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Nuns whose ministry is doing business

NCR Staff
San Diego

Marie Gaillac, a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, stopped toying with the overhead projector for a moment to glance at the 20 or so religious women attending her workshop on the Internet. Some of the women stared wide-eyed and hesitant as they tried, several for the first time, to digest terms like Hypertext and Gophers. Others nodded, taking notes and easing onto almost familiar ground.

"Why create a Web page?" Gaillac queried. She stuck on the wall a copy of a Web page produced by Benedictine monks to recruit vocations. "Why, to advertise. It's not so bad!" Gaillac pointed to the sample: "Even you could do that!"

Kathleen Griffin, a Sister of the Holy Names, explained bluntly why she selected the introduction to the Internet from a variety of offerings at this "Beyond Borders" ministry conference of religious women, held in San Diego last September: "We've got to be in step with where the world is if we want to transform it. All the women here are risk-takers. They are willing to go through all the steps, cross the frontiers. Like the religious women of 75 years ago who opened orphanages and hospitals, these women are present to the world."

She paused, glanced around the room. "They are moving us into the new millennium," Griffin said. She pointed to a pile of "http://www" handouts distributed by Gaillac, and laughed. "One step at a time -- as you can see."

These 150 women from Canada, the United States and Mexico had come together for the most recent gathering of a cutting edge movement known as the "New Ventures Program for Women Religious Entrepreneurs." Born in the fall of 1991 from a discussion by a group of 30 Sinsinawa and Adrian Dominican Sisters about the relationship between entrepreneurship and mission, the New Ventures movement now boasts a mailing list of more than 700. The San Diego gathering had participants from 52 women's congregations. Approximately 160 women met in 1994 in Chicago for the movement's first international forum.

The business of these nuns is just that, doing business -- "but with reverence to mission ... that's our passion: reverence for what needs to be done in the world," said Ginny Pfluger, a Sinsinawa Dominican and one of the movement's originators.

New Ventures is the godchild of tensions facing society -- whole new categories of people on the margins, entirely new sets of needs from the poor -- as well as tensions facing religious communities today. Confronted with populations of aging sisters and an absence of new, wage-earning recruits, religious congregations are "looking at the cost of providing for the aging against the cost of what is out there in ministry," Pfluger said.

New ways to serve

New Ventures affiliates understand they can no longer turn to their congregations for the kinds of subsidies that, decades ago, funded schools and hospitals. "The money isn't there," Pfluger said. So, to develop new ways to serve those in need -- the charisma of the congregations -- these women are attempting to reach out to the marginalized by setting up self-sustaining business operations, which, if successful enough, could also contribute to the care of members of their communities.

At their gatherings and through a network of contacts and resources, the movement's affiliates exchange ideas, share expertise and hone new skills to make these innovative ventures possible.

This new model is in step with the emerging role of women's congregations and the changes taking place in society, according to Margaret Eilerman, a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange and a key organizer of the San Diego event. "[Religious] women really understand that the institutions they have been staffing, while they are important, are no longer where the real needs are. The gap between rich and poor has widened. The economy is changing at a rapid rate. Employment issues are built into that. Electronics and computers are changing society at a rapid rate. No one can get a decent job anymore without computer skills," Eilerman said, "so we're thinking of things like putting computer labs in the barrios."

Yes, computer labs in barrios, job training collectives, manufacture of clergy shirts by migrants, low-income housing ventures, retreat centers, corporate transformation workshops, arts cooperatives, clowning, insurance agencies, inner child healing, architectural consulting for parishes -- this is a tiny sample of the hundreds of activities sustained or imagined by current and potential entrepreneurs listed in the fall 1994 New Ventures directory, the most recent available.

By combining creative entrepreneurship with mission, Pfluger said, these women are not only creating new models for their communities and for people in need, they are also establishing a new paradigm for the business world at a time when corporations have grown increasingly bereft of ethics.

"I'd like to hope that this group can give women religious a certain amount of business savvy without compromising religious or ethical values," Pfluger said. "Why is this needed? Much of what ails society today is greed. This has come through business where the bottom line is profit. There is no sense of cost to society. Greed has become a value."

Pfluger said she believes business, in itself, is a good thing. "But it is how it is operated and what we do with the profit that may be evil. If you operate at the expense of the employees and all you do is get a profit, that's bad."

Women religious involved in entrepreneurship are creating new styles in management, Pfluger said, establishing organizational structures that "are fluid, not hierarchical."

New definitions of "charity" are also emerging. "Creating jobs is where it's at. One thing is to open up a soup kitchen, but if we cannot give the people we feed the skills to become self-sufficient, it's Band-Aids. We want to do more than Band-Aids," Pfluger said. For the women gathered in San Diego, getting beyond Band-Aids meant learning about taxes and financing, leveraging and loans, leadership and marketing, to "put expertise and resources at the service of individuals in the church and in society who are being left out," in the words of Ruth Poochigian, a Sinsinawa Dominican.

This journey requires asking some hard questions, and speaking some tough truths, Poochigian said. Questions like, "Why do the haves need yet more at the expense of those [poor] who will do anything to work?"

Participants in the San Diego conference also got a crash course on the relationship between canon and civil law, and their new ministries. Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Bernadette Kenny, a lawyer, urged the women to "hold fast to the mission of our religious congregations" but to use law to "support life, not to stifle or control it."

The mission identity of women religious, Kenney said, involves two basic tenets -- apostolic service on behalf of the poor and member support. While apostolic activity must "be performed in community with the church, it doesn't mean the church has to run it," Kenny said.

Vows don't impede

In this context, vows are not an impediment to the types of ministries being created by New Ventures women. For example, Kenney said, "Obedience does not require you to have a boss." A vow of poverty does not mean religious women should not earn a just wage, it only affects "my obligation once I get it," Kenney added. Kenney advised New Ventures participants to be "wise as serpents and as guileless as doves" in legal matters. But she also encouraged them, even in the face of resistance, to be ground-breakers.

She cited canon law, which defines religious women as "the gift of the Spirit to the church." The image of the Spirit, Kenney said, "is a flame -- it's meant to be disruptive!" Canon law, she added, "does not say that about the hierarchy."

Encouragement also came from keynote speaker and Fordham University theologian Marina Herrera, who told the women they were "carriers of divine ideas." She reminded a packed auditorium that Adam never had a mother, and the humanity begotten by the first Adam failed. So, Herrera said, "when God started again, she decided to have a woman give shape to a new Adam." In this way, today, Herrera stressed, "it is from the womb of all of us women that the salvation of our world comes." The womb, she said, "may be the heart, the head -- it doesn't matter." Every woman, Herrera said, is therefore "always pregnant with divine possibilities."

Herrera, a former Adrian Dominican, gave the women religious a checklist for knowing when they were nurturing "divine ideas." First, she said, "the enterprises being nurtured in your womb must be conceived by the Spirit. If you conceived it, it's no good. It must be in support of something bigger than you." Next, she added, divine ideas must "join you to community -- not the community you feel comfortable with, but those who fight you, oppose you, sometimes don't appreciate you." Finally, a divine idea, she said, "increases your sense of having a reason for being. It gave, gives and will give more life to those who come in contact with you. It takes you to a place you have never seen before."

Herrera indirectly challenged conference participants who might have been fearing this journey, this movement toward new ministries born of divine ideas, by reminding them, "God does not stay in one place."

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997