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Some Thoughts on SVD Leadership Today

Some Thoughts on SVD Leadership Today

Talk to the PHC Assembly-Chapter

20-22 January 2014

DWS, Tagaytay City


Antonio M. Pernia, SVD

DWIMS Tagaytay

First of all, I would like to thank Fr. Provincial, Nielo Cantilado, for the invitation to speak to you in this assembly on the topic of Leadership in the SVD. It is my hope that some of the thoughts that I will be sharing this morning will be of help not only to those who will be tasked with the ministry of leadership in the SVD on the provincial or local level, but also to all of you, since, in one form or another, as missionaries, we are all called to exercise leadership in the Christian community.



I would like to divide this talk into three parts. In the first part, I would like to speak on the fundamental characteristics of SVD leadership; in the second, I would like to offer some practical considerations about leadership; and in the third, I would like to reflect on some elements of a spirituality of Leadership.

Part I

Some Fundamental Characteristics of SVD Leadership

1. Religious-spiritual leadership.

The first characteristic of SVD leadership is that it is religious-spiritual leadership. As we know, the SVD is not a purely secular organization with purely human goals. One can imagine that in a purely secular organization, leadership can be undertaken without any reference to God or the transcendent. What is most important in leadership in purely secular organizations is that members work and function in such a way that the goals of the organization are achieved.

It is interesting to note, however, that in some cases, even in the area of leadership in purely secular organizations, the element of the religious or the spiritual dimension is often also given attention. This is probably in recognition of the fact that members of purely secular organizations are human beings and human beings do have a religious or spiritual dimension. For example, one book about leadership is entitled “Jesus CEO” (Jesus, Chief Executive Officer).[1] Its subtitle reads: “Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership”. The book is written by Laurie Beth Jones who is the President and Founder of the “Jones Group”, an advertising, marketing and business development firm. Interestingly, the avowed mission of this firm is “to recognize, promote and inspire divine excellence” 

The SVD, obviously, is not a purely secular organization. Indeed, it is an avowedly religious-missionary congregation. Thus, the religious or the spiritual is not just an element or a dimension of its life and organization. It is, rather, the very core and heart of its existence and being. The SVD is a community of those who have responded to the call to follow Jesus Christ and share in his mission. Indeed, our constitutions boldly proclaim that “his [Jesus’] life is our life, his mission is our mission”. This fact applies to our belonging to the big SVD family but also to our being part of the smaller province or local community to which we are assigned. And while we all have one and the same call and vocation, each single individual harbors his own particular vocation story. While we are called to contribute to one and the same mission, we are also expected to do so in one’s own specific way.

Leadership in the SVD is, therefore, fundamentally a spiritual exercise. Its purpose is to create an atmosphere in the community wherein each confrere not only remains faithful to but also grows in his vocation to follow the Lord and share in his mission. Indeed, the leader or superior is called to form a community which helps to mediate God’s call to every confrere and facilitate the confrere’s response to this call. This is the reason why often today people speak of the superior’s role as primarily that of a “spiritual animator”. There is, therefore, something “sacred” in the ministry of service that a religious leader or a superior of a religious community is called to provide. For the leader or superior is invited to enter into the sacred sanctuary of a confrere – his intimate relationship with God. Indeed, our constitutions identify the first task of those in authority in the Society as inspiring “all confreres to live in a way befitting their call as missionaries of the Divine Word” (c. 601).

At the same time, however, it is equally obvious that a religious community remains a human community. Despite the spiritual or religious nature of our vocation and mission, we do not cease to be human beings living in the world. Despite the “sacredness” or “loftiness” of the religious leader’s task, it nevertheless includes such human duties as administering the day to day affairs of the community, managing its money or lack of money, inspiring and motivating confreres to do their daily tasks well, coordinating the community’s different commitments and activities. Aside from being spiritual animator, the religious leader is also administrator and coordinator.

2. Leadership as Service.

A second characteristic of SVD leadership is the understanding and use of authority as service. Const. 601, which opens the 600’s section of our constitutions dealing with “The Government of our Society”, clearly states that “in our Society the use of authority should be modelled on the words and deeds of the Lord who came to serve and not to be served (see Mk 10:45). The reference here is to Mk 10:45, which reads:

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:41-45).

