Discerning leadership in Oxford

August 21, 2023

It was five years ago that Pope Francis invited Jesuits to share the gift of discernment with the Church, saying that ‘the Church today needs to grow in the ability of spiritual discernment’. The Discerning Leadership Program was founded in response to that invitation. This year it held a two-week course in Oxford that brought together nine young Jesuits from seven provinces to learn how they might grow as discerning leaders in the service of the Church.

Jesuits learning the art of discerning leadership

The program complimented modern leadership theory with ethics, psychology and the latest thinking on Jesuit mission. Campion Hall at the University of Oxford provided the perfect setting for this evocative blend of ancient wisdom, contemporary thought and current challenge. The course was facilitated by David McCallum SJ, an authority on leadership, and Roger Dawson SJ, a clinical psychologist.

Other speakers included Nicholas Austin SJ, a specialist in virtue ethics, John Dardis SJ, Father General’s counsellor for discernment and apostolic planning, Austin Ivereigh, a journalist close to Pope Francis, and  Deirdre Rowe, an experienced manager and spiritual director. This range of different perspectives refracted the varied experiences of the young Jesuit leaders so that they might develop an integral model of leadership directed towards human flourishing.

The program began by focussing on what it meant to be a leader in today’s changing world. Combining a thorough knowledge of their discipline with an adaptive pedagogy, the course facilitators brought about deep experiential learning. One of the highlights was a presentation by Nicholas Austin, the Master of Campion Hall. He explained how the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus offer a portrait not just of the Father General but of the virtues to which any leader could aspire. The hallmark of discerning leadership is its humility founded upon a deep familiarity with God, both in prayer and in action.

The second week of the program turned to the practice of leadership. A keenly anticipated presentation by John Dardis SJ explained the thinking behind the De Statu Societatis Iesu 2023 which sets out the global challenges facing the Society of Jesus today. In the document Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, Father General of the Society of Jesus, proposes that one of the pivotal aims of leadership is the formation of apostolic teams which are ‘living communities of discernment’. He has emphasised that ‘trust and transparency’ are the two necessary conditions for the communal discernment upon which local leadership and province planning depend.

Campion Hall, the Jesuit home at Oxford University

There was a general realisation among the young leaders that our world is approaching challenges deeper than the previous generation. Just as a canoeist might navigate a series of unpredictable rapids, so too are Ignatian leaders supposed to make an agile response to those challenges. The quiet acquiescence to defunct structures and technical solutions is no longer an option. The challenges we face can only be met by adapting to the new environment where the grace of God, in all its freshness, is waiting to be discovered.

One participant said, ‘It was amazing to see how the insights of Ignatian Spirituality and leadership theory could be combined to create practical tools that we can apply in our mission.’ Another said that he ‘enjoyed the immediacy of the facilitation’ which enabled him to combine his own experience with theoretical knowledge. All the participants were delighted by the hospitality they received at Campion Hall and benefitted from the cultural opportunities provided by the city of Oxford.

The model of Pope Francis' leadership provided a fitting conclusion to the course. His call that the Church ‘go out of itself’ in order to evangelise our world resounded in the ears of the young Jesuit leaders as they entered their final day of reflection. This was devoted to the development of a ‘peer coaching’ group. The facilitators invited the young leaders to continue these in the months ahead as they reentered their missions. In this way the deep learning facilitated by the course will continue to provide an ongoing source of nourishment.

As our appreciation of discerning leadership began to grow so to did our confidence in our ability to put it into practice. As today’s faith leaders we realised that we may never see an abundant harvest from our ministry, but we dedicated ourselves to preparing for that springtime of faith that is coming in the next generation. With eyes fixed on this horizon, our hope is that, nourished by companionship and love of Christ, we might be ready and willing to serve the Church with the gift of discerning leadership.

Blog by Fr Philip Harrison SJ

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