By Mary T. Tracy
I have been thinking a lot lately about vocation in the Christian tradition – partly because of the dramatic changes in healthcare staffing since March 2020, and partly because I have been part of that change, moving from full-time chaplaincy into management. I do not believe I have the traditional managerial metal. But even so, now I am not only managing chaplains (which was my original goal) but also providing executive leadership and stewardship of the Catholic mission and identity at a behavioral health and high acuity hospital.
I am a leader. How did I get here? How can I tell if I am meant to stay here? What qualities do I seek to emulate in my favorite models of servant leadership? What effect is my leadership having on me and those I serve?
I get the feeling I am not alone in these questions. Looking for answers has led me to draw on the wisdom of the Christian tradition around spiritual discernment, vocation, and encounter with Jesus.
Understanding vocation in the Christian tradition includes ongoing spiritual discernment and a conviction that life and work are not only sacred and full of dignity but also evolve over time. Each of us can thus be encouraged to stop fearing the ways in which we are changing. We can take sabbaticals or retreats, or make mid-career moves from clinical into administration or education (or vice versa). We can retire, un-retire, or change careers altogether.
Vocational discernment esteems the paradox of “both/and,” which rejects “either/or” thinking. It turns the differences that might polarize us into gifts that are respected as serving the common good. For example, old-timers and newcomers are both mutually valued for the unique perspectives and insights they bring.
Both/and is a kind of paradox that we can trace back at least as far as Jesus, who rejected the either/or thinking that he could only be a righteous person if he followed all the rules. He insisted that he could be both faithful and compassionate by associating himself with those who broke those very same rules, healing the wounds that left people ostracized and abandoned, insisting that our neighbor is anyone in need – that is, anyone in danger of falling through the cracks of our brokenness and broken communities.
However, I have seen a temptation in leadership – in various industries, public and private, for profit and nonprofit – to treat compassion as a luxury reserved only for those without real power. Can a manager both ensure steady staffing and grant allowances for bereavement leave when an employee suffers the death of a third or fourth close family member in a few short months?
More and more, healthcare leaders need a way to nurture this both/and thinking that is so at odds with more secular standard thinking. It requires working between traditional time-tested structures and the ever-present newness that the Holy Spirit champions, between justice and charity, between the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove.
In their time, our predecessors in holy orders had to navigate these same tensions. The Sisters of St. Joseph-Third Order of St. Francis celebrated their final Mass in their convent in Garfield Heights, Ohio, a few weeks ago. Next door, the hospital they founded in 1949 is only growing more popular as it serves a larger and larger volume of patients.
These sisters, like many other orders, built the institutions that form the backbone of our communities today. I find myself asking, “What is God up to? Where is the Holy Spirit moving?” The workload has only increased. What is the new model of community care and leadership advocacy?
This returns me to the spiritual discernment of vocation. I marvel at the new shoots of ministry leadership that have already begun springing up through our sorrows over what is passing back into the earth. If God is, as Jesus pointed out in Luke 20, “God of the living,” and the Holy Spirit never stops making a way forward, then perhaps there is a place in healthcare leadership for new leader styles that continue to draw inspiration from these foundational communities.
Lay-ordained partnerships, Catholic hospitals in secular and mixed systems, young ministers formed in a newly inspired understanding of old social teachings … I am hopeful for the future. My faith has trained me to keep looking for hope in the unlikeliest of places – at the edge of formal power, where justice and charity meet, where the newcomer and the outcast become messengers of glad tidings to the ones at the center of formal power.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital in Garfield Heights, OH.