How I See The Role of Leadership In Religious Life Today

By Maria Elena Larrea, osf

Hollywood, FL


Many are the articles that have been written in these days concerning leadership in religious life. Some are excellent studies. Others are articles using extraordinary statistics, scripture quotes, what the Bishops have written about it, what Rome, “Vita Consecrata” and canon law have said bout it, etc.  I doubt that we retain all that in our heads, or if we are able to integrate that information into our life to assist us in renewing and revitalizing our lives as consecrated women religious.


As a Franciscan I asked myself what Jesus asks of us as leaders? Our feminine model is Clare of Assisi.  When I read the life of Clare as well as her letters, I found her to be the most fascinating visionary leader for her times and for our present time because she was so rooted in Jesus. This is what motivates me today to write this article at a time when my province is undergoing a transition in leadership.  This is my first such experience of discernment for leadership in our province chapter of elections.


The wisdom of Clare of Assisi challenges us in our culture today not only as women religious but also as religious leaders. This is about not being CEOs or CFOs.  We must, of course, learn these arts in our modern world but we must be sure that we serve and lead according to our call to be women of God, guided by the Spirit


During my time in the novitiate, “formation for adults,” we were told that the key to this period as we move into religious life is to remain open, considering ourselves as adults, mature people who do not know it all and who are not experts! We were challenged to see ourselves as “beginners”.  That is the key to renewed religious life I believe – to be a beginner all the time opens the door to being more humble, allowing us to be more connected with the Holy in the way that God is leading us.  This is true wisdom.


Clare of Assisi had that wisdom as a leader.  I had the opportunity to understand that better when, in our Pre-Chapter, we had the privilege to be enlightened by Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF.


We are called and challenged every day, but in order for us to become leaders in our own congregation we need to consider ourselves as beginners in order to allow the authenticity of who we are and what we want for others and for our membership to unfold.


As we recommit ourselves to living this way of life we must be mindful, Sr. Margaret said, that “our leadership comes from our membership.” How is that seen among women when sometimes a generational gap exists? It is so important to take a look at the woman who is sitting next to me. I probably don’t really know who she is, what she does or has done, or the gifts God has given this woman who may become a “servant” in the best sense of the word, that is, in the feminine dimension  of relationship within a congregation or province?


Keeping in mind that our main goal is to start afresh every day, it is necessary for us to look seriously at what the call to leadership is about.  Being a religious leader is a gift, and since good leaders come from among good members we need to stop thinking that one has to be so very different or belong to the elite in order to be a leader.


So, how do I see a leader and understand her role?  She is one who has the capability to treat others with respect and compassion, who has the ability to say that she has made a mistake and then is free to start again.  A leader is that woman, rooted in Christ, who lives what she would like to see in other members and has the capacity to assist them in all possible ways for that to happen. Then, when her time in elected leadership is finished, others are prepared to say, “Here I am.”


For me, a leader  is that woman who can approach “all,” not just a few sisters to get the perspective of what might be best for all because,  rooted in Christ, the Holy Spirit is in each of the members.


A leader is the woman who invites and encourages her congregation or province and each of its members to be open to constant conversion so that everyone comes to recognize within herself her own identity as a religious woman as well as her congregation’s charism to mirror Christ for new generations.


A leader is the woman who has the capability to call the attention of her sisters to things that are not in keeping with our charism, our values and what we have vowed in order to remain rooted in Christ.


A leader is the one who has an understanding of what our Church is calling us to, and without dismay at the faults and omissions among us, continues to keep her vision clear through steadfast prayer and   absolute abandonment to what God and the Gospel are asking of her.


A leader is that woman who has the ability to continue revitalizing her province/congregation by bringing light and life to the members and outward from there. If that sometimes requires an investment in the education of the members, she has the determination to go forward with the process and help them out. Through her regular visitations to the sisters and other conversations, if she truly listens, she helps to develop, as much as possible, a maturity and wholeness among the members. 


A leader is the one who has the capability to share leadership with the members, delegating tasks, encouraging dreams and inviting them to help her to “pull the wagon” of responsibilities.  In other words, to serve in a collegial manner.


A leader is the woman who is constantly looking at how the new members are going to be an integral part of the community and how they can be empowered to do what is needed through making them feel welcome and capable so that through participation with her and with  other members their religious life and charism are nurtured. 


I want to emphasize an aspect of nurture due to the new trend in the United States among religious congregations that are receiving women from other cultures. The issue is not in forming them in the “Anglo-Saxon” style that is frequently observed. It is in the mutuality of relationship with persons that challenges the community members to grow in respect, kindness, and compassion while welcoming and accepting their gifts, talents, and traditions. I am a firm believer that leadership that has a multicultural vision as a significant dimension of governance better assures that the members will be able to fulfill God’s will reflecting joy and hope to others.


With that in place, consider yourself a beginner!  Together then, all the members can get on with prophetic Gospel living helping to balance the necessary legal, financial and administrative demands made of religious leaders in today’s world. “Moved by God and Graced by the Spirit” (Chapter Theme of Holy Name Province) we will make a mark for the future of religious life and bear hope for the next generation.