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Mobilizing at the Margins: An Interview on Women, Leadership, and Faith

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Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is a Benedictine nun, speaker, and author. She has written 50 books and many articles on women’s issues, spirituality, human rights, peace, and justice. Her articles have appeared in Sojourners, America, U.S. Catholic, and The Huffington Post, and she has a regular blog for the National Catholic Reporter. She is the founder of Benetvision, a resource center for contemporary spirituality, and a founding member and current co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. Sr. Joan is a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses. She served as the prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie for 12 years. She earned her master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame and her doctorate at Pennsylvania State University.

Sally Steenland: I want to start with a question about leadership and women. The number-one book on The New York Times bestseller list right now is Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She says that we need more women in top positions in government and industry, and she spells out steps women can take to move up. What does leadership mean to you, and what makes a good leader?

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB: Every time we get into this conversation—and I find it at the root of a number of issues, especially about women—it occurs to me that we seldom make clear distinctions between leadership, power, and authority. We squeeze them as if one needs the others and they’re all the same thing.

Power is the assurance that I have the resources to expect that what I want done will be done. Parents have power. Teachers have power. Policemen have power. It covers, actually, a pretty limited thing that says, “If you don’t do what I tell you to do, I have the means to make you suffer for it.”

Authority on the other hand, comes in two flavors: One is “ascribed authority.” I have a position—I am the elevator operator in this building. I have been made the 14th vice president of this company. That’s an appointed or elected position. I have a gold plaque on my door. Nobody may listen to me, but I have it.

The second type of authority is “achieved authority,” and that comes from two important elements that have a lot to do with women: charism, meaning personal gifts or presence—a personal, internal power of a person. When she comes into the room, everybody stops and listens. The second type of achieved authority comes out of basic expertise. You may not want Stephen Hawking at your party for some reason or other, but if you want to know about black holes, you better have his telephone number.

What is leadership? It is the ability to mobilize a group of people to manage their resources in their best interests. It often comes with great charism, and charismatic people often become leaders. It certainly comes with some kind of personal skills, such as the person who can go to A and Z and make them see M together.

Leaders inspire a group to meet its own goals and stretch its own vision. A good leader collaborates. This is not power or authority for its own sake—this is somebody who comes out of the heart of the group and will give attention not just to big issues but also to the development of individual members.

I used to talk a lot in religious communities about following the gifts of the members. I was in a community one day where the group told me they used to make wine. Apparently, making wine was very important in supporting the group. I said, “What happened to the wine-making project?” They said, “We suddenly realized that we were no longer crushing grapes; the grapes were crushing us.” They had to give up this group project because it was killing individual members. A good leader allows that to happen so that individual members can grow. If our individual membership in the group is not honored, developed, and respected, we will never enable that group to realize its common goals.

Now, when you use those distinctions as a filter over any position, you begin to see it differently. When you hold up the filter of leadership and look at Congress, you say, “Are we getting leadership, or are we getting power, or are we getting authority?” And then you know pretty well what’s going on and the dynamics of the institution.

SS: Sometimes power is not seen in the most positive way when it comes to women and religious communities—we’re supposed to be humble. Power is kind of a bad thing. Should we be shying away from power, or are there different kinds of power?

JC: No. No. Power is a very good thing when used well. Are we talking about power over, or power with? Power for? Or power in? Power isn’t just one thing. We have discovered, each of us, that we have a power and we don’t want to give anybody power over us. African Americans know what that feels like; women know what that feels like; foreigners know what that feels like.

So should we ignore power? Absolutely not. We have to use power well. Women, by and large, learn intuitively to work with others. You start working with people when they’re 6 weeks old. When they cry, you listen. When they’re hungry, a woman stops reading the book and gets supper. Women bring a different sense and experience of the use of power to a group. She says, “Well, that may be more efficient, but have we talked to the workers? Will they see it as more efficient? Is this the schedule that will make them most productive? What if nobody came into this office until 10 in the morning, but they were willing to stay until 6? Would we be better or worse off?” Shy away from power? Never. Use it well? Always.

SS: Do you make a distinction between the religious sphere and the secular world in terms of different kinds of leadership and the way organizations are structured? Or is there a universality to what is needed—what’s good for one is good for the other?

