Spiritual Reflections

We Need Innovators and Disruptors

Sister Annmarie Sanders explores the need for innovators and disruptors within religious life today.

When I was in downtown Dublin in 2022, the sight of a large ad for Trinity College Dublin wrapped on a public bus took my breath away. The ad read, “We need innovators and disruptors.” I thought immediately – disruption has become such a part of religious life. What, though, if we looked upon the disruptions as gateways to innovation?

In the two years that have passed, I have been watching the religious life “disruptions” of decreasing numbers, frailer members, fewer ministries, and more become gateways for the innovation of collaboration. Our inability as individual religious institutes to be all that we once were and often wish we could still be for the world, is leading us to a whole new set of possibilities as we explore partnering across institute lines and with other organizations

This shift should not surprise us since it is a movement happening throughout society. Our consciousness as a global community is shifting significantly as we discover how truly interdependent our world is – and how fragile. Only by working together across the boundaries that have historically divided us will the planet even be able to survive. Nowhere is this more evident than in the climate crisis, the pandemics, and the military conflicts occurring across the globe.

A parallel consciousness is arising in religious life as religious congregations are entering into alliances – not only with other religious or other Catholic entities, but with many other movements and organizations that value the common good. Fostering interdependence is becoming an imperative for religious institutes.

A Movement that Comes with Challenges

Most of the women in religious life today lived through years where every religious institute operated quite independently. For the most part, women religious ran their own institutions and ministries and were accustomed to being in charge. This movement towards collaboration, therefore, can come with some challenges. In the past, collaboration often involved bringing other people into our works and, essentially, expecting them to carry on those works as we had.

Today the invitation is to become more horizontal collaborators where we walk side-by-side with others with a common vision – even when others’ ways of operating may be unfamiliar, make us uncomfortable, or require that we relinquish control.

In places where women religious are engaged in this type of collaboration, we hear stories of how sisters are valued for skills that they often took for granted because they were developed via our communal lifestyle. Those skills include experience with teamwork, practice in conflict resolution, and an understanding of life from the perspective of those on the margins. Often sisters are surprised by how appreciated and valued these skills are.

In my work at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I see that congregations that are deep into the work of making this shift to horizontal collaboration are focusing on the work of transitioning. For example:

  • Many are engaged in proactive planning that looks at transitioning sponsored institutions or congregation ministries to lay leadership.
  • They are making plans to repurpose their properties and buildings to serve wider needs.
  • They are partnering with other entities whose mission is compatible with theirs and they are finding creative ways to contribute to those entities.

Standing on the Threshold of Possibility

This time of significant change in religious life places those of us living it now in a unique position to help shape what this lifeform can be today and into the future.

This is a moment for careful listening together to what the Spirit, the world, and our own hearts are telling us that religious life might be for these times – and then acting to shape it accordingly. The past is past. Today we are much smaller, more culturally diverse, intergenerational communities that are not restricted to the boundaries that once held us. We can partner with freedom with other communities and other entities serving the common good. We have opportunities to shape something for the future that past generations simply did not have because religious life was a more determined lifestyle with fewer options for how to live it.

Here in the United States, it is becoming clear that most religious institutes will not go into the future alone. Collaboration among us across charisms and across congregations will most likely be a way of life.

Disruption and Innovation

I think the “innovators and disruptors” advertisement became emblazoned in my memory because it holds a compelling invitation to live religious life today in a more collaborative form while trusting that new alliances will bring new and undreamed-of possibilities. We are members of religious institutes whose histories are replete with stories of disruptions of the status quo and innovations that were never thought possible. So, maybe our call today is to explore questions such as:

  • What might we need to “disrupt” in the ways we have structured and lived religious life? Are there ways of making decisions, relating to one another, defining our identity, embodying our mission that would benefit from some disruption?
  • Where do we need creativity and imagination in our congregation life for these times in which we live? Are there new partnerships that could lead to new expressions of mission? Are we being called forward to form relationships that we previously never considered?

If we engage these questions, we will need to be clear on why changes are needed and what those changes could bring about for the world we serve. Times of transformation and change always come with some cost. A vision is essential.

My sense is that this is a time for religious life to simplify who and what our congregations have become so that we can return to the very essence of this vocational call. Perhaps as we embrace this time of a religious life lived without the boundaries and works that once defined us, we will find new and ever more meaningful ways to live as the disruptors and innovators that the world most needs us to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *