Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Like us on Facebook

LCWR National Assembly Keynote Address,Nancy Schreck, OSF

LCWR National Assembly Keynote Address  
August 22, 2003, Detroit, MI 

by Nancy Schreck, OSF


As we begin today I invite you to look around this room and take in the wisdom of gathered here and the power of women’s leadership. Some of the wisdom is newborn - still rather raw with pain, some is born of legal and financial challenges.  Some wisdom is alive with new hope, other is weary, some knows fear, others is confident and ready. Some of you are new to the process of congregational leadership and some are ready to lay down the towel of service. It is good to be in this community of leaders.   I am humbled to be invited to address you today. 

First, a word about how we will spend our time this afternoon: do you know how much of a lecture people remember after twenty-four hours? I share here a statistic from educational research.  The average person remembers about 5 % of a talk twenty-four hours after hearing it. So even if I gave a brilliant lecture this afternoon you are likely to remember only about 5% of what you heard. If we add some discussion and so forth we can get that learning perhaps to 50%, so we will be doing a combination of things during the next two hours. At times I will ask for partner sharing, quiet reflection, table sharing and so forth. 

I have entitled this reflection “Seeing stars – Leadership in a New Time.” When we talk about a new cosmology stars figure significantly in the dialog so it was natural to want to frame my comments about leadership with this image. Seeing stars first of all is about having a guiding vision for your ministry of leadership. Do you remember as a child singing: “When you wish upon a star makes no difference who you are, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.” 
I work with many congregations in their election process. Eventually every discernment gets around to qualities the members seek in their leaders and  vision tops the list.  You were probably elected because people saw you as someone having vision – you could see stars.

The little girl looked at the star and began to cry.  The star asked her, “Why are you crying?”  The girl answered, “You are too far away. I shall never be able to reach you!”  And the star replied, “O little one, if I were not already in your heart, you would not be able to see me.”  

                                                                                                           John Magliola (Adapted to the feminine)

I know you are women literally born of stardust and figuratively are women who see stars. You have come to leadership full of hope and vision, desire and passion.  Those visions have not always come easy.  Stars cannot be seen when it is too light or too white. 
As star-gazers you are in good company.  You walk with the magi who in their search for Jesus followed a star.  You journey with Sarah who was promised that her descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. 

But there is another side to seeing stars. We also use this image when we are confused, when we take a fall, perhaps hitting our heads against something very hard.  While you leaders are full of visions and dreams, you also know the reality of the challenges of leadership especially in these complex times.  I would guess some of you are up to your noses in challenges that sometimes feel like they have little to do with your visions. (E.g. renovation/selling the motherhouse, merger dialogs, assisting someone regarding mental or physical health needs, dealing with legal matters)  As leaders we live in the tension of both kinds of seeing stars.

Let me test an assumption as I begin.  The brochure for this conference reads: “Join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.”  Now that quote is on the back page of the registration materials so you may not have gotten to it, but I imagine many of you saying: “I can’t handle one more thing, and this certainly sounds like “saving the world.” And yet here you are: responding to the sacred call of tending the holy earth.

       REFLECTION:  Which approach to “seeing stars” most accurately describes your reality of      
       leadership at this time.  

       PARTNER CONVERSATION:  2 – 3 minute conversation with a partner.  

As we proceed with this reflection, I invite you to carry both: seeing stars – vision, and seeing stars – confusion. I will talk with you about two significant things this afternoon: That is  “leadership” and in a “new time.”

In a new time:  I do not need to tell you that we live in a time of shifting paradigms which effect religious life tremendously. The “new cosmology,” “earth justice,” “eco-feminism” are words that few of us used twenty years ago, or perhaps last year, or maybe until we participated in this conference.  In addition we could talk about the sociological, political, or economic changes. While many of these shifts are important to explore what I will talk about is the theological shift – inherent in earth justice, that not only is happening, but which is very critical for our time. Thomas Merton said in a very prophetic way:

“We are living in the greatest revolution in history, a huge, spontaneous upheaval of the entire human race.  Not a revolution planned and carried out by any particular party, race, or nation, but a deep elemental boiling over of all the inner contradictions that have ever been in people.  A revolution of the chaotic forces inside everybody.  This in not something we have chosen, nor is it anything we are free to avoid.”