JC: I happen to think that the kind of leadership, power, and authority that I just described would be fundamentally religious and is what we ought to be seeing in religious traditions primarily, rather than the monarchical, the hierarchical, or the medieval. There’s no distinction here. We are talking about how you work with human beings and how you treat them. We talk about believing in, and being inspired by, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works for everyone.

I was thinking last night about writing a piece and talking with people about the fact that we have gotten to the point in this culture to say our world is falling apart. This country is changing. The planet isn’t what it used to be. But what if we turn that upside down and say, “No, we’re not falling apart, we’re falling up into something else. We’re not falling down. We’re all standing up together and saying, ‘It cannot be the way it was.’”

When I used to talk about leadership to groups, I always said, “Try to remember the theory that everybody cannot get to the edge of the high diving board together. We get there one at a time. We jump one at a time into a new consciousness and awareness until pretty soon, the whole group—including the ones hanging onto the ladder at the bottom refusing to put a foot on the step—realizes that there is no other way into this group except with some kind of egalitarianism.

SS: When you were talking earlier about hierarchy, it made me think of the Catholic Church and the pope. Pope Francis recently warned Catholic nuns against using their vocations to advance personal ambition. I’d be interested in your response.

JC: You’re touching something that needs to be looked at gently but clearly. That comment might be a leftover from a 19th-century attitude toward women. Maybe. I am not even sure what it means! I looked at that and looked at that; I don’t really know. When you say that nuns—nuns, of all people!—should not use their vocations to advance their personal ambition, are you saying that professionalism is the enemy of mission? That you should do what you do poorly rather than do it well? I mean, will that be more humble? Is that a gift to the people you are serving?

With that attitude, we could be stuck where we were in the 1940s, if the U.S. government and the state of Pennsylvania, in my own case, had not come along and required the state certification of teachers in Catholic schools. They required us to become as educated as we needed to be to produce American students. What would’ve happened if male leaders had taken the attitude that sisters did not belong at levels of higher education?

Nuns have no level of social influence—ecclesiastical, let alone civil! We don’t sit on high-ranking boards. You don’t find orders of nuns sitting in the parade-viewing boxes of presidents. We look at our work as having a moral dimension. If you deny people the skills and the professionalism they need to serve well, then what happens to the Church itself? Nuns built this Church. Nuns built and ran orphanages, universities, high schools, grade schools.

And in 1965 [with the Second Vatican Council], when everything changed, the nuns did it again. They opened up soup kitchens and halfway houses and refuges for battered women and went out to the streets to the marginated. These are not people who are using their vocation to satisfy their personal ambition. They work to extend what they see as the charism of their community. The Franciscans work very hard trying to make us conscious of simplicity. The Jesuits work very hard at high-level professional positions to make us conscious that faith and intelligence go together. Nuns work to make the presence of Jesus felt now; they work for the common good and see human community as the will of God.

I don’t understand that statement. I don’t know where you pull it from unless it comes out of 19th-century attitudes toward the humble woman who’s peeling the potatoes and doesn’t need anything else. Nuns don’t get money, they don’t get power, and they don’t get civil or ecclesiastical positions. So no, I can’t answer the question because I don’t understand it.

SS: I want to talk about another kind of “none”—the rising number of spiritually unaffiliated people in this country, especially young people. Many are spiritual seekers but don’t want to have anything to do with organized religion. For many, it’s a damaged brand. It means bigotry, intolerance, antiscience.

That really is too bad because when I read your writings, I encounter a very different kind of religion and faith. It’s far more expansive and includes mystery and self-knowledge, curiosity, intellect, and compassion. How do you spread the word about a more compassionate religion?

JC: Well, the way you spread the word is: Don’t worry about wearing the sign; be the sign. You don’t have to wear a sandwich board saying, “I am religious and spiritual and know what you should do.” You do have to be the best of the mystical presence that your tradition brings. Certainly in Christianity, that means that you begin to go through life putting on the mind of Jesus, trying to see the world as Jesus saw the world.

There has always been a great mystical dimension to Christianity. Our saints were mystics. That means they go right into the heart of the Gospel and the spiritual pulp of human life; they’re not as intent on the hierarchical, legalistic, and clerical.

