Going beyond administration

By Carolyn Woo

While preparing for the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, I paused on a statement describing a design principle for the event. In calling for missionary discipleship, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the participant guidebook cites Pope Francis’ caution that “’mere administration’ can no longer be enough.”

As I had held administrative posts for almost a quarter of a century, with 20 years in Catholic ministries, I took this as one of those learning moments to stop and think.

Simplified, administration is the coordination of people and their efforts to fulfill the purpose of an entity through the management of roles, activities, resources and processes. The goal of administration is to enable ministry while the purpose for any faith-based ministry is to help people know, love and serve God.

I would be the last person to cast administration as the polar opposite of ministry. The word “administration” embeds the concept of ministration. Few ministries can flourish without able administration.

Think about the cases where necessary services and outreach are held back by inefficient or incoherent processes, poorly trained or guided personnel, as well as insufficient or suboptimal use of resources. The Acts of the Apostles makes clear that the good works of charity and care for community require dedicated and organized administration.

While both are necessary, administration and ministry can pull in different directions that call for different actions and behaviors. Minimally, pressures for attending to tasks, deadlines, crises of one sort or another can hijack the time, energies, sensitivities and patience needed to attend to the feelings, needs and personal circumstances of the people involved.

I learned this during my last month at Catholic Relief Services when I opened my calendar to anyone who wanted to have lunch. These conversations, unlike routine meetings, were not tethered to the usual organizational menus of problem-solving or brainstorming.

People shared stories of their backgrounds, why they chose to go into international development, their personal triumphs and losses, what was difficult about change for them, how they have grown, their hopes for CRS and how we could make more room for the ideas of our young people. My colleagues asked about me: What was difficult for me, what did I see in the organization, what did I hope for, what did I think we achieved together and what advice would I like them to hold in their hearts?

These conversations reveal the essence of people: who they are in the ways that matter to them; their joys and sometimes their struggles; what gives them meaning and joy; how they want to contribute and what holds them back. People were seeking to be known, not in resume entries that denote qualifications, but in human terms that foster understanding — the first building blocks for engagement, acceptance and friendship.

The right brain kicks in to seek expressions toward bonded-ness and relationships without which we would not be fully human nor could we have the hunger for God and his people implicit to ministry.

A professional hazard to administrative roles is that these are based on power entangled with evaluative thinking that does not shut itself off. These inhibit conversations. Not only will people refrain from telling you their concerns; they also hold back on positive feedback and empathy for those in authority for fear that these may be misconstrued.

It is hard to imagine how one would find the extra time and the appropriate space that allows for both emotional bonding and professional objectivity. I would venture to say that had I appreciated the significance of these needs, I would have worked hard to make time and find ways to accommodate these.

It has to be done when we recognize that this is not really a choice: that our colleagues deserve nothing less, that empathy would wither or become brittle in their absence, and that we are not really supporting God’s ministry without channeling his eyes, ears and heart for the other.

Posted on July 12, 2017, to: