Providence forges unified culture while nurturing pride in ministries' local legacies

October 1, 2022


When Providence Health & Services and St. Joseph Health merged in 2016 to form Providence St. Joseph Health, the sponsors decided that instead of suppressing one of the two public juridic persons they brought together they'd enter into a covenant to form a new sponsor council with five representatives from each legacy PJP.


Dougal Hewitt, Providence executive vice president/chief mission and sponsorship officer, says that spirit of collaboration has guided the system's efforts to create a unified culture, with influences from each of the congregations that had at one time sponsored one or more of the 52 hospitals and the network of other facilities that make up the seven-state system.

Hewitt, who is completing his sixth and final year as a CHA board member, spoke to Catholic Health World about how the system struck a balance between system culture and local tradition and flavor. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did the sponsor council preserve the charisms of all of the congregations that founded ministries that are part of Providence St. Joseph?

It was very complex because we actually have multiple founding congregations — not just the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Other congregations — including the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary; the Dominican Sisters and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth — founded some of our ministries. So, when we came together, we recognized we'd have so many founding charisms. In 2016, leaders of the merged system gathered thousands of caregivers to reflect on the mission, values, vision and promise of the ministry. Additionally on the local level, the ministries focus on the charism of the congregation that founded them.

What are some ways your sponsor council influences culture throughout the system?

The members of our Sponsors Council take very seriously their ministry of presence. They have a strong desire to be involved in the local ministries. They go to the local ministries. They encourage Providence caregivers in carrying out the mission, vision and values. And they are present for missionings of executives and anniversaries and other events. They stay engaged through formation and mission leadership programs. Sponsors are assigned to our different regions, and they have been involved in significant discernment about how well each region is living out the mission, vision and values.

We're really fortunate that our sponsors are all very deeply dedicated and give their time to engage with the people in the local ministries.

How do the sponsors know the local ministries are staying true to Providence's mission, vision and values?

One way is through assessments. We just completed a two-year mission fidelity assessment. We use CHA assessment tools that include both quantitative and qualitative measures. We're looking at what the Providence mission means to people. The resulting report goes to the sponsors. It's a gigantic undertaking. It helps us understand what is going well and where adjustments are needed.

How do the local ministries maintain their connection with their founding congregations?

We want our ministries to honor the traditions and heritage of their foundresses. We encourage celebrations on the local level. We have a legacy and heritage council that focuses on sharing best practices for preserving the legacies locally. The council is made up of Providence mission leaders dedicated to understanding the founding congregations and finding ways to work with others to share their stories. For instance, on Nov. 11, our Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, will celebrate their founders, the Sisters of Charity. We want the ministries' local culture to flourish.

What are some of the challenges you face as you're carrying out this work?

A big challenge is scale. We have 120,000 caregivers. How do you remain engaged with people on a personal and local level and still make sure you're being effective on the system level, when you have so many caregivers? We want to help our caregivers continue to believe they are valued individuals and make that connection.

Another challenge is as our system continues to grow and create new revenue streams, some of those revenue streams will be with other-than-Catholic organizations. In those cases, what is the role of the sponsor council and how do we approach those relationships when it comes to this culture work?

What are the opportunities around this sponsor work?

One of the big opportunities is to really help people understand they're an expression of God's healing love and to frame in a positive way their relationship with the church. There has been a lot of negative coverage of Catholics in the media lately and there is a real opportunity for the sponsors to represent the church in a new way and model to lay leadership at the system level and with the church a different perspective. They can demonstrate to the laity that they can be both effective and faith filled.

What are some of the benefits you've found with the sponsor council model?

A challenge for some of the systems that have merged and used the public juridic person structure is that those juridic person bodies can be short-lived if their ministry ends up merging with another system, and then sometimes those PJPs are suppressed.

The issue of suppression of PJPs goes back to questions around how the charism — or gift of the spirit — of the original
founders/foundresses would be sustained. There are those who suggest that the charisms would continue to be lived out locally and find expression there. But as PJPs become larger, how will they ensure that there is a focus on this important dimension?

With our model, there is a great opportunity for flourishing. We can bring new sponsors into the existing structure and still preserve our mission.

What is ahead for your sponsor body?

We'll be working to ensure rigorous formation — and we're already quite involved in this. We're now focusing on the executive level. That's where the investment goes, and it does really affect culture. We want to have a deeper focus on young leaders, we want to focus on the joy of the work.

Also, sponsors should ensure care of the poor is at the very front of a system's priorities. We need to ensure when decisions are made that the poor and vulnerable are considered. Our sponsors are continually asking about the impact of decisions on the poor and vulnerable. And I believe we need a much stronger engagement in whole-person care in which we focus on the inherent dignity of a person and not just treat illness. We look at the spiritual needs. These are places we're focusing on in the coming years.

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