Dr. King said it this way: “When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

In biblical language I believe we are moving from a time of living in the spirit of the Exodus and Promised Land to that of the Exile  - of finding our proper place in a world much larger than ourselves.  I have been thinking  a lot about Exile:  It isn’t a very popular theme in religious circles and with good reason for it is a very disconcerting reality.  It is much more comfortable to see ourselves in the mirror of Israel, as a well-established and successful nation, powerful and strong.

Exile is about a time when the whole known world of Israel came crashing down on its head and life. It is about losing dominance, power and control, about being “lost in a foreign land,” being homeless, not sure of how one belongs, about having to live without all the power structures that once held life in place and gave status.  Exile is about rediscovering from a different place in the social reality what the covenant with God was really all about in the first place. It is about learning how to live with strangeness, insecurity, and as a minority within the dominant population.  Exile is about the shift from being large and powerful to being small and insignificant. It is about learning how to be interdependent, part of something larger than oneself, and learning to redefine life and faith when the context shifts.

I would like to offer a few examples of this exile-like experience and then draw some applications to the ministry of leadership.  One of the shifts happening is a changing understanding of our place in creation. Through the new cosmology we are beginning to realize that the human species no longer has the dominant place in the order of creation.  The changes needed to replace our anthropocentric sensibility with a cosmocentric one are immense and diverse.  The implications are immense and diverse as well. While we have been thinking we humans were so important, we are now learning things like the most essential being on the earth is the ant!

This need for a shift in thinking is coming to us for science as is to be expected but our theology is also shifting.  While this is liberating for some it is disturbing for many. We humans are experiencing liberation from our perceived “dominant place” but to many it feels like a fall, strange and uncomfortable. While we know that this change is necessary and good, we also have to admit that we hold some things so dearly that we are blind to other insights and that makes the shift difficult.  This is a critical time for asking new questions.

Alice Walker, once asked, “Is there anything more painful than realizing we did not know the right questions to ask at the only time on earth we would have the opportunity to do so?”  There are new questions for our time such as how do we and ought we think about God and the world, and about ourselves in relation to God and the world.  Or the question posed by Sallie McFague, “What if we dared to think of our planet as the body of God? -  God, not transcendent over the universe in the sense of external to, or apart from it, but as the source, power and goal; the spirit that enlivens and loves the entire process and its material forms.  God the inspirited body of the entire universe, the animating, living spirit that produces guides, and saves all that is. What if the cosmos was the picture we turned to when we try to imagine divine incarnation?  What if as Thomas Berry says “the body of Christ is ultimately the entire universe?” 

There will be many other speakers during the Assembly who will reflect on this reality so it is not my intention to really explore this theology.  I simply want to note that we are in a massive theological shift with huge implications for leadership.  These shifts shake the foundations of so many things we believe and effect everything.  For example how do we understand salvation?  For the past several hundred years at least, Christianity has been concerned almost exclusively with the salvation of the individual human beings (souls) rather than with the well being of the oppressed including not only the oppression of human beings but also the oppressed earth and all its life forms.  What if we believed that salvation is about healing, and just as the cosmos itself can be ruptured and torn apart by injustice, so too it can be healed by human efforts to bring justice back to the human relationships with earth, air, fire, water, and one another.  (Matthew Fox)

While Christians generally understand God’s will for salvation on earth to involve healing and wholeness for human beings, we must extend our understanding to include healing and wholeness for the rest of creation.  To usher in God’s will on earth as in heaven requires that we treat the earth as if it were heaven.  This means we must treat it with respect for its sacredness and ensure its health, beauty and wholeness.  Human responsibility that reconciles humankind and creation with God does not requires dominating the earth as Christians have often misunderstood their task, but loving the earth as one’s kindred and one’s self.   Restoration of right relationship with God includes restoration of right relationship with the earth.  Such restoration is redemptive because we move toward God’s original intention of the harmonious interrelatedness of life. (Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasium Baker- Fletcher)

Though we live in a new time, so much of theological worldview operative in religious life continues comes to us from the Council of Nicea:  While its hold is fading many of our members continue to be formed in a kind of theological thinking in which there is the world (which was evil and to be escaped,) the church (which was the vehicle of escape) and heaven or the other world (our real purpose in life.)  We have developed much of our theology of religious life based on this world denying approach.  As I have said, much has shifted but it is not left behind. Listen to the conversations of your members. Hear them as they struggle to articulate the meaning of the vows in their lives.  See the traces of the anti-world thinking.  Or what is of greater concern to me is that though we may have left behind this particular theological worldview we have not replaced it with another perspective that guides our understanding. Perhaps you personally have made this shift, but what about the majority of your members? 