The contrast here is between worldly authority and Gospel authority. Authority in the Christian community is to be different from that of the “Gentiles”.[2] It is to be exercised as “one who serves” and in imitation of Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples. Authority in this community is based on the authority of Jesus himself in Mt 28:18-29 (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me ....”) and on the authority of the “Spirit of Truth” in Jn 16:12-15 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”).

Thus, this authority is a Spirit-based authority and, in the early Church, was found in a variety of gifts and a variety of forms of service – apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, healers, helpers, administrators, speakers of tongues (1 Cor12:4-31, Eph 4:11, Rom 12:6-8). Whatever gifts were the basis for authority, they were all in service to the community and were never in terms of domination over others (1 Cor 4:5).

“Servant leadership” is the term that is now used to describe the kind of leadership which is based on this biblical understanding of authority.[3] A servant leader is one who leads by serving. He is one who seeks to serve others first – that is, one who puts the needs of others and of the community in general above one’s own needs. He is characterized by the care he takes to make sure that other people’s greatest needs are attended to and taken care of. At the heart of “servant leadership” is, of course, the notion of “humble service”.

3. Leadership as Animation/Coordination/Administration.

A third characteristic of SVD leadership is that it encompasses the threefold roles of animator, coordinator and administrator. This is how our Handbook for Superiors presents the primary roles of the SVD superior or leader.[4] The Handbook distinguishes clearly between the roles of the superior as animator, coordinator and administrator.

– the role of animator is seen as entailing the task of comforting and exhorting. It focuses on animating towards living the Gospel, living our religious-community life, and living our missionary commitment.

– the role of coordinator is presented as the task of coordinating the life of the community so that all its members can perform the mission entrusted to them. It includes such leadership elements as delegation, communication and collaboration.

– the role of administrator is described as the duty of organization, or the function which ensures that the community or province live in an orderly manner. It is a ministry of governance, for which the Handbook for Superiors is a great help.

In other words, the focus of the three roles could put in this way:

– that of animation is the individual confrere (his faith, vocation, mission. etc.),

– that of coordination is the community (life and activity, mission statement, action plan, etc.),

– that of administration is the structures and resources which support the individual and community.

Others sometimes collapse the second role of coordinator into either the first or the third, and thus speak only of two roles of the leader, that is, animator and administrator. Thus, some make a distinction between leadership and management (or between leaders and managers). Leadership is providing a vision and inspiring members towards this vision. Management is taking care of the day to day administration of the community or group. As someone has put it, managers see to it that things are done right; leaders see to it that the right things are done. Indeed, often my nightmare as superior general came not at night but when I woke up in the morning. Often upon waking up in the morning I would ask myself: today, will we at the generalate simply administer the Society or provide leadership to our confreres? Are we just going to keep the car moving, or are we going to give directions as to where we should be going?

I believe, however, that it is better to keep the idea of a threefold task rather than speak of only two roles. Most authors, indeed, speak of the threefold task. For instance, Fr. Gerald Arbuckle writes about the roles of pathfinders, problem-solvers, and implementers. In business circles a similar vocabulary is employed, i.e., the entrepreneur, technician, and personnel management.[5] In any case, however way it is expressed, it seems clear that effective leadership does include three roles, namely: to inspire with a vision, to coordinate the talents and gifts of the members, and to organize a well-ordered community life for the achievement of the goals of the group.

4. Leadership in Intercultural Communities.

A fourth characteristic of SVD leadership is that it is inevitably leadership in intercultural communities. As we all know, internationality or interculturality is an essential element in our SVD charism. It not only characterizes our history, but is also embedded in our very constitutions. Interculturality is part of our DNA; it is part and parcel of who we are as SVDs. Thus, we are an intercultural or international congregation not simply by accident or by force, but by choice or by design. As the Prologue to our Constitutions puts it, we are a “community of brothers from different nations and languages”. It follows that internationality or interculturality is an ideal to be sought after or a value to be promoted in the SVD, both in our community life (“ad intra”) and in our mission work (“ad extra”).

