Leadership Lessons from a Convent
What one woman learned as an Alongsider
At her Baptist church in Toronto, Susan Murphy sits on the deacons’ board—the leadership team charged with making many of the important, grassroots decisions that affect the congregation. When her passion ignited at deacons’ meetings, she’d speak up, not afraid to push and push again…to prove a point.
Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree, Susan felt called to pursue a master’s degree at seminary with the aim of becoming a certified spiritual director. To afford her studies, she lived for a year in the guesthouse at the convent for the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, a few blocks from the seminary. Before her time was up, these Anglican sisters had invited her to become their first-ever Alongsider. For a year she’d live, work, and worship (four times a day) alongside them in order to experience and better understand the daily life of a monastic, all while continuing her studies.
Susan jumped at this chance to enrich her vocation as a spiritual director. The former businesswoman also wanted to find the balance between the frayed busyness of her life and the key disciplines of silence and solitude. She found something else, though: a way of leading that’s challenged her assumptions about how we lead, particularly in church contexts.
Leaders Live for Timeouts…to Acknowledge God
Imagine this: As part of your 8-, 9- or 10-hour workday, you must spend two hours and 15 minutes immersed in worship and Scripture. Every day without fail, you stop during those hours to hear and recite God’s Word, pray, and sing—all in the company of women like you: busy, focused, on fire for God, human. No matter what outstanding project needs to be dropped while you pull away—yet again—to worship and pray; no matter your title; no matter that you’d prefer to plow through your work and go home. Having to stop four times a day to join the sisters in their morning prayer, noon service, evening service, and compline taught Susan her first leadership lesson: The sisters “have learned to balance out their call to leadership—their purpose—with what’s woven through the fabric of every day…their daily in-and-out of worship and prayer and Scripture.”
And what a call to leadership they’ve had. The women of the sisterhood have had a long history of groundbreaking social action in Toronto. Pioneers in the health field for more than 125 years, they opened the first hospital for women in the late 1800s and pioneered and ran St. John’s Rehab Hospital to great renown until 2011. St. John’s Rehab is home to Canada's only organ transplant rehabilitation program and Ontario's only burn rehabilitation program. It is recognized as a leader in delivering services that focus on the whole person—mind, body and spirit. Several of the sisters have acted as president or vice president and held other prominent management positions in the hospital over the years, and they remain active with its foundation.
Leaders Recognize That Everyone Leads
To this day these sisters “move and shake.” Yet despite the impact they have had and continue to have in Canada’s health-care field, their personalities and healthy egos have never sullied a key facet of the way they live: Leadership at the convent is the job of all the sisters, not just the calling of one. While each woman’s gifts and talents influence her choice of tasks, all pitch in and help as required. Susan discovered her second leadership lesson watching them work. Each sister must take into account the good of the community first—it is an expectation when she enters the sisterhood, as important as her vow of chastity. Becoming a sister means saying no to deeply intimate friendships with a few and yes to relationship with all. “They’ve stripped themselves of the pretensions and political and emotional games in which we women can get caught up at our own churches,” says Susan.
As an Alongsider, Susan was never invited to morning conference, the daily morning time when all the sisters would air their grievances, apologize, forgive, and talk things through in the presence of the entire community. “Everyone’s in on everything,” continues Susan. “It’s…a marriage that has to work because where else would you go?” Susan knows: In most churches, leaders are expected to advocate loudly and long for their convictions. She’s done this herself. “We’re not so good at putting ‘us’ aside for the good of the community,” acknowledges Susan. “We don’t have to live day in, day out with each other.”
Leaders Listen First
Susan re-calibrated her definition of leadership during her time as an Alongsider. “Now the absolute essential to leadership is my relationship with God.” God affirms her leadership and what others say or don’t say about her ministry, she’ll take to him: “God, is this what you want me to hear?” And while her responsibilities as a deacon haven’t changed, her approach to the position has. She now asks God the questions she needs to ask and is learning the grace of paying attention to his answers. She’s less apt to retreat or become defensive when her leadership is challenged. She’s learned how to listen: “God sees the bigger picture. Not everything needs to be fought for and not everything needs to be fixed. Part of wise leadership is knowing when to step in and when not to; to put God first.”
Putting God first will also define her work as a spiritual director as she chooses to interact with her clients only in the way God would have her, not out of her knowledge, experience, or desire.
Leaders Give the Gift of Vulnerability
It took an invitation to live alongside Anglican nuns for Susan to appreciate the countercultural and radical nature of Jesus’ call to all of us. He calls us to a brand of leadership that perseveres, hemmed in by the accountability of a consistent, daily pulling-away to stop and remember through worship, prayer and Scripture, the intersections of God’s story with ours. It’s a leadership fleshed out in the instant you place your community’s needs above yours…because you’ve learned to listen well. It’s a leadership that risks the unease of trying something different…and doing it with his wisdom.
That’s the leadership the sisterhood displayed when they invited Susan, a stranger, into their personal lives, not knowing if she would stay the full term or leave before her year was up. They loved her without reservation (as they do all their oblates and novices), knowing full well that they could be saying goodbye to her in the months ahead.
In that act of openness, the sisters taught Susan the most unexpected leadership lesson of all: Leaders choose to give the incredible gift of vulnerability.
Renee James is the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and editor of its magazine, The Link & Visitor. She is a former administrative pastor and a regular contributor to Today’s Christian Woman and Gifted for Leadership. She blogs about change at ReneeJames.org.