BY: MARY KATHYRN GRANT, PhD
Dr. Grant is executive director, Ministry Leadership Development, Catholic Health Association, St. Louis.
Suppose those of us who serve Catholic health care were to begin to
think of what we call "sponsorship" as a unique ministry within the church,
and to view the role of sponsor as itself a calling? What might happen
if we were to intentionally refocus questions concerning the issue in this way,
conceptualizing sponsorship as a specialized ministry?
Catholic health care is faced with both problems and enormous opportunities
concerning the future of sponsorship, the preferred model of sponsorship, and
the identification and formation of the next generation of sponsors. We are
in a time that can be both exhilarating and challenging, a time of possibility
and a time of letting go. For many of us, this is both a moment of loss of what
has been and a giving birth to something new. It is truly a Paschal moment.
Recall for a moment the origin of the terms "sponsor" and "sponsorship." It
was as recently as the late 1960s and 1970s that these concepts began to be
used. The earliest use by the Catholic health ministry of the "sponsoring body"
concept seems to have occurred in 1968; the word "sponsorship" itself has been
in popular use only since 1976.1 At that time, "sponsorship" was adopted to
describe the relationship between a congregation and its institutional ministries — at
a moment in time when this relationship was changing dramatically.
From the 1950s on, many congregations, responding to advice from canon lawyers,
incorporated their institutional ministries as separate legal bodies, in order
to avoid any potential civil action that otherwise might "pierce the corporate
veil." Not only did the congregations create separate corporations for their
hospitals, academies, colleges, and universities; they also established separate
governing boards (sometimes including lay members) to govern the corporations.
This structure erected a wall between the congregation and its institutional
Lacking a word to describe this changing relationship, congregations began
to use the word "sponsorship." Congregational leaders, when acting in this role,
were themselves sometimes referred to as "sponsors." (Because sponsors are juridic
personalities, the individuals who represent them are perhaps better described
as "sponsor agents.") However, the words "sponsor" and "sponsorship" do not
have theological, civil, or canonical roots. As might be expected, because of
this lack of precise definition, they have come to mean many different things.
In this article, I use the term "sponsorship" to describe the relationship
within the church that situates the canonical responsibility of a juridic person
for incorporated apostolic works that are part of a church entity.2 In this
usage, all five components are critical: relationship, canonical responsibility,
juridic person, incorporated apostolic works, and part of a church entity.
Of particular interest are the notions "canonical responsibility" and "incorporated
apostolic works." The first phrase differentiates sponsorship in this context
from other usages of the term: sacramental sponsors, for example. The second
phrase clarifies what is sponsored. Over the years, some confusion has arisen
when individual members of religious institutes consider themselves to be sponsors
even though they do not hold the canonical responsibility but are in reality
members of the sponsoring body generally working within sponsored organizations.
In addition, the concept of incorporated apostolic works distinguishes these
formally organized ministries from such good works as shelters for the homeless,
soup kitchens, and hospitality houses — which are usually not sponsored, incorporated
The 1970s, the decade following the Second Vatican Council, was also a time
when many religious (in the United States and elsewhere) elected not to serve
in institutional ministries, preferring more hands-on service directly with
the poor and underserved. The convergence of these two forces — the creation of
corporations, on one hand, and the exodus of religious from institutional service,
on the other — created both the sponsorship concept and the need for a new lexicon
to describe it. Thus the tendency, which persists to this day, to describe congregational
leaders as "sponsors" rather than as sponsor agents. Both the concept and its
accompanying terminology were born of necessity. Tasks such as exploring sponsorship's
theological meaning and establishing qualifications for a sponsor representative
were left for another time.
A Unique Form of Ministry?
Perhaps now is the time to articulate a theology of sponsorship and to recognize
sponsorship as a unique form of ministry. We would perceive the sponsor role
differently if we were to, first, assign it to specific persons, and,
second, recognize it as a specific ministerial calling. Sponsorship would
then be seen as a unique responsibility, rather than as one attached to another
role, namely congregational leadership or (less frequently) a special appointment.
By "reframing" the sponsor role as a unique call, Catholic health care could
open the door to a whole new way of thinking about sponsorship. It also would
raise questions about how, for example, individuals might respond to that call,
how they should prepare to minister in this role, how the rest of us in the
ministry might create (or contribute to the creation of) a community of people
sharing the responsibilities of sponsorship — and many other questions, as well.
Today's sponsor representative, serving in congregational leadership, often
sees herself or himself as the guardian of the charism, tradition, and heritage
of the founding religious congregation (or, in some cases, diocese). Emphasizing
the call to sponsorship creates a subtle shift. It situates the responsibility
for sponsorship within the healing mission of the church itself, while still
respecting and honoring the founding tradition. In fact, it puts the responsibility
in a context even broader than the church, namely the healing ministry of Jesus.
Emphasizing the call also raises the question of the sponsor as agent. A person
assigned a sponsor's role would be the agent, not simply of a religious congregation,
but of the healing ministry itself. The ministry of sponsorship, now under the
aegis of a particular congregation (or group of congregations), would become
one of the broader context of ministries within the church.
What new energy and creativity might be unleashed by reframing sponsorship
as the ministry of sponsorship! We might shift our focus from preservation
to enhancement, from being a guardian to being a creator, from
a sense of diminishment to one of empowerment. We should remember, however,
that while such a shift would generate a new spirit and launch a new beginning,
it would also mark the end of something — something that has often been the pride
and, in some cases, the core identity of many religious congregations.3
Skills and Competencies
Assuming that Catholic health care does reframe the concept of sponsorship,
how would it measure the new concept's success? A reframed sponsorship would
require its own core institutional competencies, its own (to adopt the vocabulary
of the health care sector) "critical success factors." These might include:
- Resilience in the face of change
- Institutional integrity concerning mission and values
- A capacity to create and nurture collaborative ministerial
- A capacity for mission discernment within the organization
A call to fulfill these success factors might generate a new and energizing
creativity around institutional ministry. It could be a very freeing and liberating
activity, joined by both current and potential future sponsors.
In 1998-1999 the Catholic Health Association formed an ad hoc group called
the Sponsors' Special Committee to advise the association's members on the development
of initiatives that responded specifically to sponsors' needs. The Special Committee
identified four core elements of sponsorship: fidelity, integrity, community,
and stewardship (see Box, below). Ultimately, these four elements will
be the basis for tools with which Catholic health care assesses the strength
of current sponsorship models and assists the evolution of new models. Recognizing
sponsorship itself as a unique ministry would strengthen and guide such assessment
and development processes.
By the same token, spelling out competencies for the ministerial call to serve
as a sponsor could help Catholic health care identify its next generation of
sponsors. The core skills for sponsorship might include:
- A sense of comfort with public spirituality
- A capacity for theological reflection
- Skill in dialogue
- A commitment to advancing the healing ministry of the
church while, at the same time, honoring the tradition of the founding sponsoring
Reframing the sponsor and sponsorship concepts as a specific ministry would
also require both generations of sponsors — the current generation and the one
to come — to identify and nurture a supportive community for those people who
take on the sponsor role. As lay persons begin to assume responsibility for
the Catholic health ministry as a whole, they will not have available to them
the supportive communities enjoyed by today's sponsors — namely, religious congregations
and their leadership teams (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and
the Conference of Major Superiors of Men) or other such communities of support
and dialogue. Something will be needed to fill this void.4
The passing of the baton from one generation of sponsors to another will involve
considerably more than handing over the reserved rights or powers. Viewed through
the lens of sponsorship as a unique new form of ministry, the passage to something
new may well be the moment of renewal and rebirth. And in this newness, Gospel
spirituality will be needed to ground the new sponsors and provide the foundations
of theological reflection and discernment that will ensure organizational fidelity
As the institution of sponsorship evolves, the sponsor's role will evolve
within it, reminding us of W. B. Yeats's famous question: "How can we know the
dancer from the dance?"5 The act of sponsoring defines the role of sponsor as
dancing defines the dancer. Embracing sponsorship as a unique ministry and respecting
the call of the sponsor while being faithful to living out the works of mercy,
the root of sponsorship, and to reading and discerning the signs of the times
will propel critical Catholic ministries toward a future full of hope.
- See Daniel C. Conlin's article in this issue,
"Sponsorship at the Crossroads," pp. 20-23. I am grateful to Fr. Conlin for
pointing out that the first actual use of the sponsorship term, as we in the
ministry employ it, occurred in John McGrath, Catholic Institutions in
the United States: Canonical and Civil Law Status, Catholic University
Press, Washington, DC, 1968.
- Jordan Hite, A Primer on Public and Juridic Persons:
Applications to Health Care Ministry, Catholic Health Association, St.
Louis, 2000, p. 37.
- For a fuller discussion of this aspect of the sponsorship
shift, see Mary Kathryn Grant and Patricia Vandenberg, After We're Gone:
Creating Sustainable Sponsorship, Ministry Development Resources, South
Bend, IN, 1999.
- For a good resource on the development of community,
see Carroll Juliano, Rosine Hammet, and Loughlan Sofield, Building Community:
Christian, Caring, Vital, Building Community: Christian, Caring, Vital, Ave
Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1998.
- W. B. Yeats, "Among School Children," in Alexander W.
Allison, et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of Poetry, W. W. Norton
& Co., New York City, 1975, pp. 445-446.
CHA Statement On Sponsorship And Core Elements
For Catholic Health Care Ministries
Sponsorship is the relationship within the Catholic Church
that allows a juridic person to carry on the healing mission of Jesus. Sponsorship
of an incorporated apostolic work involves both canonical and civil realities.
Fidelity: Faithfulness to the healing mission of Jesus, to the spirit
and teachings of the Gospel, and to the teachings of the church
- Demonstrable commitment to and advocacy for persons who
are poor and underserved
- Faithfulness to the social, medical-moral, and pastoral
teachings of the church
- Compliance with civil and canonical requirements
- Creative fidelity through theological reflection on the
signs of the times and the appropriate responses
Integrity: Demonstrated integration of mission
and core values by all persons and the appropriate activities of the organization
- Commitment to processes and practices to ensure permeation
of mission and core values: mission orientation, education, accountability,
and assessment (both individual and institutional)
- Attention to the selection, development, and formation
of current and future leaders for all roles within the ministry: sponsorship,
governance, management, and delivery roles
- Systematic utilization of mission discernment processes
in corporate decision making
Community: Communion of persons committed to a
common mission and ministry
- Collaboration between and among organizations with common
values working for the good of the communities served, such as parishes, schools,
and social service agencies
- Commitment to nurturing workplace spirituality
- Development of skills in dialogue, listening, and theological
- Respect for and advancement of diversity within the workplace
Stewardship: Respect for, protection, enhancement,
and sharing of all the resources used in the ministry for the common good
- Recognition and enhancement of all resources, including
heritage, tradition, and reputation of a sponsor; scare and valued human resources;
and environmental as well as financial resources
- Promotion of the common good
- Respect for the integral connection with the earth
- Actions and decisions that ensure the future viability
and vitality of the ministry
Copyright © 2001 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.