Donna Markham OP, PhD, ABPP
Around 1970, as a young intern working in a large teaching hospital in Texas, I became involved in what was euphemistically called "an interesting case." Steeped in analytic training and taught to interpret most utterances from patients as metaphors for the intrapsychic life, I enthusiastically engaged myself in the case of Mary and Hal. Mary, I was told, was a young woman who was clearly hallucinating and delusional. Hal was her imaginary friend, "part of her delusional system," I was told. " See her in analytic treatment four times a week, and see if you can help her differentiate her visions from reality," my supervisor directed. And so it began, with all the fervor of a young clinician, thinking to herself that this was a clear-cut "teaching case" and I might learn something about schizophrenia. Until, that is, upon listening to Mary as she began to tell me about Hal. "What is he like," I asked innocently. "Oh," she said, "he is very strong and quite big. The neighbors don’t like him because he frightens them." As I was to learn as the case unfolded, the neighbors had every cause to be fearful of the 600-pound gorilla actually living in Mary’s basement!
All this is simply to say that dealing with dreams and visions and reality can be complicated and tricky business.
Spiritlinking is the deliberate and untiring act of working through resistance to organizational transformation by building the circle of friends, fostering networks of human compassion and interweaving teams of relationships through which new ideas are born and new ways of responding to the mission take form and find expression. In some meager attempt to find a way to describe how we might counter the pull toward the disconnection, self-serving individualism and cynicism that are sad hallmarks of this dawn of the postmodern era, I coined the word "spiritlinking." It speaks to the desire to search together for truth, meaning, and community—directed toward the realization of the mission of the gospel.
I will be examining with you some of the more challenging parts of the mission. That is, the part that moves the mission and the visions off the paper and into expression. So often, in working with organizations that have formulated wonderful statements of mission, I have found that they are bogged down, overwhelmed, even paralyzed, when it comes to taking the kind of innovative action necessary to ensure future institutional viability. Obviously, you have done much over the centuries to meet the needs of a changing world and to prepare the students who are part of it. But as we stand poised at the edge of this postmodern time, there are new challenges that are confronting us. Specifically, common wisdom purports that organizations and institutions will flourish in direct proportion to the extent they have been able to establish strong networking, relational bonds, and communities of meaning and hope throughout their spheres of influence.
Through your commitment as educators, students and leaders in the field of Jesuit education, you hold enormous potential to contribute to the sacred task of healing a world that suffers from demoralization, struggles with injustice, and wrestles with unbelief. You are no strangers to the significance of this mission. In his recent letter to the Jesuits, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General, highlighted well the context in which we find ourselves today: "The times are marked by unforeseeable and very rapid socio-cultural changes," he states, "not easy to read and even harder to respond to effectively (e.g., globalization, the excesses of the market economy, drug traffic and corruption, mass migration, ecological degradation, outbreaks of brutal violence). Formerly inspiring visions of society and broad strategies for structural change have ceded to skepticism or a preference, at best, for more modest projects and restricted approaches…Such a process of erosion would inevitably reduce our mission today…"
Perhaps the greatest tragedy that could occur with your universities
would be to allow such erosion to occur. As participants in communities
of truth, you have articulated a powerful mission, punctuated by visions
and dreams, hopes and inspiration. Here is a sampling of what you say to
those who are looking for wisdom and knowledge:
These are stirring and poignant expressions of groups of extraordinarily dedicated people who exhibit a passion to make this world a better place for subsequent generations. As I reflected on your documents, I noted several themes that permeated your texts and seem to touch upon the heart of your tradition:
And, I am relatively certain, there are times when you, like I, am tempted to say, "So those are beautiful words in those mission statements, great exercises in creative writing. And this is just another one of those presentations—but really nothing very different is really going to happen. We’ve talked this talk before…" And thus we, too, can find ourselves sadly seduced by the skepticism and tantalizing disparagement that surround us.
