Mission leaders celebrate progress made, anticipate what's to come

July 1, 2015


WASHINGTON, D.C. — During an invitational lunch June 8 at the assembly, a panel of three ministry mission leaders discussed how the mission leader role has evolved over the last several decades — to being a more strategically significant role — and forecasted what's ahead.

Moderated by CHA Senior Director of Mission Integration and Leadership Formation Brian Smith, the panel included Dougal Hewitt, chief officer for mission and external affairs for Chicago's Presence Health; Sr. Maureen McGuire, DC, executive vice president, mission integration, for St. Louis' Ascension; and Ann Varner, vice president of mission for St. Louis' Mercy Hospital. Nearly 100 mission leaders attended the event, which was part of a mission leader lunch.

The three speakers discussed how much the mission leader role has advanced since its introduction roughly 30 years ago. The role became increasingly prevalent at ministry organizations in the 1980s and 1990s as members of religious congregations assumed lesser roles in hospital and system administration, and laity assumed increasing responsibility.

Sr. McGuire said there is significantly more clarity about the duties of mission leaders now than at the outset of the career track, and there is significantly more respect for its importance. Smith told Catholic Health World that when mission leaders first came on the scene, chief executives "didn't know what to do with them" — many of the mission leaders found themselves relegated to planning and leading ceremonial events, such as facility blessings.

Hewitt said, "There was a phrase we used to say in the '90s: 'Mission work is like shoveling fog.'"

Smith told Catholic Health World that over the past three decades, mission leaders have become involved in ministry organizations at a strategic level, often as members of the executive team. They help lead in ethical decision making, including around major organizational decisions. They have defined responsibilities for formation at all levels of the organization. They oversee spirituality in the workplace.

McGuire said during the panel discussion, "It is now seen as an essential leadership role," with well-defined areas of work.

The panelists discussed how the mission leader role is changing under health care reform, particularly in relation to new models of organizational structure. These models can include ownership, partnership and affiliations with non-Catholic organizations.

Hewitt said working within the new structures can pose a challenge for mission leaders, particularly when the Catholic organization does not have majority control. Under such models, mission leaders need to be able to advance the mission by using influence. Sr. McGuire said mission leaders must be able to determine what style of interaction works best with each partner organization.

Varner added it takes professional maturity on the part of individual mission leaders to do that successfully.

In response to audience comments on the increasing need for mission leaders to understand how to relate to people of differing ages, faiths and backgrounds, Hewitt noted that "it all ties to cultural responsiveness … and it's something we all will need to further focus on."

CHA data analysis has found that there are a decreasing number of facility-level mission leaders in the ministry now, and an increasing number of system-level leaders. And, Smith told Catholic Health World, there seems to be a trend toward specialization in certain mission leader responsibilities, often with director-level mission leaders specializing in areas such as spiritual care or formation.

Varner said she sees the question of the need for general and specialized mission expertise as a "both-and" proposition. "You need both breadth and depth" in mission knowledge at the system level.

Sr. McGuire said mission leaders need to be involved with organizational development and to "be at leadership tables, with knowledge of the big picture."

Hewitt said mission leaders focused on system level strategy may not be able to have as much as a frontline physical presence at the facility-level.

In such cases, Sr. McGuire said, mission leaders can look toward "mission extenders," or colleagues interested in advancing mission integration, to further that work. Smith told Catholic Health World that some ministry organizations do this by tapping executives who have completed senior leader formation. These individuals can help lead prayer services, present during formation programs and assume other roles that do not require the expertise of a formally trained mission leader.

Looking toward the next five to 10 years of mission leadership in the ministry, the panelists agreed that the constant changes impacting health care in general will have implications for mission leaders. For instance, the move toward a focus on population health will impact the relationships ministry organizations have with other organizations in their community; and mission leaders could be involved in evaluating those relationships.

Mission leaders will need to be resilient and have courage in navigating the changes ahead, agreed the panelists.

Sr. McGuire said through it all, mission leaders need to remember that "the core inner life of the mission leader is our life of prayer. Our relationship with God is key. We need to nourish it; or our role will become just a set of mission activities."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.