A vocation is intensely personal, but it is not only personal. Many years ago, Neely Dixon McCarter, longtime president of Pacific School of Religion, reminded his readers of this truism in his book, The President as Educator. In it, he wrote that institutions, including seminaries, have vocations, too:
“At the root of the creative institution is a shared sense of vocation, or if you prefer, a common calling,” McCarter wrote, quoting Robert Lynn of Lilly Endowment. “In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, the presence of calling is embraced as a gift. The consequences of that gift are evident in a corporate sense of identity and a unifying loyalty to a set of purposes.” One of the key duties of a board is to steward and nurture that vocation so that it passes to the next generation with more vitality, not less.
My convictions about the vocation of institutions comes from experience in both religious education and in health care. When I stepped down after 18 years as president of Aquinas Institute of Theology, I became vice president for theological education at Ascension Health — probably the only person in the health care field with that title! My responsibility there was to create a formation program for the boards of dozens of hospitals that comprised our network (which is America’s largest Catholic health care system).
Ascension Health created my role because they knew that health care was under financial, strategic, governmental, and political pressure. If Catholic health care was to survive in any significant way, we would have to shape a new generation of leaders who could recreate, in our own time and place, what the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Ascension Health’s other founding religious communities had done originally.
So I started to create opportunities for spiritual formation for the board members of these hospitals. Now, even in Catholic health care, not everyone was happy with the word formation. But we couldn’t think of another word that would distinguish what we were doing from board development. We wanted to make it clear that formation was a different process, with its genesis not in the business world but in spirituality.
Most of our hospitals had non-Catholic board members, including some who were Jewish or Muslim. We told everyone, regardless of faith tradition, that our goal was to deepen each board member’s spiritual awareness so that each member could bring that awareness to the boardroom as a resource. We settled on a definition of formation that may seem generic from the perspective of theological education, but which does include key elements:
“Formation” is a transformative process rooted in theology and spirituality which connects us more deeply with God, creation, and others. Through self-reflection, it opens us to God’s action so that we derive meaning from the work we do, grow in awareness of our gifts, see our work as vocation, and build a communal commitment to the ministry of health care.
Using this as a foundation, we set out to share our tradition — and, in particular, the elements of Catholic social teaching — in order to help board members understand our culture, our values, and our vision — in short, why we do what we do.
I asked the boards of our member medical centers to revise their statements of board expectations to make explicit mention of formation. I said that they needed to learn a glossary of about 20 theological words — that just as clergy needed to learn how to read a balance sheet, so hospital trustees needed to acquire a basic fluency in theological language.
| Image Credit: Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery
But formation is not just knowledge, so we invited board members to pray together, reflect on key spiritual readings, sit in silence, and share something of their reflection. Silent communal meditation proved to be especially effective for our board members, signaling that we were different than many other boards. Moreover, we didn’t just teach key concepts like justice, human dignity, and the common good, but we also asked board members to look for these concepts in their own experience and deepen their own personal commitments to them.
In the hospital setting, as in the seminary and the parish, formation must be intentional. All our boards are peopled with men and women who have impressive technical knowledge and are highly competent, but Christian institutions also need men and women who understand their faith and are deeply committed to it. By providing opportunities for spiritual growth, we do our organizations a great service but also support the board members themselves. More than one board member has told me that spiritual formation opportunities were the most rewarding part of board work. And these board members return to their parishes and congregations as more vibrant disciples and leaders.
How is your own board cultivating a shared sense of purpose? If you don’t already have a formation process in place, it’s not too late to begin. Start with a discussion of what kinds of persons board members need to be in order to exercise their role with faithfulness and effectiveness. This discussion may lead to the establishment of a formation committee, with goals, content, and a syllabus. As you move forward, such a formation process can help shape your board and your school, nurturing your call and your understanding of who God is calling you to be.