By Antonina Olszewski
Early in my management career, I hired three very different people to work on my team: a feminist woman who became an Episcopal priest; a priest who had left the Roman Catholic Church to join the Polish National Church; and an evangelical chaplain in his 70s who provided chaplain support to police and fire departments.
Is it any surprise that they had a lot of conflicts in their first year together? You can probably imagine some of them. But they were all talented, and they were all able to recognize one another’s gifts. As they grew accustomed to each other, their varied strengths made them a formidable team.
After more than a decade in Catholic healthcare management, primarily on the mission side, I have a lot of stories to tell and a lot of hard-earned lessons, principally about myself, that I offer to share with chaplains who are interested in developing more leadership skills.
Understanding the foundations of Catholic healthcare ministry is essential knowledge for today’s leaders. As a healthcare leader, your decisions and actions express the Catholic identity of your health ministry. It reflects what we believe, who we are, and why it is important to us. Awareness of church’s theological roots, principles, and practices impacts the way we make clinical and organizational decisions.
In Catholic healthcare or in any organization, it’s important to form a culture rooted in your organizational mission and values. Those who join us in this ministry bring rich gifts and wisdom from many different faith traditions and a variety of experiences and world views. Inviting each person to both recognize your organization’s unique call and find their own connection to your mission helps them to bring meaning to their work. Whatever your faith tradition or life philosophy, invite others to make connections to the common mission.
You can help model an authentic leadership style to others by the way you express your vocational call. Ministry is more than just work. It is service done in the name of another, whether God or the Church or an organization. The way we are and the way we work is a sign of what we believe about people and about relationships.
Cultivating your own emotional IQ will be essential to have crucial conversations in love – not just with direct reports, but with peers and supervisors as well. Richard Rohr says that few of us can offer “hard prophecy” — direct and challenging words — from a truly clean heart and humble spirit. “Hard prophecy” often has more to do with our own self-image as strong, smart, zealous, or committed than with actual service or caring for others. However, when we remember that we lead as servants, and that we revere every human person, it helps us to create a self-practice that makes space for this. Rohr suggests that we should first seek to “clean the inside of our own dish,” as Matthew puts it (23:26), before we try to clean other people’s dishes. This is less visible or heroic, and therefore less common.
That is why we must move to the laboratory where all such radical change can occur — inside of our own mind and heart. It gives us an inner sense of divine union so we can do the needed works of justice with peace, enduring passion, and insofar as possible, personal invisibility. Accountability means more than just “keeping your word” or “doing what you say you will.” Holding yourself accountable means doing the self-work necessary to be a good servant leader.
As a leader, you need to understand the different gifts that God has given and how you are encountering bits and pieces of those gifts all the time. Think about the irreducible dignity of each of the people with whom you serve, and think about what they can do, each in their own way, each uniquely created to be a reflection of God.
I know what I know, and I know where my strengths lie, so I hire to my weaknesses. More diverse initial viewpoints generally lead to a stronger finished product. Don’t fall into the trap of hiring people who are like you or only types you find amiable.
In hiring, and in all of your relationships, extend hospitality and create opportunities to be inclusive. Look for Christ in the person strewn in our path. Maybe they aren’t someone you would naturally seek out, so make an effort. Look for voices that aren’t being heard and ask: “We haven’t heard from you today, what do you think?” Introverts, for instance, may need more time to process; remember to circle back to them.
A perennial issue for chaplains is making time and space for self-care in the midst of a job that involves caring for others. My self-care routine consists of two vacations a year, usually two or three weeks long, where I leave the country, don’t have email, and am totally unavailable to work. But you can take more modest steps to set boundaries for yourself. Just because your phone or tablet has email doesn’t mean that you have to send or answer work emails during your personal time. Make time for your inner life and self-reflection. For instance, I encourage my chaplains to take 15 minutes of reflective time during the work day. It allows them to maintain a centered presence when they return to caring for others.
Never stop exploring your preferences, your path, and your ideas. Don’t be afraid to switch it up. Prior to moving into healthcare, I was a financial advisor with several Fortune 500 firms, and I was honest with myself when I realized that that was no longer where I needed to be. As I often say, I gave up money but found my vocation.
Antonina Olszewski is vice president of spiritual services for Ascension and will join the NACC Board of Directors in January 2023. This article is adapted from her webinar presentation on Oct. 6.