Therefore, inevitably, SVD leadership will be leadership in intercultural communities. I wrote about this a lot when I was superior general[6], and this was the topic of the retreats which I preached this year. I do not wish to repeat myself here. I only wish to mention the three tasks of the leader in intercultural communities, namely, the promotion of diversity, the mediation of conflicts and the preservation of unity.

If as an intercultural religious-missionary congregation, we are “one heart and many faces”, then the challenge to the leader is that of promoting the “many faces” without endangering or jeopardizing the “oneness of heart”, or vice-versa, of fostering the “one heart” without eliminating or downplaying the “plurality of faces”. The challenge, in other words, is one of knowing how to promote a genuine “unity in diversity” – a unity that protects diversity and a diversity that preserves unity. For, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said: “Diversity without unity is chaos; unity without diversity is tyranny”.

Part II

                                         Practical Considerations About Leadership

Let me now move to the second part of this presentation and share with you a few practical considerations about leadership in the SVD today.

1. The right mentality or attitude. 

Effective leadership often has to do with the mentality or attitude with which you approach the task. I remember Fr. Henry Barlage telling the story that when he became a strong candidate for superior general in the general chapter of 1988, he became extremely worried and could not sleep at night. This remained even during the first days after his election – until someone told him that the confreres of whom he was elected superior general were his brothers, not his subjects, not even figuratively his “sons”. I believe the way we are superiors depends to a great extent on the way we look at those for whom we are superiors. Are they subjects to be controlled? Subordinates to be watched? Are they potential enemies? Trouble-makers? Hardened critics? One of the lowest points in my experience as superior general was when I was talking with one provincial who said they could no longer receive new members to the province. New assignments will only mean “bloating our budget subsidy requests to Rome”, he said. Obviously, this provincial looked at new missionaries as extra mouths to feed, rather than additional voices to proclaim the Word of God.

So, what attitude do you bring to your office as superior? Attitude to the confreres, but also attitude to the office itself? Do you like your work as provincial or as rector or praeses? Have you only grudgingly accepted the position as superior? Do you feel oppressed by it? Once I was talking with a new provincial soon after he assumed office and asked how he felt. And he answered that he knew it was not going to be easy, that there would be problems, but that in any case he had decided he would enjoy his work as provincial. That, I thought, was a good attitude to bring into the job as provincial.

2. Full-time Service and Personal Contact.

A second consideration is closely-related to the first, that is, the importance of considering the task of the superior as a full-time service to the confreres of the province. This, too, has to do with the attitude you bring to your job. Do you consider it important enough as to dedicate your full attention and time to it? Or do you consider being a superior only a job that can be done along with another job or other jobs? Sometimes it is not a question of some other official job in the Society preventing a superior from dedicating full time to his job. It could be other unofficial or personal commitments outside the SVD – a position in this or that association, a ministry to this or that group, a commitment to this or that apostolate.

Sometimes, of course, it could be beneficial that the provincial or superior has some commitment that connects him with a pastoral need or missionary situation – especially in a smaller province or region. In any case, the principle is that whatever additional commitment or job the provincial or superior takes on should help, and not hinder, his service as provincial or superior to the confreres. It should never reduce his availability to the confreres. Indeed, one of the severest criticisms a provincial or superior could get is that he has no time for the confreres, or that he is not available to them.

Indeed, the idea of the office of the superior as a full-time job is more than just a legal requirement. This requirement is there precisely so that the provincial or superior can have the time to spend with confreres. In this connection, the advice often made is for the provincial or superior to make frequent visits to confreres in their places of work. Personal contact with the confreres remains a characteristic of a good and solicitous provincial or superior.

3. Team leadership.

Soon after I took office, I was often asked by confreres and friends how I was doing in the job. My spontaneous answer was usually that I was happy that I had a good council to bear the responsibility with me. In the beginning, this response was really just a way of fending off a question that was difficult to answer. But over time I have experienced how important it is to share leadership with a team.