Thomas Berry says,  “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.  Such, it seems to me, is the situation we must deal with now.  We are confused at present because our historical situation has changed so profoundly.  Our story, too, has changed.  We no longer know its meaning or how to benefit from its guidance. We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story.  We are in between stories.  The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.  Yet we have not learned the new story.”  

This was the problem the people experienced in the exile: they really were better at letting go than in creating the new things promised by the God of the Exile.  This is why the prophets had to say to them. “Can you not see, do you not understand, what new things God is doing among us?”

For so much of our Christian history the flesh was ignored in favor of the spiritual. In fact Docetism portrays humans as “a little lower than angels.”  Therefore we have not seen ourselves as being of this world, earthly.  We have defined our duties primarily in relationship to God first, neighbor second, but seldom in relationship to the earth, its creatures, and its care.  This creates a problem for Christians who have not been able to feel at home on the earth, convinced after centuries of emphasis on “other worldliness” that they belong somewhere else. Again, I believe that this is fading somewhat but it is still reality, not replaced by a hearty embrace of the earth.

The challenge we face is having the cosmos as the context for doing theology, so a different worldview must permeate all dimensions of our lives.  We must be able to take a long and broad view. The shift redefines what we think of as spirituality, holiness, ministry, and the list goes on and on.  So the challenge for leadership inherent in this new time is:  are we assisting our congregations in asking the “right” theological questions?

Sometimes we turn towards God, when our foundations are trembling, only to learn that it is this self-same God who is shaking them.          Anonymous

This shift in theology is difficult to negotiate due to some of our former interpretations of the biblical tradition. Gratefully this is changing as we have better biblical scholarship in dialog with ecology so that from both disciplines we understand in a more enlightened way how we fit into the scheme of things. Sally McFague says that “It is about learning more about the house rules so that even if we can’t fix things we can at least do less harm. These times call for us getting over our narrow parochial agendas concerned with “me and my kind.” We need to be more concerned with the well being of the diverse and rich plentitude of beings - human and non-human that inhabit the planet, not just for the present and future, but for as long as we can imagine. A theology that avoids this task and settles for an outmoded view is irresponsible and will eventually be seen to be incredible.  So one of your challenges as a leader in this time is to foster in your congregations the development of a theology that is adequate for the new time, that has something significant to say to the reality in which we live, that will challenge people today, and will be attractive to new members.

Time of reflection and sharing:   
Reflect on your experience with the concepts of “new cosmology,” “Earth justice, eco-feminism.  Are you at home with these ideas?  Where would you place yourself on a confidence scale between 1 – 10. (Tell the truth.) 
Sharing with a partner.  5 min. 
Another place where we in religious life are learning the experience of exile is in the church. As women religious we are no longer the dominant ministry provider with all the power and status that reality creates.  I read recently that there are now more than 20,000 well educated, paid, full time lay ministers working in the church. Ours is no longer the elite vocation – which is what we want and helped bring into effect, but it leaves many of our members wondering about what religious life is all about.  In addition we as the theological worldview widens between the average Catholic and members of congregations, new questions are raised about ministry and mission.  We need a renewed theology of religious life – not just among the leaders but throughout the membership. So another of your challenges as leaders in this time is to foster in your congregation the development of a theology of religious life that is adequate for the time, that has something of significance to say to the reality in which we live, and that will be attractive to new members. This was the challenge for the exilic prophets as well. Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had the task of articulating the faith for a new time. In the face of the collapse of so much Isaiah (51) challenged the people not to look to the time of their power for wisdom but to “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were digged, to Abraham your father and Sarah your mother.”  The challenge to look to the depths of their faith and to translate that for a new time.

