“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant…” (Mk 20:17)

by | Mar 8, 2021

In this issue of Corps Connections, we are delighted to feature an interview with Fr. David McCallum, S.J., Executive Director of the Vatican’s Program for Discerning Leadership. At the request of Pope Francis, the Society of Jesus is bringing the gift of Ignatian discernment “to build the capacity of senior Church leaders, including officials in Vatican Dicasteries, General Superiors of religious orders, bishops, and lay leaders, for this mission of discernment, reform, and renewal.” 

This interview is also an invitation to you to join a webinar with Fr. David, Saturday, March 13 at 10 am ET, sponsored by IVC-Syracuse and IVC-Albany. (CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS AND TO REGISTER)

CC: Fr. David, thanks so much for your willingness to share your thoughts on Ignatian leadership. I know the Vatican program is currently geared towards Church leaders, but I imagine there is much we can relate to as IVC Service Corps Members (SCMs).

 In Fratelli Tutti, the Pope talks about accompaniment and the importance of being “with” the other, not as a leader but as a companion. What lessons from the Discerning Leadership Program can be readily applied to the companion role our SCMs have on the frontlines of service?

Fr. David: Yes, the Discerning Leadership program is about helping senior Church leaders discern the nature of authority, the proper function of hierarchy, and the fundamental relationship and service with and for others. We invite participants to consider the role of power in relation to the dignity of all people and the importance of mutuality in our relationships. So first and foremost, we focus on the God-given dignity of each person and the “horizontal equity” we have with one another as sisters and brothers. This attention to power has many implications for people who accompany others through volunteer service.

This focus on accompaniment doesn’t suggest the playing field is level or that we’re all gifted in the same way. It points to the fundamental equality we all have as children of God. Our mutual respect for human dignity always calls us to reverence the other, to treat one another as brothers and sisters. This attitude of being siblings helps us to think carefully about the function and use of authority and hierarchy so we don’t confuse service and status when it comes to roles of responsibility.

In other words, just because a person is serving a role with resources and authority does not necessarily give that person more status or privilege than others. A servant leader is motivated to seek and support the flourishing of others along with the fulfillment of a collective mission.

And it’s important to note that this sense of the right relationship to authority requires a spiritual conversion from the way that the rest of the world tends to operate. It calls for maturity, humility, and inner freedom from the traps of attachment to power, privilege, and possessions. Ignatian spirituality is just one path for us to follow in our journey with God where we’re invited into a deeper freedom from these attachments so that we can be more available to be used by God for purposes greater than ourselves.

CC: In that same vein, many SCMs come from careers where they served as leaders: leaders of households, in classrooms and boardrooms. They are blessed and eager to give back, but can find it challenging at times to put aside the ways and habits of the past to become servant leaders and listeners. You will be talking about vulnerability in leadership at the upcoming webinar, and that’s not something most of us associate with leadership. What advice would you give to an SCM to help them make that transition from being “in charge” to being “of service?”

Fr. David: It’s natural that we associate leadership with knowledge, expertise, capability, and getting things done. And it’s natural that, based on our experience of what has helped us succeed in the past, we apply the same abilities and approaches to our new roles as volunteers. But the kind of accompaniment and service we’re called into as volunteers is usually not about fixing problems, achieving goals, or building high-performance organizations. It is often primarily about coming to know and walk with people, entering into the brokenness, chaos, mystery, and the graced possibility of their lives– not as experts or fixers, but as brothers and sisters on this journey together.

So yes, we might have tasks to accomplish and organizational goals we’d like to help support, but not as executives who have the authority to tell others what to do or how to do it. Our way of proceeding in such service needs to be different in order to respect the dignity and integrity of the people with whom and for whom we share our gifts.

The way we’re called to be of service is all about listening and building relationships with others so that together, we can discover what we might accomplish as companions. We might have plenty to say and share based on a lifetime of experience, but out of our desire to help or be efficient or get things done in a strategic way, we risk undermining the chance for the others to learn their own way forward. This requires a very different stance.

CC: I watched a video on which you talked about leadership from a place of abundance and gratitude rather than from scarcity and competition; I love this idea! Can you give some examples of about how this difference in viewpoint would play out in a servant role?

Fr. David: In the helping professions or in service, one of the most tempting mindsets for the professional or volunteer to adopt is, for lack of a better term, the “deficit mentality,” rooted in an assumption that things we value, like respect, recognition, love or belonging, are limited commodities, as if they were physical things. You can see how this mentality immediately creates a power differential in the relationship, or can create or reinforce dependency. In fact, we allow the way we commodify everything in our capitalistic worldview, including our time, our undivided attention and presence, to reduce these resources to quantitative values. As a result, we can view these things as scarce, and experience fear of having enough of them. This fear sets off a competitive, “either/or” way of relating to these values. The most relevant implication of this tendency for us is in the way we assess the value of the human person. The deficit mentality leads us to sort people according to their relative merit, contribution, etc. Essentially, there are those people who need our help, and there are others who can help us.

By contrast, what I like to call the abundance mindset understands there is a vast supply of what makes life most worth living: respect, quality attention, love, belonging, etc. Human dignity is not reducible. In fact, human dignity is such that the more it is acknowledged, the more it grows! Instead of the scarcity or deficit mentality, an abundant mindset reverences the essential dignity of others and their potential and honors the diverse stories and backgrounds of people’s lives. When we encounter people in their brokenness, it helps us also see their hidden dignity and wholeness, allowing us to respect them at that moment and to even to marvel at their strength and resilience.

CC: Finally, an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that I think can be overlooked sometimes is his ministry of empowerment: “Go, your faith has healed you.” How does empowerment enter into the idea of being a discerning servant leader?

Fr. David: In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis draws directly on his understanding of how Jesus demonstrated his leadership of others — what we have come to know as “servant leadership,” as it has been called by Robert Greenleaf and others. We know from the Gospels Jesus himself used power in a variety of ways, e.g., “over” demonic forces, “with” the religious authorities of his day as he engaged them initially with mutual respect, and “for” others, especially those who were poor and marginalized. When he taught his disciples how they were to exercise their authority, he cautioned them to avoid using power to dominate others, as they saw the Romans and the Temple leaders do. Rather, he called their attention to the down-to-earth way he accompanied and served them, how he walked mercifully with sinners, and the way he avoided using power to coerce people to follow him, using instead invitation and example.

This way of using power with and for others acknowledges that others have agency and potential themselves, and that often, to hold someone accountable to the best of their abilities, even amid their current challenging circumstances, is actually a form of respect. Now, of course, we encounter people whose immediate needs overwhelm them at that moment, but in the Gospels, Jesus created spaces for others to find liberation, healing, sight, hearing, speech, their calling and purpose… this is real empowerment. Even in his use of parables, he required people to engage with his teaching instead of spoon-feeding them. This demanded discernment as he gauged people’s capacity and met them where they were, while creating conditions for them to become more than they ever would have imagined possible.