We’re sitting in the airport having a glass of wine before getting on the plane. We said goodbye to the sisters this afternoon during a beautiful closing ritual. It is great to go home, but it is hard to leave a community we have become part of over the last 3 weeks.
In our last installment week we told you about how the sisters had started work on their strategic directions. Three quarters of that work had been done before they went into the election process for their new leadership team, so they had a rough idea of where they wanted to go before they decided who might lead them there. It is an unusual recruitment process. The sisters surface names themselves through a combination of prayer and discussion. All those who receive more than 5 votes get to ‘speak to their names’. Some of what we heard was sisters asking to be taken off the list – the role requires relocation and considerable international travel. It sounds glamorous but is hard, and sometimes isolating, work. After 2.5 days, a leadership team was elected through a secret ballot.
It is not an easy process; nuns are just as human as the rest of us, and it is easy for people to feel exposed or excluded. There is both anticipation and disappointment, but in the end a celebration of a team of 4 who come from 4 different countries and have 3 different first languages.
The handover ritual took place at the end of the Chapter. It was preceded by a week in which the old leadership began to step back and the new team moved into the space, gradually and in their own way.
The ritual itself symbolised the importance of the transition. It was physical as well as a mental experience including singing and dancing, and it culminated in the old leadership team putting their prayer-shawls round the shoulders of the new leadership team. It enabled the sisters both to honour and thank the old team, and to welcome the new. Nobody can deny the change has happened, as it has been made so visceral for everyone.
In religious life, strategic directions are referred to as mandates. The outgoing leadership team had a mandate to restructure the congregation, encouraging more collaboration on an international level, more decision-making at local level and ultimately a greater sense of being part of one body as opposed to being ‘siloed’ in geographical regions.
During their 6 years they have made a strong start, creating international teams and pooling finances so that they are held by and available to the whole congregation, as we described in our last blog.
The new leadership team has a mandate to develop these new structures and to strengthen a sense of responsibility and authority at all levels. There are 9 regions, each containing between 6 and 40 sisters. While each region has a leadership team, the real decision making is supposed to happen at Regional Assemblies to which all sisters are invited and which normally take place once a year. The Assemblies have a responsibility to operationalise the Chapter mandates at a regional level in a way that suits the local context. They, in turn, delegate responsibility to teams and local communities. Every 2 or 3 years Congregational Assemblies meet to take decisions about life and priorities for all sisters in the region.
In the new model, where leadership is held at many levels, the Congregation could be seen as one large self-managing team with a number of smaller self-managing teams in local areas. Leadership is dispersed across the whole system as is the aspiration in many of the organisations we are currently working with in Scotland and England.
Although this has huge potential, particularly for collaborating in the best use of resources, it also brings challenges. It makes it imperative that each sister uses the authority she is given by the Assembly to take her part in delivering on the shared purpose. In the old model everyone knew who was in charge and waited to be told what to do; now it is not always clear, and sisters need to take the initiative, and decide together on the best way forward. It requires more communication across and throughout the congregation, and ultimately greater insight into their own strengths and weaknesses.
We noticed a pattern that was familiar from other work and indeed from our own team, which was how much easier it is to think about and agree on how to act in the interests of those we serve; and how much more challenging it is to reflect on ourselves.
This is exacerbated in a group where there are such differences; of age, of nationality, appetite for change, and in priorities. Being able to truly listen to each other’s pain as well as each other’s passion was difficult at times and we struggled to support them to stay with uncertainty in the large group. As a consequence, the tension and conflict surfaced in smaller groups. It slowly became clear that their struggle was the struggle of the whole Chapter, and needed to be addressed by all, and not just a few.
Spending 3 weeks working with nuns in Brazil sounded like it was going to provide a stark contrast to our normal work, and in many ways it did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found familiar patterns – people aren’t short on commitment and big ideas, particularly when it is about what they do for others; significant diversity means that it takes a lot of time and a deeper level of listening to define our common ground and find the best way forward; effective leadership enables others to offer their leadership, thus increasing the resources available for both thinking, and doing.
It was a luxury to have had considerable time in which to accompany them in their explorations and take their first steps into the next 6 years. We learned a lot, both about them and about ourselves, and how we might improve our practice.
We were sure to thank them.