A third important area of change regards shifts in institutional religion in general. While most of our members have lived primarily in a Christianity dominated, and  for many, a Catholic dominated religious milieu we are beginning to know ourselves as part of a much larger religious search.  Hans Kung tells us we are now at the point in our global theological world where we are beyond denominationalism. Rigid denominational lines are no longer what the global community needs.  What the churches, synagogues, and mosques need most to ponder is less of their many and differing creeds and more of a single ethic of global responsibility. Our Christian dominance is crumbling and with that our theological world view. In our own country we are aware that the Muslim faith is fastest growing in US religious group.  How prepared are our members to live in this kind of world?  A few years ago when the LCWR and CMSM leadership teams were visiting Council for Inter-religious Dialog in Rome we were challenged to know well the spiritual hunger of our age and to prepare our members with skills for and appreciation of inter-religious dialog.  I am not talking about not appreciating or being grounded in a particular denomination but about not seeing the world only through those eyes.  In the book the Life of Pi, Pi says “The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes.  With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe.  But we should not cling.  A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists.”  So another leadership challenge is fostering the development of spirituality beyond denominationalism as well as the skills of inter-religious dialog. Now you might be saying, but our members are older, this is beyond all their training and formation.  Be careful not to make decisions for them, - let them choose. 

Reflection and dialog:  What is your personal experience of inter-religious dialog.

We cannot complete this part of our reflection without talking about the impact of the new cosmology on issues of justice. Justice, peace and integrity of creation are not separate themes that can be dealt with in isolation from each other but are interconnected.  The impoverishment and oppression of people and of nature are two aspects of one pattern of oppression.  (Rosemary Ruether)  If the ecological crisis is calling for an end to a narrow anthropocentricism as our moral code, (what is good for me and mine) then these times may move us not only to a more biocentric and cosmocentric perspective but also toward a more inclusive sense of justice for the needs of all. If the most basic meaning of justice is fairness then from an ecological point of view justice means sharing the limited resources of our common space.  Injustice is living a lie, living contrary to reality, pretending all the space or the best space belongs to some who can live in lavish comfort while others are denied even the barest necessities. Justice is about living appropriately on the land, refusing to live the lie that we are the conquerors, the possessors, and the masters of the earth. The difficult question is how to share this space with justice, caring for our own species, other species, and the ecosystems that support us all.  We have a place but not all places, we need space but cannot have the whole space.

If our congregations choose to deal with ecological concerns, we must be prepared to take on such issues as environmental injustice, racism, and questions of class, and gender.  Ecological blight is not fair: it is neither democratic nor egalitarian.  It affects people along class, race and gender.  It hits people who are poor, weak, and vulnerable and those who feel the impact the most are least responsible for it.  In a nutshell:  a woman of color living in a “developing” nation and her sister living in a ghetto of any major city in a “developed” country, are the most impacted persons on the planet.  I raise this reality to connect the theme of this conference with the direction so many of our congregations have taken in terms of commitments to women and children. As more of the world is more polluted, food is less plentiful, and the lines between the halves and have nots is more deeply drawn those who suffer most are women and children. How is the added poverty of women connected to the impoverishment of creation?  How is women’s poverty and redoubled labor intensified by the impoverishment of the non-human world?  When water is scarce or polluted poor women walk twice or more as far to fetch water for their families.  When the environment turns toxic women often bear the brunt of the toxicity in their own bodies, including their reproductive functions.  Environmental work such as recycling is often defined as women’s work.

Core to the commitment to justice is the challenge of moderating our lifestyle especially in the United States where we breath consumerism like the air. Ecological deterioration is rather like alcohol or drug addiction. It creeps up on us daily so that we come used to it. Like addicts (and we are addicted to our ecologically destructive lifestyles) we find every available avenue to deny what others would clearly see.  At most we treat the problem like a bad cold that will go away if we make a few minor lifestyle changes such as recycling or car pooling. If we refuse to moderate this lifestyle we participate in systemic injustice.  We have a choice:  we can choose to be at home on our planet, learn to follow its house rules, value its fragility and beauty, share its limited resources with other humans, and other life forms.  We may decide not to do so, but we will not be able to say, “If only we had known, for we do know.” (McFague)  It is not enough to change our lifestyle – we must change what we value.  If we really value the planet and the universe, then we will make choices with far reaching implications about their preservation.  Choices around such things as the types of cars we drive, where we live, the food we eat and where we obtain it all involve new thinking.

Now the issues we are talking about here are certainly the responsibility of all the members of the congregation so I am not speaking to you as leaders apart from your groups.  But there is a particular role you have to move the issue.