In fact, what is known now as “team leadership” has a revered parallel in the Church in the principle of collegiality. Indeed, the idea of a “college” or a “council” assisting a superior is a venerable tradition in the Church. Thus, we have expressions like “Peter and the college of the apostles” or the “the Pope and the college of bishops”. And in religious congregations, the practice of having local, provincial, and general councils is enshrined in most rules and constitutions. Team leadership, however, is more than just a council assisting a superior to do his job. It entails the council sharing in the responsibility of leadership and assuming some of the duties of the superior by delegation.

My own experience at the generalate shows how important team leadership is. It not only lightens the burden (by sharing responsibility), it also ensures that the task of leadership is done well (since matters can be studied more thoroughly, decisions can be based on a wide variety of experiences, the views of confreres from below can better be expressed and represented). The provincial or superior cannot do the job alone. He needs the help others, and he must know how to seek such help – whether by asking for assistance or delegating some responsibilities to others in his team. Team leadership is more and more a need in our Society today, as we grow in number and become more and more culturally diverse. As our provinces and communities become more and more multicultural, it becomes less and less possible for a single individual to adequately represent, serve and lead the confreres.

Today’s superior, then, needs to lead by team leadership. He will need to build up teamwork among his collaborators – his council, the officials of the province (like the coordinators or secretaries for certain areas of concern or the characteristic dimensions of our life and mission, and even the provincial or local assembly). Today’s superior will need to delegate some of his duties and responsibilities, and coordinate the specific contributions of his team members. Building up teamwork will often require not just holding official meetings with one’s team members but also coming together unofficially to get to know each other better. Often it will also demand that the team come together to pray.

4. Supervision / Guidance / Direction.

Superiors are becoming more and more aware today that their work of leadership impacts not only the community he is called to lead but also on himself. Aside from the element of what he does, there is also the element of what he becomes because of what he does. And very often what one becomes because of what he does impacts further on what he will do next. In the past, this element of the impact on oneself was largely left unattended – sometimes to the great detriment of the superior himself and to the community he serves.                                                                                                                                  

Some years ago, I attended a meeting of the young confreres of our German-speaking provinces. And the topic of conversation during one of the evening socials was precisely this – how some of these young confreres who are rectors, superiors of local communities, or just in-charge of a particular group of persons were seeking what they called “supervision”, that is, regular sessions with a supervisor who helps them to be aware of what’s happening to them because of their leadership roles and how they are coping with the demands of leadership. From what I could gather, it is not exactly spiritual direction (for the concern is not so much one’s relationship with God, although this also often comes into the conversation), nor guidance and counselling (since the subject matter is not directly about one’s personality strengths and weaknesses, although this also comes into the picture). It is more akin to ministry supervision where one reflects with someone else regarding how one carries out his ministry and why he carries it out in a particular way.

In any case, I believe some form of supervision, and even of spiritual direction or guidance, will be beneficial for the leader or superior. This is important in order to ensure not only that one’s own personal “issues” do not unduly influence his leadership but also that his work of leadership does not become a burden in his personal life, or, what is even worse, be harmful to his relationship with God.

Part III

Elements of a Spirituality of Leadership

Allow me now to move to the third part of this presentation, and here I would like to offer a short reflection on some elements of a “spirituality of leadership” I limit myself to some elements of this spirituality and leave a full-blown spirituality of leadership for our directors of spirituality in the Society to develop.

1. Being Superior as a Calling.

The first consideration to be made is that we are superiors not because it is our wish to be superiors but because we were chosen by others to be so. In general, in the Society, no one seeks to be a superior – with only a very few exceptions, of course. We are chosen by confreres and/or appointed by higher superiors. In a sense, then, being a superior is a calling. We may consider it a “call within a call” – a call to be a superior within the call to be a religious missionary.

And like any other call, the call to be a superior is also a call to holiness. For the three or six or twelve years that we are superiors, being a superior is our way to holiness, our way to salvation, our way of coming closer to the Lord. And since it is a call, we need to respond to it like we do in any other call, and renew our response to it daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. And we must believe that it is the Lord who has chosen us as superiors, and that the one who calls us will also sustain us in our service of leadership, that he who calls us to the responsibility of an office will also grant us the grace of the office. Leadership, then, cannot just be our doing. We must look at leadership as God acting in and through us. The first element of the spirituality of leadership is the capacity to dispose ourselves as instruments in God’s hands.

