Sister tact: advice from a nun on how to keep peace in meetings

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a piece on corporate behavior and politics … by a religious sister.

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Thirty years ago, I became a Catholic sister as one way to live out my desire to make the world a peaceful place. Almost immediately, I ran into heartbreak. At age 30, I thought I had at last found “my tribe”—people with whom I could work to establish justice and nonviolence, writ large. That was until I started attending meetings.

In meeting after meeting, I would watch, awe-struck, as some sisters’ attitudes, language, and behaviors were some of the most hurtful, disruptive, and destructive I had experienced to date. I witnessed people being rude, dismissive, cutting people off, using sarcasm as a weapon, or exploding in anger. The same was true for meetings of other nonprofit groups I thought I wanted to join as a volunteer.

What, I thought, had gone wrong? How could good people with a passion for making the world more peaceful have so much trouble creating it themselves? Today, whenever I share my story with the nonprofit professionals I teach and train, they offer a knowing smile as if to say, “Been there, done that.”

Ironically, other sisters taught me to see the behaviors I witnessed as inappropriate. In the 1970s, those sisters, with a good deal of foresight, had voted to design and fund a more holistic program for new members during our first year. One of the first sisters I ever met encouraged me to participate by saying, “Pat, even if you don’t stay, come and do that year. It will be the best thing you ever did for yourself.” She was right.

Yes, we learned about styles of prayer, Christian scripture, and the history of our founders, but we also attended workshops and courses on interpersonal communication skills, anger management, and group dynamics. In other words, the sisters committed substantial financial resources to help their newer members learn how to live in harmony with one another. They invested in me to help create a future consistent with their core values of freedom, education, charity, and justice. And it worked.

I came out of that yearlong experience knowing the value of the gift I had been given. I continue to see its value in the openness, sincerity, and depth of dialogue that happens at meetings with my contemporaries. I feel its value in the confidence and skill I have to lead meetings in which staff feel comfortable speaking freely and respectfully about our feelings, needs, values, and ideas while working through our differences. I also came out of that year with a firm conviction that everyone deserves that gift. I came away wondering why we, as a society, don’t invest more in the personal growth and interpersonal skills of our children and adults.

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