The picture given to us by the U.S. consumer oriented culture creates a sense that we can have it all.  But this is a lie, large and dangerous.  It is a lie that humans are at the center of things. If we are going to be able to tend the holy in this time we need to see through the lies we have been conditioned to believe.  One of your roles as leaders is to assist your group in seeing through the lies. How can this be done?  I would suggest three things:

1. We need to foster bolder intellectual and more imaginative theological horizons. Practically this means ongoing theological formation, which includes a goal of raising concern for moral indifference of the members on this issue. Our theology has been inadequate to inform new ways of being. We lack a broadly understood and accepted environmental ethic. Too many of us are not able to recognize the moral claim of the land, and of poor people.  Such an ethic would address three crucial tasks, which here I shall only name: a) the modernization and proliferation of weapons; b) by the way we live in our environment as in a hotel, leaving the mess for others to clean up, and c) by a way of life of excess.  In positive terms this can be translated as the elimination of war, the preservation of nature, and the pursuit of social justice.  These things must become as Norman Cousins puts it, “our grand preoccupation and magnificent obsession.”  We cannot just talk about these things.  It is not enough to wish for peace and good.  We have to will them, pray them, think them, develop strategies, struggle for them as if the whole world depended upon it, as indeed it does.

We need new interpretation of the old stories so that the biblical and theological traditions will have something significant to add to the conversation.  If not we will look to the world like we are tending the graves of past beliefs. Saving the earth can be a new ‘moment of evangelization” for many who are disillusioned with current theological arrangements.

I want to share an example of the power of a particular biblical perspective.  This story comes from John Coleman, SJ.  “I was once engaged in a case study of an upper middle class (mainly Republican) Presbyterian church in Ohio, which chose to become a sanctuary church. (To break the law in order to offer hospitality to “illegal” aliens who claimed to be “political refugees while the U.S. Government chose to see them as “economic refugees)  We were interested in the anomaly that this church of upstanding patriots had chosen to break the law.  What led them to this improbable prophetic choice?  It became clear to us that the main factor was a consistent preaching one and appeal to the Good Samaritan motif in scripture.  What the politics of the congregation would never have allowed, its reading of scripture made possible.”

As Albert Einstein:  The problems we face today cannot be solved on the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. 

2. I challenge you as leaders to assist your congregations in expanding the understanding of what it means to be spiritual persons.  The example I want to use comes from George Washington Carver who is famous for his scientific contributions.  However, I am not sure many of us know the spirituality that gave birth to his vision.  Carver says about himself: “As a very small boy exploring the almost virgin woods of the old Carver place I had the impression someone had just been there ahead of me… I was practically overwhelmed with the sense of some Great Presence… I knew even then it was the Great Spirit of the universe…. Never since, have I been without this consciousness of the Creator speaking to me through flowers, rocks, animals, plants and all other aspects of creation.”  Carver was motivated by his love for all of creation.  For him, every life – a tiny fungus in healthy soil, the ever-present flower on his lapel, a forest bird, a human being of any complexion or nationality – was a window on God and a mouthpiece through which the Great Creator spoke.  He saw all living things as interrelated.  His vision brought forth his teachings.  Every facet of Carver’s life including his teaching, his concern for his brothers and sisters in slavery, his peanut work, can be traced inward to reveal a genius whose source is the deep creative fountain of his spirituality.

A story from my congregation:  In 1992 our General Chapter Commitment was to confront racism in ourselves, the church, and the world. For the first two years at every possible community gatherings we would plan agendas that addressed this issue.  During the general community meeting in our third year we focused on the Franciscan values motivating our commitment, values such as conversion, contemplation and so forth.  The interesting thing was that in that year we received particularly high praise in the evaluation. A great number of people expressed that praise by saying something like “now we finally had a spiritual community meeting,.”  -as if working on racism was not a spiritual work! In her poem “I Can Worship You”  - Alice Walker helps us stretch our spirituality.

I can worship 
But I cannot give 
You everything.

If you cannot 
This body.

If you cannot 
Put your lips 
To my  
Clear water.

If you cannot  
Rub bellies 
My sun. 
(Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth.)

Does the prayer and liturgical life of your congregation reflect a renewed spiritual understanding?  Does it broaden your members’ awareness of other religious traditions?  Does contemplation as it is experienced in your congregation help people answer the question: ‘What is real?’  Parker Palmer writes “the function of contemplation in all its forms is to penetrate illusion and help us touch reality.” It helps us see through the lies.  This is difficult because most of us have invested so much in our illusion. It feels like survival to us.  These illusions serve a societal function:  they keep us in our place.  People who benefit most from illusions are declaring “all is well, there is peace in our time.”  But we know this is a lie!