What happens in a world that sees itself as participative and in a state of transformation? People rise up and say, “We’re here too. We want to be part of the discussion. We want to be as honored.” I am a carrier of the best of my tradition; I believe the spirit of God is still alive.

Young people are saying that other kind of religion is childish. My parents didn’t treat me like that when I was 6. I am not going to do it now. I think religion has strayed from its best self and has become more inclined to “wear the sign” than “be the sign.”

Young people grow in this world that honors the individual and individual gifts. Consequently, they are missing the values and tradition, beauty and depth that religion has to bring. And if they do not find it, their own lives will, before long, be found dry and sterile and empty. Then they’ll be asking, “What happened on the way? Where did life get lost for me?”

SS: If you had to take a long view, a generation from now or so, do you feel hopeful regarding the Church?

JC: I have no doubt that things are going to change. There are two reasons: One is this social awareness and consciousness that’s rising. But the second more powerful thing is this kind of attitude toward people is at the center and at the best of all of our religious tradition.

SS: I want to ask about your work with young women. When you see young women today, you might think that a lot has changed. At the same time, some things have not changed. 

JC: I obviously have a penchant for walking around every question, trying to figure out the holiest and most honest way into the question. So what’s different? Obviously, they have a broader palate of options, and that leads to the notion that they have choice, where our generation had far less choice—you kind of fell into what was left for women. With options and choice, young women have opportunities to move across a spectrum of things, and if the place is just and recognizes talent rather than simply gender, they have the option to develop themselves and the ideas they have.

But most of all, they have one very big difference going for them that we didn’t have: They have an acute consciousness of the sin of sexism. They know that unless they stay alert and maintain a sense of self, they can easily become part of the suppressed half of the human race.

I am not convinced that the younger generation verbalizes that clearly enough to make the kind of difference that our own generation made. They’re taking it for granted. Young women will say to their mothers, “Oh please, don’t talk about this feminism thing again, that’s so passé. That’s your generation; we don’t have that problem anymore.” Well, by the time they’re 40, they begin to understand that the problem is not only still here, but is now clothed in sheep’s clothing.

And they have to learn again. They have to think again that it is theologically impossible to believe that God gave women brains and gifts and vision in order to deny them the right or responsibility to use them. God did not create us to tease us. So although this generation is better educated and better organized and better informed, they need, in a sense, to be better aware of what happens when you lose sight of the fact that that the will of God is for all people to achieve full human development.

And if you lose sight of that, you run the risk of overlooking the fact that women and girls can be raped on buses and thrown off of them with impunity. You miss the fact that 8,000 women today will go through female genital mutilation. And you will never be able to regain the momentum required to elevate the women of the world to full human stature. Once you lose that, there is no woman on earth that will be safe or free or fully human. So this is a very important spiritual and moral issue, which has nothing to do with female aggrandizement. It has to do with the theology of creation, and it has been badly misused.

SS: I say amen to that! I have one last question. There is much that is known about Catholic sisters and their good work—I think especially of the Nuns on the Bus and their well-deserved visibility this past year. But I am sure there still may be stereotypes or presuppositions about Catholic sisters, their work, and their lives. 

JC: I can only tell you my own experience. I don’t rhapsodize about it in any special way. It’s another form of life. But the important thing to understand is that there is nothing dour about this form of life. There’s nothing neurotic about this form of life. There is nothing enslaving about this form of life.

On the contrary, to me, the unhappy person is the self-centered person because if you are centered on yourself, you’ll never have everything you want. You’ll always want more; somebody will always be your competition.

This is a life formed out of the clay of total selflessness. The ability to be a smiling heart and face of a merciful God, and to somehow be the glue of the human race wherever you are. This is a fully service-centered and service-oriented life. This is a life lived by people who aren’t climbing ladders. On the contrary, they’re descending ladders and going to the marginated. This is a life that is fully developed psychologically, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s a good life. It’s a happy life. It’s a fulfilling life at every level. I have been here more than 60 years; I’d do it again tomorrow.

SS: And it’s a gift to the world.

JC: Yes, it is. These are women who are not interested in color or gender. They care about pulling people up so they can stand on their own. And when that happens, we will be a better country and a better planet.

SS: Thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for the work that you do and your gift to the world. We are very grateful, and thanks again for being with us today.

JC: God bless you, Sally. I appreciate your time and your interest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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