", in this case, of 4 years.'

Elizabeth contrasted the experience of being called to congregational leadership with a prior experience of being selected and employed by a board to be the first president and ceo of a healthcare authority that brought together all the teaching hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador, a total of 7,000 staff, 600 physicians. 'But the similarity, the leadership in each case, for me is that somehow a community has a task, has a vision, has a work and they need a person or a team to call forth the giftedness in them to make that happen. So at the healthcare corporation I was called to be a presence at a time of major transition, to be the one who articulated the vision, who kept us focussed on that vision, but was able to find different ways of getting to the vision that were respectful of staff, physicians, and volunteers in that setting. Today in the Congregation I'm still expected to be doing the very same thing in some ways - articulating the vision (or in our case the Chapter did that) and then I as part of that team and We the team to keep animating us,  keep moving us, towards that vision.

So what lies at the the heart of leadership?  Three elements say Elizabeth. 'For me leadership is always about vision. It is always about persistence in coming to that vision and it is always about finding respectful healing ways of getting to that vision. And the irony is as you come closer to the vision of course, the vision is no longer vision, it becomes mission and then a new vision is emerging. So that the organic dynamism of that is always operational. When you are in leadership you have to be sensitive to that.'

'Whereas all of us live it, the leaders designated are the ones who at that moment have to be the most sensitive to it, have to be calling the whole community into awareness of it, have to be challenging the community about how they're moving towards the vision. So for that point in time you have that particular role, that particular ministry, that particular calling that is energising for that whole community to get to that vision.'

'I believe that was true for me when I was a child. My parents expected me to be a leader in the classroom, in the family...They were doing the same thing - they expected me, expected us to see beyond what is, to always see what is possible, [to ask ourselves] what can we do to make this better, make it fairer, more respectful, more comfortable. I was blessed. My parents had a responsibility for what I'd today call "the social fabric" We [children] were expected to go into that as well.'

'And I've been very blessed [in teaching, in healthcare] and now in my Congregation.  We have a Congregation that is continuing to grow in energy and in the charism, even though we may be getting smaller in number [110 persons], but the energy and the wisdom and the hope among us is a rich gift to the Church and to our Province and Peru.'

So many people are talking about the opposite. Can you say more about growth in religious life?  I firmly believe we are continuing to grow. I firmly believe we are continuing to deepen the charism in the new social reality that we're finding ourselves in. Catherine never had 110 members before she died and look what she achieved in terms of the legacy, the charism.'

'I do think that we are really in a time where we are understanding Church differently, we're understanding justice differently, we're coming into a whole new understanding of cosmology that helps us see the oneness of all creation in ways we had never imagined before. All of that is growing and we are doing that now, not alone, but in connection with other women religious, in connection with clergy and bishops, much more so with lay people. Not because we are so small that we can't do it by ourselves anymore, but we've finally realised that we're all in this journey together. And we can only do it if we are walking, thinking, working, reflecting, dreaming together. And how much richer that is than the way we thought before. So yes, I do think we are continuing to grow and the conversations we have now are so different to those of 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Not because we're better today, but because the social realities are so different today than they were then.

Are there particular aspects of the social realities that are enabling those conversations? 'Very much so', says Elizabeth. The diversity is so important. Elizabeth Johnson, the American theologian, says, "The dignity of difference is a source of blessing"'. I'm becoming more aware of the richness diversity brings when we open ourselves -

  • We have 6 generations of people living together, formed with different values. We've never seen that phenomenon on the face of the earth before. We all - each generation - have a richness, a diversity. that we bring.
  • The face of the family. Today we have multi-racial families, older families, families with same sex parents... And in Canada's case, for the first time in our history we have more families without children than with children. In other words, the image we have of family which is the basic community in any society has changed dramatically. That, combined with the multiple generations, creates some fascinating conversations, fascinating living. We who are baby boomers are enriched and challenged by that.
  • Our growing understanding of the new cosmology and seeing that all being is connected. That's helping us understand that the very little we do can have such an impact. Think of the butterfly effect...that small motion being replicated, touching something else and touching something else again creates a major, major change. Sometimes we think what we do is so little (our Congregation is a very small one) and yet if we believe what this new cosmology is teaching us, then the little we do makes a huge difference.
  • We're starting to see ecological justice and social justice are of a piece. Our Canadian Bishops quote a writer whom they don't name [Leonardo Boff] "The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one"  and as we come more to understand that to be so, then we understand justice through a different set of eyes. Elizabeth Johnson says for women religious today there are 5 frontiers: wretched poverty, women’s experience of gender-based discrimination, white privilege and racism, religious pluralism, and awareness of earth as a place of beauty and suffering in an evolving universe.2 She talks about how in our time these are the most pressing issues calling us to a response and we can't separate ecological and social justice anymore. They are all of a piece.'

Messages to: Elizabeth Davis rsm

1Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2007), p. 178.
2 Ibid.

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