Contemplation may lead eventually to bliss, but first it will give us the pain of knowing that some of our dearest convictions are shallow, inadequate, wrong.  Contemplation first deprives us of familiar comforts, then it replaces them with an inner emptiness in which new truth, often alien and unsettling can emerge.  There is a story of medieval Irish monk who died and was buried, as was the custom in the monastery wall.  One day the monks heard noises from within the wall and removed the stones to find their brother alive and well.  He began to tell them what he had learned on the journey beyond – and everything he said was contrary to the teachings of the church.  So the brothers put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt forever.

3. The third challenge is a response to the call of justice and the ongoing work to insure the ministry of significant number of members among those who most feel the effects of the excesses of the dominant culture. Is not justice the moral test of spirituality? Yet, as Anne Munley’s study Threads for the Loom finds, although we have the right words about justice and concern for people who are poor, the actual percentage of members in these situations is embarrassingly low.

TABLE CONVERSTAION:  What is the status of the ongoing theological and  spiritual formation of your members and their location among those who most experience the lack of earth justice.   As a leader what are you doing to foster growth in these areas?

I want to conclude by talking with you about the mystery of your call to leadership at this time – about the importance of seeing a star, of having a vision for your time of leadership.  We’ve spent a good part of the afternoon talking about shifting worldviews, and the inherent challenges to leadership.  If you as leadership teams are not to be tossed uselessly about by the winds of a changing time it is critical that you have a clear sense of your personal and team mission, and that this is communicated to the members. 
We often think people choose their mission freely.  It probably would be more accurate to say that the mission chooses the person.  Remember the story of Esther who was in the palace at a very critical time, and her cousin Mordecai reminded her that perhaps it was for this time that she was born.  

When we are clear about our mission, and co-operate with it, it becomes our soul wisdom, our travel guide, keeping us from becoming scattered and lost.  It encourages us to concentrate our energies.  It helps us make good decisions.  

But there is a danger in the opposite, in not being clear regarding your focus as a leadership team.  What happens when the mission is not clear?  First let us turn back to the image of seeing stars. The etymology of the word “disaster” is revealing. Dis-aster refers to deviating from your star and hence, getting lost.

Those not clear about their mission: 
1.  Just do not have, and I think cannot have, the courage to lead, to follow their vision.  Instead they get by with making compromises  - some of which will be very dangerous. Lacking courage these leaders cannot do what really needs to be done. They are super-sensitive to the reactions of the members and may prefer to change directions rather than tolerate the discomfort of criticism. Now I am not talking clarity of vision making things magically easy: there certainly are challenges but the leadership team clear about its mission is not afraid of the sacrifices called for.

My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the child told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.  “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.  And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.   
                                                                                                   Paulo Coelho,  The Alchemist.

We should not underestimate how creative, tenacious, and ingenious people can be when they have decided to carry out, at all costs, the dream in their souls.

2. The second ill effect is that leaders can get into micro-managing their organization because they don’t know what else to do. Thus they end of up doing many things that are not necessary for leaders to do.  They are good at keeping the status quo in motion. Barbara Sher has written a book whose title I love: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What it Was.  Leaders without a clear sense of their mission end up working for motives that are unrelated to the fulfillment of their mission. Researchers who have done studies of organizational efficiency have concluded that the main reason for tensions, stress, sabotage and exaggerated demands in the world of leadership is that leaders often do not have a sense of realizing their full potential.  So beware of taking on missions that fit someone else’s needs.

You can spend your time in leadership anyway you want – but you can only spend it once.

If mission focused leadership is to happen, leaders must be committed to contemplative reflection.  We cannot simply lead from a skill base: we need to lead from attentive listening to the Spirit of God acting through us. It would be nice if that vision could be revealed from heaven by an appearance of God’s finger, pointing out our route.  Usually it is revealed more discreetly, in the experiences and circumstances of our lives, perhaps in a disturbing emotion, a sudden inspiration, an irresistible idea, an undreamed of opportunity, an unexpected meeting or a challenging social situation, the spirit as she becomes known to us in our timid yes’s, irrational choices, strange events,

The importance of coming to a sense of clarity is articulated in the poem Song for the Salmon by  David Whyte.

For too many days now 
I have not written of the sea , nor the rivers 
nor the shifting currents we find between the islands.

