September 2, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – Serving in leadership is “an extraordinary experience. It’s a gift, truly, to give of oneself in this way and extremely rewarding.”
That was the reflection of Sister Elise D. García, OP, General Councilor of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, during an interview shortly after she formally took on the role of President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) during the organization’s virtual assembly, August 12-14, 2020. During the interview, Sister Elise reflected on her leadership at the LCWR, the ministry of leadership in religious life, and the future of religious life.
The LCWR is an association of the leaders of congregations of U.S. Catholic women religious, representing about 80 percent of the Catholic Sisters in the nation.
Sister Elise first took on the role of leadership at the LCWR during the 2017 assembly, when the LCWR was restructuring its board from membership by chairs of the organization’s regions to membership of people who had particular skills needed on the board.
“I had three people ask if I would consider serving on the board, so I thought I needed to pay attention,” Sister Elise said. She was elected to the national board and, during the 2019 assembly, was invited to consider putting her name in for the presidency. She was elected as President-elect, to serve in 2019-2020 on the tripartite governance structure with Sister Jayne Helmlinger, a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, as President and Holy Cross Sister Sharlet Wagner as the Past President.
Now as President, Sister Elise will serve this year with Sister Jane Herb, IHM, as President-elect and Sister Jayne Helmlinger as Past President. The three form a leadership team with Sister Carol Zinn, SSJ, Executive Director of LCWR. Sister Maureen O’Connor, OSF, serves as treasurer.
The officers meet at least monthly and hold four board meetings a year, during which they plan for and facilitate the annual assembly, Sister Elise explained. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, she added, the leadership team has met through Zoom.
As President, Sister Elise will lead the LCWR in three major initiatives:
- A Spirit Call within a Call, a five-year program to address systemic racism and white privilege. The journey will address essential questions among the member congregations of women religious in the LCWR. “My top priority is to put all my energy and whatever I can give to this so that this can be a truly transformative journey of change and of creating new pathways that are reflective of who we say we are as women religious,” Sister Elise said.
- A national conversation around the capacity and the future of religious life. This will involve “looking at our demographics as a take-off point and trying to create a space for congregations to have conversations with each other,” Sister Elise said. “Instead of having each congregation look at its own numbers, we want to open it up so we’re all engaged … to collaborate as we move into this very different future.”
- Providing a fund for the future of religious life through the proceeds of the sale of the Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters of the LCWR and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM). The fund would be available for projects such as meetings of the younger Sisters. “It’s a real investment, a sign of LCWR’s commitment to the future of religious life,” she said.
Now in her second year in the triumvirate governance form of the LCWR, Sister Elise said her year as president will be different because of the responsibility she will hold. “As President-elect, you step right into the presidency, but you’re not the person who is ultimately responsible,” she said. “Once you become President you are in essence the Chair of the Board. If matters arise internal or external that require commenting or that require official attention, the one serving in the role of President is the one called to step up and respond.”
In her years of leadership – both in the Adrian Dominican Congregation and in the LCWR – Sister Elise has learned much. “One of the key learnings is the extraordinary care and respect and love that the Sisters in elected leadership have for religious life in a general sense – including their own congregations, but well beyond that,” she said. “There’s an extraordinary willingness for the women to make themselves available for the mission of religious life and the LCWR. That’s been a delight, and really inspirational.”
Still, Sister Elise recognizes that leadership in religious life also has its challenges. For her, the biggest challenge is to “negotiate and manage so many different aspects of our life,” both the internal concerns of the congregation or the LCWR and the external concerns of the world. As a religious leader, she said, she is called to “maintain every day a posture of being responsive to the cries of the Earth and the cries of the poor … and at the same time we have all the internal aspects of running a congregation at a time of incredible change.”
Sister Elise expressed her appreciation for the gifts and the support of the other members of the Adrian Dominican General Council: Prioress Patricia Siemen, OP; Sister Mary Margaret Pachucki, OP, Vicaress; Sister Frances Nadolny, OP, Administrator; and Sister Patricia Harvat, OP. “We all check in with one another once a week to make sure that we’re connecting as sisters and are mindful of each other in terms of who might be carrying extra weight this week or the next,” Sister Elise explained.
Sister Elise is also appreciative of Patrick O’Neill, a facilitator who works with the Congregation’s Leadership Council – the General Council and Chapter and Mission Prioresses – at least quarterly to discuss the larger question about who they are as individuals and leaders. She also appreciates the Co-workers on the Motherhouse campus, who keep the campus running smoothly, allowing the General Council to focus on its own ministry: looking ahead.
Sister Elise spoke of the “extraordinary experience” of leadership. She noted that many Sisters have taken on various leadership roles in their ministries, “day-in and day-out in all kinds of arenas.” Yet, leading at the congregational level is a unique experience. “It focuses on our life in the Congregation or religious life more broadly,” she said. “There’s something about serving the life itself that is really inspiring, and I just love it.”
She encouraged those who feel called to leadership at the level of a congregation or religious life to pursue it. If you should be elected, she said, “you’re in for an extraordinary experience that is both hugely demanding and hugely rewarding.”