Holiness is Not a Strategy

A Letter from the Executive Director

“Holiness is not a strategy. Structures prevent bad things.”

This comment was made last week by a Catholic leader during the Catholic Partnership Summit. Thgathering explored what aspects of the current leadership culture led to the twin crises of abuse and leadership failures, and sought to imagine a new future. Thcomment was made in the context of exploring governance and leadership.   

I have been reflecting on this challenge while considering the heart-breaking news about Jean Vanier. I am struggling with what to do with this revelation. I am struggling with what CVN can offer you, knowing how much Vanier’s teachings and philosophy have infused many of your programs, curricula, and more. I am struggling with how I would now lead the CVN member program that I worked with for years. Vanier’s approach shaped mine so much.   

But, am also giving thanks because last week’s Summit provided a timely container that helped attendees be serious and honest about the need for leadership. We heard inspiring reflections about how true leaders start by consulting expertsand how better leadership requires focus on relationships, not roles. These challenges invite vision, change, and partnerships – not just better management during business as usual. Moreover, they point toward a strategy that you have long embodied: humble relationship with those in need; support for emerging leaders seeking to cultivatcallingand commitment to processes that nurtures true discernment.   

You offer me hope. And your witness hainfluenced others.   

During the opening Mass at the Summit, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory (Washingtonlifted up that not all young people are leaving faith, but are instead questioning the Church’s practices and opportunities.  He mentioned Peace Corps, VISTA, and full-time faith-based service as examples of ways they are living out faith and effecting change. Moreover, during a plenary session focused on young adult Catholics as leaders, two CVN programs were named. In addition, there was significant discussion about the need for more clergy and lay collaboration. This session had the most engagement, the most hands raised, and was the hardest for moderators to end!      

Your structures – which reflect your commitment to community that nurtures spirituality and leadership – are known and respected. While you mourn and question, also remember your witness. Be open to how that may be sought in the future. We are far from perfect, but you walk a way that prepares you to rise to the challenge presented by one admirer of Vanier:

“I cannot accept the disturbing truth about him as proof, as some have understood it, that sanctity does not exist. Rather, I think it challenges us to consider our own and others’ simultaneous capacity profound goodness and evil, to seek models of holiness away from the world’s spotlight and to pursue holiness ourselves far from the spotlight, at the bottom of the ladder.” Colleen Dulle

The way you and your programs pursuholiness is an expression of leadership needed now:

“We do need leaders, but we need to  think about who we elevate and how we elevate them – and how they are allowed to lead. Do our leaders have the necessary self-reflection that is required of them? What are the practices and systems of accountability we need? How do we discern leadership as a spiritual gift from pride in one’s own efforts? How do leaders honestly and humbly understand their own humanity and their own vulnerability?” Jim Wallis

Holiness is not a strategy. Charisma can only do so much. Trust without accountability is dangerous.  You model inspirational approaches to faith. Now, I pray you can lead by modeling how to be real about pain, confusion, anger, and more. Trust your structures, pillars, practices – whatever you call them. Be intentional in caring for yourselvesyour volunteers, and others. Be honest. Be open to how that will inform your understanding of holiness at this time.     

We are not holy without God. We cannot change all that we would like. So, we must do what we can confidently and humbly – and hope others benefit from our attempts at leadership. May you witness to Paul’s effort to entrust the Gospel to leaders so that they – you – may inspire others: 

“He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9)

With you in service, 

Yonce Shelton
Executive Director

P.S. We are working to arrange a call or other supports where you can discuss needs during this time with others. I would really welcome hearing from you on this topic and how we can support you. Please reach out to me at yshelton@catholicvolunteernetwork.org

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