Kerry Alys Robinson

Women, leadership and the church

Saturday, March 25, 2017

On International Women’s Day, March 8, a celebration of inspiring leaders from across the globe took place in an unlikely setting: the heart of the Vatican.

The theme of the fourth annual Voices of Faith event was peace. The format was storytelling and discussion, and the purpose was to demonstrate the crucial role women play in leadership and decision-making when it comes to peace, or any other meaningful pursuit.

Among the women featured was Marguerite Barankitse, responsible for saving the lives of 20,000 children whose parents were killed in the genocide of Burundi; Dr. Mirreille Twayigira, an orphan who excelled in her studies in a refugee camp in Malawi and was accepted at medical school in China, requiring her to learn Chinese; two sisters from Syria describing their frightening travels across the sea in a rubber boat, neither able to swim; Marie Dennis, co-president with Bishop Kevin Dowling of Pax Christi International; and Flavia Agnes, founder of Majlis Legal Center in India and legal advocate for more than 50,000 women and their children who endured physical and sexual abuse. Their personal testimony was riveting, often harrowing, but what was palpable was their irrepressible joy, a joy borne of faith, conviction and the commitment to live lives dedicated to improving the world for others.

A panel discussion revealed the beneficial impact of including women along with men at the highest levels of leadership across all sectors. Corporations with women on their boards have a better return for shareholders; female doctors are less likely to be sued for malpractice; universities, the military, the judiciary — all are strengthened by the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions.

So it is with the urgent effort of peace-building. Scilla Elworthy, three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, articulated five characteristics of feminine intelligence (accessible to men and women) that are necessary to advance peace: compassion that results in action, inclusivity, deep listening, intuition and regeneration. Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, executive director of Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus movement, offered four complementary virtues for our present day: joy, holy curiosity, sacred gossip and doing one’s part.

The organizers of Voices of Faith love and respect the church and its mission. Appreciating the church as the largest global humanitarian network in the world, they recognize the enormous potential it has to address human suffering and complex global challenges.

Their concern is one of urgency: to strengthen the church’s capacity to excel at its mission. The question at the heart of the matter is: how compromised is the church by failing to include women in the highest levels of leadership and in decision-making?

Mission matters. Best practices matter. Every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first — only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so. As many women noted on March 8, the church risks being left behind if this isn’t addressed.

As the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, remarked during the Voices of Faith event: “The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized daughters and sons of God … but if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which would bring the gifts of resilience and collaboration even more deeply into the church, remains stymied on many fronts.”

Those who care deeply for the church’s vitality must ask: Given that young women know they can achieve the highest levels of leadership in any sector and industry, do they find role models at the highest levels of leadership in the church? Are there examples in the lectionary where women are the protagonists? Are there visible signs that women are included in decision-making within the church? How welcoming are we as a church to young women and their talents and abilities? And what do we lose if we lose them?

These are the questions our young people are asking. It’s time we started giving them some answers.