2. Biblical Basis: John 21:15-19.

Secondly, a biblical basis for the spirituality of leadership could be Jn 21:15-19. This is the episode of the risen Jesus appearing to Peter and the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Three times, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me”. Three times, Peter responds: “Yes, Lord”. And three times, Jesus entrusts to Peter the care of his flock: “Tend my sheep, Feed my lambs”.


As superiors, we have been entrusted with the care of our confreres, the care of our Society. As superiors, we are called to “tend the sheep and feed the lambs”. But doing so is meant to be but an expression of “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. In a sense, tending the sheep and loving the Lord are one and the same thing. It is by tending the sheep that we love the Lord, and our love for the Lord must express itself in our tending the sheep. Indeed, our being superiors is our way of drawing closer to the Lord.


I know that, in our day to day work, it is difficult to realize that conducting a meeting and writing letters is loving the Lord, or preparing the budget and writing project reports is loving the Lord, or admonishing confreres and starting a dismissal process is loving the Lord. That is why it is important to punctuate our day or week with moments of prayer and reflection, so as not to lose sight of the fact that indeed our often tedious and routinary task of administration, coordination and animation is our way of loving the Lord. Equally important is the supervision, guidance or direction that we spoke about earlier – that is, the effort to have someone who can help us reflect on the impact on ourselves of our task as superiors.

3. Call to Service.

A third consideration is that the call to be a superior is a call to service. Biblically, the call to service is a call to be the least, to be the last, to be the slave of all. This means putting the needs and interests of others above one’s own needs and interests. When Blessed Mother Josefa, the co-foundress of the SSpS, wrote to Arnold Janssen seeking admission to Steyl, she wrote that she desired nothing else but to share in God’s mission as the least of all.

In the biblical passage cited above, Jesus tells Peter: “... when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” In a similar way, the superior who leads by humble service is one who is willing no longer to walk to where he likes, but to be taken to where he would rather not go. This entails no longer living one’s life as one wishes, but living one’s life completely according to God’s will, the good of the Society, and the needs of the confreres.

When Fr. Henry Barlage was still general superior and Fr. Bubi Scholz was secretary general, I remember Fr. Scholz expressing his admiration and amazement at the fact that all of Fr. Barlage’s time was dedicated to his service to the Society. He hardly took time for himself or his own needs and interests. He hardly took any vacation at all. I mentioned this once to Fr. Barlage, and I remember him responding: “We have been chosen to serve the Society and the confreres. Our service here at the generalate must match the missionary service of the last confrere, the farthest confrere, the most isolated confrere, the confrere who works and lives in the most difficult situation.”

Called to serve. Not just in terms of doing acts of service today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Not just acts of service now here and now there. But in terms of making service our style of life, our way of living. Not just doing acts of service, but becoming truly a servant. Becoming like Jesus himself who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as ransom for all. This, in the end, is the spirituality of leadership – a spirituality of servanthood, when genuine service becomes second nature to us, when service refers no longer just to what we do but to who we are.



[1]. Laurie Beth Jones. Jesus CEO. Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. NY: Hyperdion, 1992.

[2]. See T. Howland Sanks, “Authority in the Church”, in The New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Joseph Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermot Lane (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987), pp. 74-76.

[3]. See Paul Connors, “General Principles of Servant Leadership” in SVD Leadership: The Challenge of Tomorrow (SVD Study Day VI, Chicago Province, March 5-7, 1998), p. 12. See also No. 529, Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (Manila: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, 1992), p. 181.

[4]. D-1: “Superiors as Religious Leaders” in Handbook for Superiors SVD, 2002 edition.

[5]. See Thomas Ascheman, “Leadership in Europe Today and Beyond”, a talk given at the Workshop for SVD Provincial Superiors of the European Zone. Nemi: 1995.

[6]. For instance, Arnoldus Nota, June-July 2012, June 2011, June 2002.

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