For too many nights now  
I have not imagined the salmon  
threading the dark streams of reflected stars 
nor have I dreamt of his longing  
nor the lithe swing of his tail toward the dawn.

I have not given myself to the depths to which he goes 
to the cargoes of crystal water cold with salt 
nor the enormous plains of ocean swaying beneath the moon.

I have not felt the lifted arms of the ocean  
opening its white hands on the seashore 
nor the salted wind, whole and healthy  
filling his chest with living air.

I have not heard those waves fallen out of heaven on to earth 
nor the tumult of sound  
and the satisfaction of a thousand miles of ocean 
giving up its strength on the sand.

But now I have spoken of that great sea 
the ocean of longing shifts through me 
the blessed inner star of navigation moves in the dark sky above 
and I am ready like the young salmon blessed with hunger 
for a great journey on the drawing tide.

Of all you are faced with doing, it is important to discern what is most necessary and then decide how you will leave the rest behind.  There is a story told of how aboriginal people caught monkeys. The hunters would deposit nuts into small-necked vases, which they then dispersed throughout the forest.  When the monkeys push their paw in to take a fistful of nuts, they cannot get it out because the neck is too narrow.  Unless they let go of the nuts, they are trapped by the vase and become easy prey.   As long as we stubbornly hold on to what not necessary, we are condemned to be imprisoned by activities taking attention from the most important work to which we are called.  These are challenging decisions for each of your leadership teams.  Some might wish to have been called in another, perhaps simpler time.  But your leadership mission cannot be discerned in isolation from the reality of the new cosmology.  I will close on Jim Douglas’s hopeful note.  He says:   
“Most of the people I talk with feel we have a fighting chance to stop environmental destruction within fifty years and turn the cultures around within 800 – 1000 years.  A fighting chance translates as long odds but good company, and bioregionalism is obviously directed at people with a little gamble in their blood.  Since we won’t live to see the results of this hoped for transformation, we might as well start it right, with the finest expressions of spirit and style we can muster, keeping in mind that there is only a functional difference between the flower and the root, that essentially they are part of the same abiding faith.  The sun still rises every morning.”


Karen Baker-Fletcher and Barth KASIMU Baker-Fletcher, My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Exodus God-Talk, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).

Thomas Berry, Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and The Earth, (Mystic, Conn:  Twenty-Third Publications 1991).

Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).

Judith Boice, (Ed.)  Mother Earth: Through the Eyes of Women Photographers and Writers. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992).

Douglas C. Bowman,  Beyond the Modern Mind: The Spiritual and Ethical Challenge of the Environmental Crisis, (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990).

Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody, The Future of Prophetic Christianity: Essays in Honor of Robert McAfee Brown. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 1993).

Michael Dowd, EarthSpirit: A Handbook For Nurturing an Ecological Christianity.

Cain Hope Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).

Warrick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. (Boston: Shambhala Publications 1990).

Susan Griffin, Made From This Earth, (New York: Harper and Row, 1982,).

Greg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. (New York: Random House, 1998).

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, (New York, Penguin, 2002,).

Karen Klenke, Women and Leadership: A Contextual Perspective, (New York, Springer Publishing Company, 1996,).

Donna Markham, Spritilinking Leadership:  Working through Resistance to Organizational Change, (New York, Paulist, 1999,).

Yann Martel, The Life of Pi, (Orlando, Harcourt, 2001.).

John Maxwell, Developing the Leader within You Workbook, (Nashville, Tn. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).

John Maxwell, Thinking for a Change 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work (Warner Business Books 2003).

Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993).

Yehudi Menuhin, Unfinished Journey.( London: MacDonald and Jane’s Publishers, 1976).

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press, 1978). 
John Monbourquette, How to Discover Your Personal Mission: The Search for Meaning. Ottawa, Canada:Novalis, 2001).

Diarmid O’Murchu, Our World in Transition: Making Sense of a Changing World, (New York: Crossroads Publishing Co. 1992).

Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1990).

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980).

Barbara Sher, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It was:  How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It.  (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994).

Rabindranath Tagore, (Translated by James Talarovic)  Show YOURSELF to MY SOUL. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books, 2002).

Alice Walker, Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (New York: Random House, 2003).

John Whitney and Tina Packer, Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000). 

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has approximately 1,000 members who are the elected leaders of their religious orders, representing 75,000 Catholic sisters in the United States. The Conference develops leadership, promotes collaboration within church and society, and serves as a voice for systemic change.