A few months ago Michelle Garlinski asked if I would share a reflection on my experience of leadership as a younger religious. I’m happy to offer a few thoughts, but before I do I’ll point out the obvious; I’m not really a young religious. I made my first profession a little over 25 years ago; some of my friends from high school are already grandparents, and others are considering their retirement; and when I travel to countries where religious vocations are plentiful, they consider me an elder! So, these reflections on my experience of leadership are those of an Oblate in his early 50’s, in leadership in a province where the average age is close to 80! In addition, the ideas presented here are not meant to be a systematic piece, but are preliminary thoughts on a few areas of our ministry and community life.
Challenge and Change
Five and a half years of leadership and administration has brought it’s fair share of challenge and change: diminishing numbers (we were about 230 Oblates in our province in 2013, today we are about 165); the lack of new membership and the place of religious life in the Canadian church today; managing the blessings and tensions of our increasingly international communities; the important issues emerging around accountability and transparency of religious leadership regarding our handling of historic abuse cases; our Oblate response to the TRC Calls to Action. And yet, in the midst of challenge and perpetual change, I find myself hopeful in the face of this uncertain future, and grateful to go forward with Oblates, Oblate Associates, and the many others who share in our charism, life and work today.
Leadership is ministry too!
Shortly after my appointment as one of the two vicars for my Oblate province, I travelled to Rome for leadership formation along with about fifteen other Oblates newly appointed as provincial and vicars provincial. Playfully referred to as charm school, the workshops and reflections offered there by our congregational leadership and others were consoling and practical. One of the most helpful pieces of advice we were given over those two weeks was this: to remember that leadership and administration (managing change, encouraging and assisting other leaders, facilitating and organising various meetings and initiatives, and ensuring the obligations of the Province and Congregation are met, etc.) is in fact, ministry. Our new ministry would be a service to the Oblates (ad intra rather than ad extra), and a necessary part of our corporate mission. Over the last five years I’ve made the same point when encouraging Oblates to be open to the internal ministries of the community, something most of us are reluctant to take on.
Make decisions and move!
As religious we learn that discernment precedes decision, and that decisions should be made at the most appropriate level. This is true, but as religious (like other groups of people I suppose) we get lost in process and discussions about subsidiarity, and important decisions are delayed, or not made at all.
When we began our first term as Provincial Council back in 2013, our Provincial, Fr. Ken Forster said that as a provincial he intended to take significant decisions in a number of areas of our Oblate life. He was clear that we would gather good information, consult appropriately, and in a spirit of prayer make decisions and act on them. I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of this. Over almost six years we’ve made a good number of bad decisions, but I’ll take that over a lack of direction any day; and so it seems, will most Oblates. A bad decision can be changed and learned from, but a lack direction takes us nowhere.
Committing to ongoing formation…
When I entered the Oblates in the early 90’s, our Oblate province (one of five provinces that would amalgamate to become OMI Lacombe in 2003) held a community retreat just after Easter each year, then in late August we’d gather for Study Days. Today I have warm memories of these and other smaller gatherings as opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth, but even more as time taken together to learn and grow as a community. There were also programs and gatherings organized at regional and international levels of the congregation; all of which was part of the intentional commitment of the Oblates to ongoing formation.
In recent years the attention given to ongoing formation has diminished due to many reasons; an aging membership; reluctance to free ourselves from ministry commitments (especially priests); the time away for these events is seen by some as an indulgence; lack of personnel to organise gatherings, to name just a few. This diminishment in attention to our ongoing formation can have consequences : a lack of communal reflection on our life together; a diminished consistency in our Oblate pastoral practice (I.e. What distinguishes our pastoral presence as Oblates?); a lack of depth in our homilies, teaching, or talks.
The Oblates in Canada and the US are are taking steps towards shared ongoing formation programs, especially with our younger members in the area of leadership training, and hopefully these efforts will lead to other initiatives.
Grateful for our gatherings…
This is why I’m grateful for our gatherings in Saskatoon over the last two summers, and that there is third retreat planned for July. For me these retreats were at least in part experiences of ongoing formation, where we pondered together the signs of the times, and began to explore what God might be asking of younger Canadian religious today, and into the future. This can only be a good thing for us, our communities, and for the wider church.
Written by Fr. Ken Thorson, OMI