The mission is compelling—but so are the tasks that face us all. We stand on the edge of taking the plunge toward monumental transformative change. The ways many of us have been accustomed to teaching and learning in the past are no longer adequate to address the needs of the postmodern young adult. As a result of technological advances, social and economic conditions, family environment, to name but a few factors, the young think differently than we do. Nothing perhaps points that out to me more than when I sit with my 14 year old nephew who can solve my computer glitches with record speed and accuracy, saying to me, "But Aunt Donna, it’s sooooo simple!" They have actually developed conceptual patterns that are foreign to many of us. You know that far better than I. Consequently, our educational strategies must respond in new ways to meet a different reality. In what ways can mission be concretized in response to the needs of today’s young?
I am reminded of the somewhat foreboding words penned probably 10 years or more ago by the Episcopal priest, Harrison Owen: Transformative change is the institutional "search for a better way to be. It is what happens when the old ways of doing business are no longer appropriate or adequate [to meet the needs of today] and a new way becomes essential…. The alternative is extinction."
Realizing the mission in today’s world entails being willing to instigate to organizational conversion. And we all know that conversion-talk is painful because it leads to the relinquishment of what has historically been held dear, familiar, and often quite successful. This is precisely why so many institutions engage in visioning exercises, and the visions never leave the paper on which they were written. It’s the classic: "On your mark. Get set. (stop)" And the visions and dreams are shelved somewhere, never to taunt us again with the prospect of really having to engage ourselves in the uncomfortable process of transformative change.
There is an interesting body of organizational research that highlights the difficulties of some organizations to embrace change in response to the needs of the day. Basically, what was discovered was those organizations exhibiting the greatest difficulty conceptualizing and instituting new ways of actualizing their mission in response to changing times are those that have had a very successful past. That is, those institutions that have wonderful track records are likely the very ones that will be the most resistant to change. Conversion is far less attractive to us when we feel comfortable basking on the histories of our accomplishments. The catch in all of this is that our successful organizational behaviors of the past are not going to hold us as we walk into this unfolding postmodern era.
And the stakes are quite high for society as a whole if our most successful and treasured institutions place themselves at risk. For example, it would be a tragic loss for the church, for the future of the next generations, if Jesuit institutions of learning were to inure themselves to emergent needs of today’s young, and continue to engage in methods of education and administration that worked superbly well 20, 30 or more years ago.
Transformative change never happens for its own sake. Change for change’s sake is foolhardy. Transformation happens when an institution listens carefully to the crying needs of the day and determines that it must design new ways of going about business so that it can remain faithful to the mission. Let me share with you a personal example:
In the early 1970’s, the University of Detroit graduate program in clinical psychology prepared me in the delivery of psychoanalytically-oriented therapy, with the expectation that, as a Catholic sister, I would be prepared to respond to the emotionally fragmented and tormented people in the Detroit community. I was trained to be skeptical of the "medical model", to count on the fact that psychotherapy, expertly practiced, would obviate the need for psychotropic medication, and that the only really efficacious model of treatment was analysis. That was the ’70’s. But times changed—and so did psychological training. Had UDM continued rigidly to promote that model, largely an adversarial and highly circumscribed approach, Detroiters (and others) of the 90’s and the 2000’s would not be well served; the graduates would likely find it difficult to find employment; and the clinical program would likely fail to meet standards of acceptable clinical training and practice. Simply put, resistance to change would lead eventually to an erosion of the mission and, ultimately, to extinction. Clearly, that did not happen.
It is no accident that your mission statements so clearly reflect the vital needs of the day—the need for community, for relatedness, for connection. They point toward the significance of the ongoing search for truth, justice, spirituality and meaning. These values are precisely the values that we hear about repeatedly as the central determinants of our ability to survive in this rapidly changing and tumultuous world of ours. They reflect deeply-held values of the Society of Jesus.
The challenge of this time in history is obviously to develop ways of establishing interconnection and relationships throughout those institutions of which we are a part.
The Imperative toward Community
We are all aware, through the shared wisdom and scholarship of the interdisciplinary academy, that one of the most critical predictors of our viability as members of this global society is the extent to which we will be able to establish sustainable communities. This must under gird the ways in which we administer, teach, pray, and live as members of this century. And it will necessitate changing some familiar patterns. I would invite you to take a few moments to reflect on your experience of community as it is lived out in your university context:
Change that is truly transformative may lead to the abandonment of all that has been previously experienced as comfortable and familiar. It necessarily entails letting go and grieving—not because previous ways of addressing the mission were wrong or unsuccessful, but because the needs of these times necessitate new ways of addressing the mission. Transformative change beckons toward the unknown. It is uncomfortable, sometimes frightening, and always met with resistance.
