When Fr Michael Smith, SJ, told a seminar at the Pompallier Diocesan Centre in Auckland that he wanted to talk about the leadership team meeting as a “contemplative experience”, he certainly had the attention of the room.
Fr Smith, an Australian Province Jesuit who hails from Eltham in Taranaki, will be working part time on the staff of the new St Ignatius of Loyola Catholic College, which is being built in Drury south of Auckland, and part-time as the spiritual director at Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland.
Most people would think of contemplation and meetings as two very divergent realities: one that you might do early in the morning or on a retreat, and the other you would attend in a board room. The two together would probably seem to be unlikely partners, Fr Smith told NZ Catholic.
At the seminar on June 14, Fr Smith noted that, just as a leader who desires to be an instrument in the hand of God in the apostolate, needs to nurture his or her life of prayer as an individual, so too a leadership team in an apostolate which desires to be apostolically effective and an instrument in the hand of God, must have a contemplative life as a group.
How is this sort of contemplation defined?, he asked.
Such contemplation involves “a long, loving look at the real”. A leadership team sits around a table and takes “a long, loving look at the real”. What do they look at with love? Their responsibilities in the apostolate — their loving service of others, hiring staff, role descriptions, compliance, budgets, IT systems, faith formation, communications strategies, human resource management, strategic planning, public relations, risk management, and so on.
“We are in an era in which corporate sanctity is critical to building the Kingdom of God. The complexities of the world call for a range of wisdom, experience and grace that can be found only in a team. In the Church, we are becoming used to speaking about the concept of social or structural sin. We need also to speak about social grace. An apostolate should strive to be a social grace — a grace-filled organisation — and that requires contemplation,” Fr Smith said.
Church organisations, built on the deep story of Jesus Christ’s life, death and Resurrection, should “be corporate graces, social graces”, he continued, “but we can’t be social graces if people are being treated unjustly or bullied. The way that we treat one another has to be with great love, respect and reverence. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t challenge people, but the way we are with one another makes all the difference”.
At the seminar, Fr Smith gave some simple ways of how a meeting might be conducted in a contemplative way. At the start of each meeting, he suggested, each team member could be asked – “how are you?” This shows that the person asking the question is there for the person asked. Each person is cared for.
Fr Smith also said that the next item at a meeting should be a minimum of ten minutes of prayer on the Gospel.
“When you pray, when you have a period of prayer at the start of a meeting, followed by spiritual conversation, my experience is that the meeting usually flows better,” he said. “Issues that an organisation is facing that seem huge . . . can come down to – what is God asking us to do with this particular situation at this time?”
Praying on the Gospel and sharing faith is preferable to simply rattling off a quick “Hail Mary”, and then getting on with the business of the meeting, he noted.
Cultivating a contemplative presence to each other in meetings brings about patience with each other, humility, and charity toward each other, trust in each other, challenge of each other with support, and communal listening to, and speaking of, the Word.
A leadership team which works together over a long period of time in an apostolate needs to extend their contemplative stance beyond their own personal prayer, to include their meetings as a privileged place where God invites them to contemplate the work of the apostolate and their interrelatedness with other staff, and those whom the apostolate serves.
Through fidelity to meetings, good discernment in common takes place. The apostolate, as a faith-filled community, begins to “find God in all things” as the leadership team takes “a long, loving look at the real”.
Organisations are storying cultures, Fr Smith continued, and Catholic organisations are built on the foundational narrative of the Gospel. So, “viewing our organisations as storying cultures signals that one of the important things of the leader – be they bishop, chief executive officer or principal – is to keep the deep story of the organisation alive and vibrant”.
Fr Smith explained that the “more comprehensive the responsibility of the leader in an organisation, the more his or her concern must be for the patterns of life, death and resurrection — the deep story level of the organisation”.
Fr Michael spoke about St Ignatius of Loyola viewing God as Deus Operarius – “God the Worker”. “God is at work in the world. God has his project in the world, the Kingdom of God, and we are called to work with God, each in our unique ways, to bring about the Kingdom. We are partners with God in bringing about God’s holy plan. That is who God is, and that is who we are – we are workers.”
It is essential for the leader to distinguish between “what is happening” and “what is really going on”, Fr Smith said. Plenty of human activity is happening, but “what is really going on is the Father is at work forming the total Body of Christ – may they be gathered in one body in Christ”.
“So we need to discern the mystery of God at work in the world though prayer, reflection, contemplation, and discernment. That is why I am so insistent on the team meeting as a contemplative experience.”
If a leadership team comes together with a faith-filled frame of mind, then their contemplative stance will bring a grace-filled quality of loving presence to their work. The contemplative process will gradually deepen them in the mind and heart of Christ, and draw them into a more pervasive charity as they decide what action to take about the realities of the apostolate.