SEEKING SOPHIA

By Christine Burton

Challenge of leadership

You have not heard much from me this past year because I have been putting much of my energy into other faith-based activities — specifically, I was blessed to be called to serve as chair of my parish pastoral council in June 2013 and, as I start my second year in the role, it feels as if I am only now coming up for air.

The role of PPC chair in any parish depends on the “personality” of the parish itself — what activities the parish takes on and which ones it makes its priorities, its overall charism, and its resources. My parish’s personality seems to be that of a well-educated, opinionated, over-achieving social activist. It’s great, but it uses a lot of time and energy to serve them!

It has also been a spiritual learning experience.

There is a distinct difference between authority and leadership. Authority comes with position: you are “the boss” and people are obliged to obey your commands whether they agree with them or not. The early days of parenthood can have this dynamic: “No, you are not going to eat candy for breakfast.” Some situations require this: we don’t get into discussions with the fire captain about our opinions on the best route out if we’re told to leave a burning building. The Roman Catholic Church has sometimes been accused of this stance, characterized by the irreverent slogan of what is (was) expected of devout Catholics — that we “pray, pay and obey” — and there were those who left because of this perceived attitude.

On the other hand, leadership is about people wanting to come along with you and willing to take your direction, no matter what your formal title happens to be, because of a compelling vision, shared values, a genuine openness to their ideas and priorities, and a commitment to finding a way not merely between but to actually achieving the goals of multiple potentially competing interests. Pope Francis has reopened some of the conversations started by St. John XXIII, and people are coming back to the church — with plenty of ideas and opinions to share.

My mom tells a story of speaking with another mother many years ago about their children. Our family has always viewed it as a blessing that my brothers and I are all quite bright. This other mother, though, thought my mother had it tough — how much trouble it must be to deal with three bright children, and how she preferred dealing with children who were more tractable and put less pressure on the parents. We could never understand this view — in this always-needy world we can use all the creativity and capacity the Creator gives us in the minds of our children.

So what’s the cross-walk between these stories, my role as PPC chair and spirituality?

Well, my parish is composed of many bright, often well-educated people with lots of ideas and opinions who are far from the “pay, pray and obey” model. They see what kind of church and what kind of world they want to help build and be part of, and they see ways in which their faith lives can contribute to changing the secular world. They are accustomed to democratic decision-making processes and having lots of room for independent action. They are creative and active and, given the range of issues where our world is not a reflection of God’s love and abundance, they’re involved in “everything.”

Those folks with ideas and opinions that Francis is attracting back? We never lost them. And on some days it feels as if the returning disaffected are all coming to my church. “Wow! That’s great,” you might be saying. And it is! But leading this crowd is undoubtedly a case of “herding cats.” Who knew managing anarchy could be such a challenge? How to go about it? Clearly, a heavy-handed approach would be neither appropriate nor popular.

For the last three years we have been implementing a “collaborative governance” model that moves away from the more traditional “Catholic” approach where the priest is pretty much ‘all-powerful’ and makes all meaningful decisions, to one where there is shared decision-making about the material operations of the parish, from our social service and outreach ministries to liturgy to building retrofits. But our council is also conscious that this is a new model, and we want it to succeed.

We need to operate in a way that meets the expectations of our overseeing order and the archdiocese and which allocates our limited human and financial resources in a way that responds to and balances the many interests, priorities and areas of action by parishioners and volunteers. If the roof caves in, none of our ministries are going to continue, but try telling that to someone with a burning social justice issue to resolve. And, as is so often the case in instances of significant change, people often revert to the “old way” of doing things because they are familiar and thus “easy.” We want parish council to be a facilitator, not a hindrance, but how to find the balance between informed support and anxious control? We are still a long way from threading that particular camel through the eye of the needle.

As chair, I am called to support council and the parish community in identifying and articulating their hopes, dreams and priorities — for the parish and for the community at large — and their individual and our collective role in fulfilling them. I also support them in accessing human and financial resources to achieve their goals, and in recognizing and celebrating their many successes. This is enriching and rewarding.

But I am also called to identify those elements of ideas and initiatives that could be problematic, to explain why some ideas might not be so good in and of themselves or as a result of their impact on other facets of our community activities or relationship with the archdiocese or other faith communities, and what might be done to mitigate such shortcomings, and to mediate between competing interests. None of which are very conducive to being popular.

But being a leader isn’t about being popular. It’s about being aware of both the infinite potential good that is inherent in each our members and of how much can and often does go wrong, of the ways in which people, you included, are irrational — because we are separated from God and our best God-given selves — and remaining calm when such irrationality rears its head. It’s about being alive to the gifts of moments of aching beauty in the everyday, about laughing at yourself and the vast difference between the organized, effortless way you’d like things to be, and the demented way they usually are. It’s about remembering that it’s seldom useful to be self-righteous and authoritarian and that people’s individual life experiences shape how they see things and are just as valid as your own perception. It’s about looking for what people have in common rather than what separates them. And it’s about giving voice to their hopes, and hands to their aspirations. At its best, it’s about drawing together the many disparate parts, the many gifts, into one body, one spirit, an elegant whole, like a dancer’s hands and feet, each acting separately but united in intention and generating a brand-new reality in every moment, just as promised by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 12).

Easier said than done. I spend a lot more time praying since I became council chair. I pray for understanding, patience and compassion — with my colleagues, the staff, the community, our volunteers, our guests and clients, and with myself, for my own failings and mistakes. I pray for wisdom, to be able to hear the words behind the words in the voices of those with whom and for whom we work, to be able to find compromises and solutions and to have the words to express myself in a way that can bring about healing where there are differences, and energy and enthusiasm where there is a need to be filled. I pray for guidance, to find a path through our challenges, and for faith, to go forward even when I do not know where that path will take us. I pray for courage, and for fortitude and even for some miraculous fundraising power. But most of all, I pray for love. Because when love informs our service, then, just as the Creator and the Christ promised, our successes are magnified and our failings and our mistakes become cornerstones to a better world.

My mother’s friend was right: it would be a lot easier to manage children who did what you bid them and never generated chaos or tried new things or pushed you to be a better parent. It would be a lot easier if my community was made up of people who were passive, who let me or council or the priest tell them what to do and what to think. But we would not be nearly as effective in building a better world. We would not be “returning 100-fold” the gifts our Creator gave us. And I would not have the opportunity to grow in grace as I grapple with the challenges of keeping these wonderful, committed, talented, dedicated, generous and, yes, maddening, people engaged, motivated and collaborating with each other. Truly, my prayers have been answered.

A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.

 
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