When Sister Barbara Jean Donovan and five other sisters were installed last September as the new Leadership team for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, they chose the theme of “servant leadership” to guide their four year term of office.
That phrase was first advanced in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, a longtime director of management development at AT&T. He defined a servant leader as someone who feels naturally inclined to serve others and does so from a leadership position. While it originated in the secular world, the concept of servant leadership resonates well with Christian teaching — Jesus was a servant leader who washed the feet of his disciples, and St. Francis referred to himself as a servant as well.
“We don’t hear about it as much as we do other forms of management,” admits Sister Barbara Jean, general minister for the congregation. “For me, what it means is that we should think of others, not ourselves and that we should do as Jesus did on Holy Thursday — wash others’ feet and take care of their needs.”
As practiced by the present team, servant leadership does involve soliciting input from those most directly impacted by the decisions to be made — the sister-members of the congregation. But it’s far from abdicating all authority to decision-making by popular vote. Neither is it a ‘my way or the highway’ management style.
“It’s a matter of listening to other people express their needs rather than seeing the situation through my own needs or wants,” says Sister Barbara Jean. “It’s very difficult and very inappropriate to try and know all the answers.”
The foundation of the process is prayer. The leadership team asks God for the wisdom needed to balance what they have heard from the individual sisters with the well-being of the entire community. “Because it is true that as a community, we are very diverse in age, rank and serial number, as I say,” Sister Barbara Jean notes. “We come from different kinds of spirituality, even though we are all Franciscans. We come from different backgrounds and all of this has an impact on us in our decision making. So what the six of us (leadership team members) try to do is put together the best of what we have to offer after listening to community and then hope for the best with God’s help.”
Sister Barbara Jean calls the servant leadership model “awesome” because it requires followers to be both generous and humble. “The self that often gets in the way of the words we use and the actions we take goes to the background. We are out there in front for others. That’s what it’s all about.”
Photo Caption: At her installation as general minister of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, Sister Barbara Jean Donovan poured water into a bowl to symbolize that she will be a servant leader to the congregation.