June 04, 2014

The Ministry of Leadership and Religious Life - Elizabeth Davis rsm #2

Editor: In the second part of our conversation with Elizabeth Davis rsm, I asked why the choice of the 4 metaphors - Healer, Teacher, Poet, Reader - for leadership?

In addition to leadership in religious life, Sr Elizabeth has had significant leadership experience in the healthcare field - as Executive Director of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital (1986-1994) and as the first President and Chief Executive Officer of the Health Care Corporation of St. John’s (1994-2000), along with memberships on healthcare boards, councils and foundations. Increasingly, hospitals are designing environments for patient care that reduce stress and promote healing benefits, so it is not surprising, given that background, that Elizabeth speaks of leadership as incorporating 'respectful healing ways' with the members of the community, and why she singles out 'healer' as one of her 4 metaphors for leadership.

The word “healing” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "haelen", which means to make whole. One way to understand the term is as harmony of mind, body, and spirit. Part of being a leader in any group, says Sr Elizabeth, is to create environments - surroundings or conditions - where healing happens because each member feels comfortable and is respected. Respecting the dignity of the human person is paramount.

  • Healer

'I spoke about Healer first because I believe that in the time in which we are living there are so many ruptures and social shifts in society, so much change - the multiple generations, the changing face of 'family', the increasing appalling poverty in our world... The gap in countries like Australia and Canada is wider than it was before the Second World War and we don't talk about this publicly. We don't pretend to notice it. We talk about the appalling poverty in the Developing World and we're not realising how much poverty there is in our First World. For example, 20% of people on this earth own 83% of the wealth. There's something terribly wrong about that.'

'There are many ruptures and disconnects in our society, including the disconnects among families and within families. When we centralise schools and centralise churches, we take them out of the small community, a significant disruption... Then there are the rural /urban divides that are taking place. All of these seismic social shifts happening among us create uncertainties and anxieties in people so a major part of the work of leaders is to be Healers.'

'Healers don't do the healing. What Healers do is create the environments in which healing can happen. So part of the challenge for any leader is creating: finding ways to call forth those healing environments. Healing environments are places that can challenge you. They are not just comfortable, easy places, but they are places where you can struggle through to find wholeness again - whether the 'you' is a person, or a family, or a community or an organisation - so that healing happens.'

  • Teacher

From an early age Elizabeth wanted to teach. She believes it is her greatest gift. 'Teaching is very close to my heart.' It was after years teaching high school (1969 to the early 1980s) that she undertook the ministry of healthcare. Her own experiences of teaching have been in the classroom, in university and in leadership.

'The primary responsibility of the Teacher - whether in a classroom, a university or as a leader - is to call forth the good in the person, the family, the community. Calling forth the good; allowing the good to come forth safely very often, but always calling forth the good in the person.'

'The wonderful image of that Teacher is Woman Wisdom in the Old Testament. She is an anomaly in the Old Testament. We don't have a goddess in the Christian Old Testament, but we do have this woman who will not go away. She's present in the books where you'd least expect it - in Sirach who can't stand women; in Proverbs where there's very little support for women and in the book of Job. She will not be silenced.'

'And who is Woman Wisdom? She is definitely a woman Hokmah (in Hebrew) or Sophia (in Greek) and she dances with God at the moment of Creation. And again in the Book of Proverbs. She helps us become friends of God and prophets, which I find fascinating.'

'So she is a wonderful role model, or image, of how a leader is a Teacher calling forth the good. The other wonderful thing about Wisdom Literature generally and Woman Wisdom personifying that - she calls order out of chaos. The description of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs is a whole lot of adjectives. (It's an English Teacher's dream!)'

'That Woman Wisdom sees diversity and is able to make that diversity work together is a mystical reality and an aspect of the richness of the Old Testament.'

  • Poet 

'Most of my leadership learning was in healthcare. In healthcare (speaking of the field generally) we spent a great deal of time and money taking every bit of creativity out of healthcare professionals and healthcare workers.

We wanted them to "do this in this time very efficiently". So creativity was not to be there. And then we realised "How can you be healthy if there is no creativity?" "How can you be healthy if there is no vision?" So then we started to say - and I say this always in my teaching about leadership - The first quality of a leader is to be a visionary. To be able to see beyond what is. To be able to imagine what can be. And that is the domain of the poet, the artist, the musician. But what the poet is able to do by putting it in language is to help us who are maybe not so creative, to see as well as to imagine and create that world.'

'The poet writes so that we can see those new worlds. Poets are not like scientists putting it down as "this is the way it is". Poets are able to evoke your seeing in a way that's very different to my seeing and yet we both see a vision based on what the poet has evoked for us. And again, that's what leaders are called to do: to be able to give enough of the vision to call you into the vision so together the community shapes the vision for itself, a very organic, a very dynamic kind of energy happening. And the poet causes that. And it's never finished, never complete, never so descriptive you have no manouvering room. Just the opposite.'

  • Reader

'And finally the Reader. Even though I've talked about the fact that words are not the only way that we learn, words are so important, so rich. Words not only describe reality, they shape reality. And what we know today - and what I've learned in my study of interpretation of the Scriptures - is that there is no meaning until the Reader comes. So when the Reader interacts with the text the meaning happens.'

'Now what that means is that because of the experience the Reader brings to the reading, the interpretation is very different in each time and space. So if I am in this time reading here in Melbourne and someone else is reading the same text in Indonesia or in the Antarctic, the readings are in some ways very connected but in some ways very different. So we reinterpret in each age, in each place.'

'Part of the challenge for the leader as Reader is to help the community reinterpret into a new time. That's what Scripture does eg Peter's reading in Acts is a reinterpretation of the exact text from the Prophet Joel, but in a new circumstance, in a new place. So the leader is constantly calling the community into the present moment, into the reality of the present moment.'

'There is a wonderful quote I use from one of the leaders of the Daughters of Wisdom in France. She says: "How can we dare Wisdom in the mosaic of our realities?" So what the Reader helps us to do is dare Wisdom in the mosaic of our realities. Therefore the leader as Reader is calling the community to know the social realities of the time and then help them find meaning in that moment, in that mosaic of our realities.'

To be continued: Sisters of Mercy Today (final part)

Messages to: Elizabeth Davis rsm - Congregational Leader Newfoundland


1 Sr Inès Maria dell’ Eucaristia (1994)

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