Within the communities of consecrated life, the issue of leadership is certainly one of the most controversial. In particular, female consecrated life lives this experience as a constant challenge both in the realities of service that take place, and which require ever-greater competence and organisational and managerial skills, and internally in the link with that charismatic and mysterious dimension that is expressed in the vow of obedience.
In 1986, Sandra Schneiders wrote, “Few areas of contemporary religious life have been so conflicting for the religious both as communities and as individuals than that of obedience. While it is certainly true that obedience has never been easy, it is probably correct to say that, for the majority of religious before Vatican II, it was relatively simple. Obedience meant conformity with the orders of superiors and the prescriptions of the rule/constitutions” [Sandra Schneiders New Wineskins, Re-imagining Religious Life Today, Paulist Press].
The choice of using a new word, leadership, expresses the need for change, for a renewal of behaviour and modes of implementation, while also running the risk of using models that are more understandable in our times.
Therefore, leadership within women’s religious congregations represents, using a modern word, something that has been experienced and practiced over the centuries, which arose from a desire for personal and community fulfilment within a common project founded on the sequela Christi and its charismatic expressions. Authority in consecrated life was imagined in the past as a form through which one surrendered oneself to a project outside oneself, through the mediation of others, in order to grow, while today it is understood, inside and outside convents, as a system that oppresses individual development and freedom.
The problem of leadership in congregations is a problem that arose after Vatican Council II and after the student revolution movements questioned an authority with quasi-divine power and the consequent crisis of patriarchy as a model of authority.
The search for a conception of authority/leadership that responds to today’s sociological, historical and anthropological times involves both those in authority and those who participate in the life of a congregation through the vow of obedience. The same model of Church-Communion demands a different perspective from which to start and in which to develop reflection, as the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life affirmed in 2017; “What functioned in a relational context of a pyramidal and authoritarian type is no longer either desirable or livable in the communion sensibility of our way of feeling and wanting to be Church” (Civcsva , Per vino nuovo otri nuove [For New Wine New Wineskins], 2017).
This is how the younger generations of consecrated women confront authority in a critical manner, but also within personal, cultural and community models still very much marked by the idea of authority as “absolute power”.
In this context, the personal desire for self-realization, which is so decisive in today’s society, clashes with administrative and programmatic needs, as well as with the call itself.
A profound crisis of trust in an asymmetrical system of relationships is shared by the leadership itself, which increasingly feels the weight of a difficult organizational structure of relations between sisters, in addition to managerial and administrative problems.
The complexity of the modern world, and the ever-present struggle to respond to the needs of the activities they follow, has transformed the leadership of religious congregations, making them increasingly involved in forms of administration of activities to the detriment of attention to the growth of members. It seems to me that today’s crisis is precisely related to the tension between the freedom to be, to grow, to fulfil oneself and the freedom for a project outside oneself.
This tension does not, however, concern only two individualities, but is played out within community dynamics and the charismatic vision and mission itself.
The questions I hear from many young religious are; why do the superiors not involve us in decision-making? Why is it that when a sister becomes a superior she thinks she knows everything?
Certainly, there are many forms of incorrect exercise of authority with the tendency on the part of those invested with this form of power to manage it in personal and/or authoritarian forms, without there being room for internal dialogue in the management, both of the charismatic dynamics considered foundational and of daily community life.
The expression of leadership within communities of consecrated life is linked to the complex reality of women living in common and sharing a common project linked to the charism. It is a shared obedience; a common obedience to the common project/charism as well as to daily life lived together.
The complexity of consecrated life is therefore expressed, in a particularly urgent and significant way, precisely in the dynamics that are connected to relationships and that are not limited to horizontal relationships alone, but recall a main relationship that is often forgotten. Several young sisters expressed this by speaking of a “relationship problem” because leadership does not involve members, separates itself from them and does not engage in collaborative paths. Frustration is just around the corner for members who feel unable to actively participate in community choices and who perceive themselves merely as pawns in the choices made by others. Add to this a formation that does not promote the critical, liberating obedience of those who feel they are active participants in the growth processes of their religious community, but prefers an obsequious and uncritical stance.
Taken by community and mission/apostolate commitments, consecrated female life seems to have forgotten that at the centre there is a common obedience to the will of God. The centrality of the vow of obedience does not in principle concern an asymmetrical relationship between two individuals but a process of continuous search in daily life and in history for the presence of God who calls for common action for the growth of the Kingdom.
To emerge from the labors and criticisms of leadership requires a common search for God’s will for each person and for the religious community to which one belongs. To do this, it is important to rediscover education to a common responsibility, to a true and actual sharing of leadership. Community life cannot remain the place where there is the mere subdivision of work and commitments, but must actually become a pathway of fraternity, guided by the common choice, which opens up to the mission to which each community is called and for which each member is responsible. It is necessary to go beyond the letter of the Constitutions, to get out of the tendency that each Institute has to perpetuate itself, to put back in the centre the dynamism of the Spirit that alone allows each sister to be involved.
Paths of re-education are necessary to ensure that we can move away from the idea that leadership represents something substantially different, an organism separate from the community itself which, guided by an instinct of protection actually diminishes the possible involvement of all, to become a means of mediation, care and facilitation of living together.
It is important, moreover, that in a reflection on leadership within communities of consecrated life, the Third person in the relational dynamics between members and leaders is brought back to the centre. It is this Third that allows for a common and responsible obedience, a possible solidarity to live an evangelical life, linked to a common dream and desire of abundant life for all, because, as Jesus said: “But so shall it not be among you” (Mark 10, 43).
by Mariolina Cattaneo
A Comboni Missionary Sister