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Spiritual Leadership

In my 22 years as a professional social worker, I have benefited from the friendship, wisdom, and mentoring of Catholic sisters who are among the most credible and authentic witnesses to the transformative power of God’s love and action in the world.

Last summer I attended  a conference entitled “Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times” to celebrate the release of a new book of the same title from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). In addition to leading their own congregations, Catholic sisters lead social service agencies, advocacy organizations. universities, hospitals, schools, and many other initiatives which typically address very complex social challenges within an institutional-context. They walk a similar path to social work (many of them are social workers), and have much to offer to our profession in terms of models of organizational leadership. Given their objective to further the mission of the gospel in today’s world, their way of leading has particular resonance for Christian social workers.

Exemplifying humility in her keynote address, Sr. Marie McCarthy, SP shared that “Women religious did not set out to develop a way of doing spiritual leadership. [They] set out to live their lives with authenticity – faithful to our call, rooted in prayer, and deeply grounded in gospel values.” So for Christians, spiritual leadership requires living our call as fully and authentically as possible, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4).

Sr. Marie noted that this way of leading is not really a model or style of leadership. She said it is “a set of dispositions, a way-of-being-in-the-world that, when fostered in the leader, contributes to creating an organizational environment in which deep, authentic transformation of the individual and of the whole is possible.

This set of dispositions includes:

  1. Taking a contemplative stance or “taking a long a loving look at what is.” A contemplative stance lays aside seeking, grasping, and prejudging. It can awaken us to in new ways of seeing and give authenticity to how we assess and respond to a range of situations, contexts and challenges. Sr. Marie says that a contemplative stance is “the heart of a leadership that is both spiritual and transformative.”
  1. Centrality of relationship: Conjoined with a contemplative consciousness is a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of everything , and the importance of being in right relationship to self, others, God, and all of creation. If we take the centrality of relationships seriously, we will better tend to the interpersonal dynamics in our organizations, task groups, communities and staff teams. We will see the role of leadership as a function of the whole and may be better able to practice inclusivity, collaboration and collegiality where “the group leads together, and the leader helps the group articulate and tend the vision. ” 
  1. Solidarity with those who are poor and marginalized: In her 2012 Presidential Address, Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF identified solidarity with people who are poor and marginalized as crucial to the prophetic voice of leaders. She offers that standing in solidarity with the poor situates us in the truth, keeps us honest, and gives us hope as we live in exile. (Leaders, especially prophetic leaders, often find themselves in exile.) When speaking of those in poverty, she asks rhetorically “Have they not taught us… resiliency, creativity, solidarity, the energy of resistance, and joy?” Being in solidarity with people who are poor informs how we engage as leaders with our organizations and communities; it calls forth the prophetic voice in each of us.
  1. Seeing Process as Fundamental: Taking a contemplative stance, the centrality of relationships, and standing in solidarity with people who are poor make clear that process should be central to our work. This can be particularly challenging for leaders who need to “get things done.” But part of leadership involves “living the questions in a discerning way.” And we can live these questions together in the community of our agencies, staff teams, task groups, or wherever two or more of us are gathered to help build God’s Kingdom on earth.

These four pillars of spiritual leadership deeply resonate with me as a social worker who strives imperfectly to live life, both personally and professionally, that is faithful and authentic God’s call for me. In this fast paced, technology-driven world, it is challenging to slow down to take a long and loving look at what is, to make space in our day to tend to relationships, and to take time to process with others our experience and direction going forward. For leaders who may be removed from the day-to-day experience of people in poverty, it is challenging to be intentional about making these connections and experiencing people who are poor and marginalized as partners in healing the brokenness in our communities and our world.

The articulation of these elements as components of spiritual leadership offers an important reminder (and pathway) for leaders that following basic Christian principles in our professional spaces (e.g., all people have dignity, the relational aspect of God, preferential option for the poor, the importance of prayer), will help us walk the talk of justice and leadership in the workplace.

Linda Plitt Donaldson is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America, National Catholic School of Social Service. She teaches courses in social policy, macro practice, homelessness, and social justice. She has been a member of NACSW since 2008.

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