Spiritlinking calls us to risk engaging more directly with one another, regardless of role; to witness to the possibility of learning from one another in communities of truth; to bridge the disconnections that surround us and keep us alienated from one another. It will undoubtedly lead us toward confrontation with those who hold different perspectives, values, and opinions. Yet, this is precisely the witness and the enormous sign of hope that your institutions of Jesuit higher education can offer to the world today. It is a call to fashion learning communities founded on the pursuit of truth, learning communities that will incubate the leaders of the future – and it is a challenge that will be met with massive resistance.
So what can be done so that the people continue to be served, the gospel continues to be proclaimed, in this unfolding era? How will you ensure that resistance to the formation of transformative communities of truth does not silence your mission?
Helping the Visions and Dreams to be Realized
As leaders in the learning community, whether in a formal or an informal role of leadership, you are in a unique position to bring dreams to reality. In order to do that, however, you must be alerted to signs of resistance both in yourself and in the groups with which you are working. Several forms of resistance come to mind when I think about what can happen in our successfully sponsored institutions: denial of the need to change; malaise and low morale demonstrated in administrative, departmental, classroom and board apathy; divisiveness and destructive coalition-building that serve to destroy a sense of the common good; fear leading to institutional paralysis and demonstrated by a series of behaviors I refer to as "doing and undoing". No decision can be definitively made because of a fear of making a wrong decision, so as soon as a direction is articulated, the "re-visitation" begins and no timely action is undertaken. And, lastly, a wonderful way of offsetting the possibility for organizational transformation is by destroying the people who are going to lead the effort.
One of the important tasks of leadership in the process of bringing visions and dreams to reality is to be able to identify behaviors, such as these, that will stop the process from continuing. Being alert to resistances that can thwart constructive change on behalf of the mission is a skill that we can all develop. Typically, intractable resistance to change has resulted in the demise of more than a few institutions. Why? Because it smothered opportunities for community-building, collaboration, and hopefulness. Being aware of the predicable occurrence of resistances when a group is trying to bring forth the new, the leader is able to facilitate the exploration of the underlying fears that hold the group back from taking action.
Leadership Skills Necessary to Make It Happen
Community, as it is lived out in the gospel-driven post-modern institution emphasizes relationships between and among all persons, regardless of status or position. It is built upon conversation and spirited interchange.
Perhaps most significantly, leaders must be committed to continuous learning. Studying, reflecting on our contemporary experience broadens our response-base. Leaders must be able to respond in a variety of ways, dependent upon the demands of a panoply of tasks confronting the institution today. One interventional style is insufficient to carry across all situations. For example, there are times when, in order to reinforce the cohesiveness of the learning community, the leader surfaces differing perspectives and manages conflict. At other times, when the community is threatened by fragmentation, truth-telling and consensus-building are called for. And sometimes, in response to critical, time-bound situations, it is imperative that crisis intervention strategies come to the forefront.
Flexibility and the astute assessment of the institutional culture at any given moment is another hallmark of an effective leader. On the other hand, leaders whose personal need to be liked supercedes their commitment to collaboration and networking will not be able to move their learning communities forward successfully in this postmodern time. Again, they will not be successful leaders today. Nor will leaders who remain entrenched in rigidly learned response styles. Obviously, this is no time for the "but we have always done it this way" or "tradition has been that…" defense against changing.
As we began this morning, the task of moving visions to reality is a complex task. But it is also an exciting one that has far reaching implications for our global sustainability. The commitment to truth seeking, community formation, and the development of the spirituality of the young leaders of tomorrow is, indeed, sacred work. My hope and prayer for you is that you will never allow yourselves to become entrapped in malaise or lulled into the complacency that would prevent the rest of us from benefitting from the treasure Jesuit education is for the church and world.