By Maggie Finley
How do we chaplains lead aside from the traditional organizational chart?
Mainstream leadership models, even those forgoing spirituality per se, contend that leadership begins in inner space. The idea that the individual spiritual journey has implications for the larger community is not new, but one whose time has come. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer consigns each of us to leadership “of some sort” on a daily basis. He speaks not only of “leading from within” but further delineates good leadership as “high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest … leadership do more harm than good.”
Generally this rings true for chaplains, who acquaint themselves with the inner landscape and learn the language of leadership through theological inquiry, lived experience, CPE formation and continuous competency-building. I’ve collaborated and shared wisdom with chaplains consistently living out our call to servant, situational and transformative leadership — at different levels within a variety of care settings, whether operating one-person offices or as members of a larger pastoral/spiritual care department.
Some lead from behind, taking on the mentor-coach, advisory role. Pastoral presence encourages autonomy, potentially giving others permission to step into their own authority; often a precursor to making meaning(ful) decisions during life’s critical transitions.
While a certain willingness to stretch and risk in new directions is inherent in our call, leader gurus and behaviorists alike subscribe to honoring who you are and what you desire in choosing a career path. Those of us for whom “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” out in the field — those whose strength is in daily involvement with patients, families, and staff — sometimes choose to decline formal leadership. But chaplains in the trenches often opt for advocacy and committee work to round out leadership by helping articulate best practice, mission identity, and effectiveness.
In fact, leadership seems so embedded in professional chaplaincy that opportunities may be unlimited, aside from the scope of charts. In my status as certified retired (i.e. emeritus) chaplain, I realize we enjoy an autonomy reserved for retirement, which is a kind of niche. We are maturing into elderhood with minds and hearts still fully engaged via volunteering, consultancy, pioneering, or bolstering ministries.
The topic of leadership is complex and boasts enough published material to fill a library, but a couple of resources worth mentioning are:
- Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. In Chris Lowney’s accessible yet comprehensive survey, are stories of St. Ignatius’ leadership and Jesuit formation, which animates the Society of Jesus even now. Pope Francis’ leadership style is textbook Jesuit for walking the talk, “energizing self and others with noble aspirations.” And his signature gift may be his passion for personal connection and a genuinely pastoral approach to papal power “grounded in love, measuring success in terms of influence and human potential.” Francis’ persona radiates an aura of authenticity above mere intelligence and raw skill, as he goes about trying to touch more deeply into the “something more than meets the eye” (i.e. magis).
The pillars of heroic leadership fall within the realm of lifelong learning and resemble CPE as follows:
Self-awareness. Maturing in self-understanding, knowing one’s strengths, limitations, values, and world view;
Ingenuity/adaptability. Changing with a changing world, holding in creative tension, being innovative;
Love. Engaging with others out of a positive, loving attitude;
Heroism. Walking the talk, putting words into action, being self and other-motivated toward noble aspiration.
- Managing Oneself. Author Peter Drucker begins with the wisdom of St. Ignatius and expands to include John Calvin as well. He studied each leader’s spiritual geography, reframing it as a template for corporate life. Not lost on Drucker was the impact each innerscape had on legacy and longevity, and he acknowledges the visionary changes they wrought in European history within a 30-year period. (In the future, women founders, whose charism and ministry also flourished as the fruit of cumulative mystical experience, should be included. Charismatic women wielded no less influence than men.)
Drucker’s managing self lives in action/reflection mode, much the same as in Ignatius’ modo de proceder and Examen. Drucker analyzed individual strength, how one works and where one fits in, one’s values and giftedness — and he unearthed enough questions to conclude that one size does not fit all. The challenge moves beyond mere job description toward a way of life. Both the managing self and the heroic leader allow for the uniqueness of personality, learning preference, performance, relationship-patterning, and environment. Discerning the right time, place, and fit in which one thrives are all worthy of attention.
Chaplain roles evolve subtly or sometimes overnight within our perennially changing healthcare system in ways that call for non-traditional leadership. Chaplains understand questions of change agency — how being in a specific time and place in an institution’s (or patient’s) life cycle demands self-motivation and flexibility. And the chaplain’s capacity to embrace change and hold creative tension not only empowers others but surely contributes to an organization’s sustainability and innovation.
Maggie Finley, BCC, is a retired chaplain from Providence Hospice of Seattle.