The Cleveland Congregation of St. Joseph is part of a Catholic religious order with 136 nuns and about 50 lay or non-vowed associates who make shorter-term commitments. Since the mid-1870s, it has established deep roots in Ohio and the metropolitan Cleveland area. The congregation realizes its mission of reconciliation to “live and work that all people may be united with God and with one another” by working with women and children in the areas of housing, counseling, education, wellness and spiritual services.

The Cleveland Congregation operates St. Joseph Academy—a high school for 600 young women—and a wellness center in newly renovated space on the campus of the congregation in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland.

Like other religious orders, the Cleveland Congregation of St. Joseph is governed by decisions made in periodic meetings. Every five years, participants in a Chapter of Affairs make decisions based on proposals or studies completed in the prior five-year period. A Chapter of Elections follows and designates the congregation’s leaders for the next five-year period. Chapter meetings insure that the congregation will regularly review its operations and systems.

In 1976, the congregation instituted a new leadership concept, moving from a Mother Superior/ Council model to a three-member Leadership Team model. The Leadership Team performs the functions of a board of directors and an executive management team, meeting about once a week to oversee program operations.

Although the change in leadership models was significant, the tradition of a hierarchical governance structure continued, in that team members were elected as president, vice president and second vice president. A second shift occurred in 1984 when the chapter specified that the three leaders should serve as equals. A new selection process was introduced: the whole congregation is now asked to nominate leaders, and give an explanation of their nominee’s strengths.

A facilitated discernment process ensued in which individuals could withdraw their names from the pool of leadership candidates. An experienced congregation member explains the discernment process this way: “It does not mean ‘What do I want?’ but it’s asking the hard questions of what is best for the common good. It involves listing a set of pros and cons, laying out all of the possibilities.”

In the mid-1990s, the discernment process ended with a single slate of candidates to be presented to the congregation. But some community members felt this left them little choice. The congregation confronted another manifestation of the leadership recruitment problem in 1994, when only five people were willing to leave their names in the leadership candidate pool.

In response, a specially designated government task force of the church, as well as the Chapter Planning Committee, began to meet about a year and a half before the 1998 Chapter of Affairs. The Chapter Planning Committee initiated a series of scheduled conversations about leadership among congregation members. The committee distributed readings on leadership and led discussions to raise awareness and inspire the congregation to think differently about participation in leadership.

Although they were working in the background, committee members were particularly adept at keeping the congregation informed about their activities. “We knew what they were doing,” remarked one sister. “We knew what the expectations were. We knew about assigned readings and discussions.” According to the same individual, the committee was “key” to the change process: They set the tone. They were upbeat. So they infused a lot of energy into the preparations as well as the actual meeting itself. They had a sense of ritual, how we did things.

The Government Task Force also met over many months and submitted a final report to the congregation in July 1998 that was subsequently approved by the Chapter of Affairs. The recommendations modified previous governance arrangements and continued the trend toward wider participation in internal decision-making and in the leadership-selection process.

With respect to internal decision-making, the recommended governance plan added a new governance structure called the Assembly. The Assembly consists of the Leadership Team and a representative from each of 17 Small Groups, relatively new intentional groups of 10 to 12 sisters and non-vowed associates. As one newer congregation member observed, “We moved into formalizing the Small Groups in the Assembly model to really ensure that there was a system for voices being heard.”

In accordance with the new selection process, both associates and core members nominated individuals in writing for the new Leadership Team. Nominators completed a form, Raising Names for Congregational Leadership, that included the following introductory sentences: “This nomination gives me an opportunity to name some characteristics and skills which I have seen in you and believe would be of benefit to us as a community at this time.”

Each person with at least seven nominations was invited to be part of the discernment process. Twenty-four individuals were nominated; 17 kept their names in the pool and came together for the first discernment weekend in November 1998. The weekend focused primarily on what the congregation was looking for in leaders.

One participant observed, “It was more about the congregation, and the expectations of the congregation about leadership, because that had been in big discussion since there was a governance task force and we had talked about what we were looking for in membership and what we were looking for in leadership. And so we used that information to talk about what we saw as the direction for the future.”

Two outside resource persons facilitated the weekend meetings, along with the whole selection process. The facilitators were important contributors to the change process. After the first weekend, nominees were asked to briefly outline the feedback each had received from the nominations, their own perceived leadership strengths, and the qualities or characteristics for which they would rely on other team members. These papers were shared among the nominees before the second discernment weekend.

By the second weekend, 14 people remained in the leadership pool. In the words of one participant, “the point of the second discernment was to actually deal with each other in those areas of energy, compatibility of styles, and strengths and talents.” In explaining the willingness of the participants to undertake this sensitive process, one person asked, “If our mission is reconciliation, oughtn’t that be the thing we do among ourselves first?” The outcome of the weekend was a list of 11 possible teams with different groupings of three individuals, each team presenting a unique combination of strengths. At this point in the selection process, eight individuals continued to be willing to serve on a leadership team.

Reflecting on that outcome, one of the eight persons observed “The congregation said they really needed more choices … Their basic charge was that they wanted multiple groups of people that you can choose from.” At the Chapter of Elections, the rest of the congregation narrowed the choice to two teams through a series of facilitated conversations and then voted. A few individuals would have preferred to vote for three individuals who were not presented to the congregation as a team, but adhered to the previously agreed-upon selection process.

While the Cleveland Congregation of St. Joseph invested a great deal of time in the selection process, one of the new Leadership Team members observed that willingness to invest this much energy in a succession process springs from a deep commitment that is not necessarily unique to religious orders.

Despite the regularity of reform in leadership succession procedures, congregation members identified several remaining issues: the length of terms, the need to stagger terms, and the need for more leadership training to shorten the learning curve for new team members. With the exception of the first two Leadership Teams three decades ago, no individual has served on more than one team.

According to one participant, it is premature to assess the effects of the most recent changes in the leadership selection process. Still, when reflecting about the impact of leadership-selection reforms over time, one participant said, “I think people ended up in leadership positions who, if it had been a strict voting, probably would not have landed in leadership positions. Sometimes the prophets, if you will, or the people that are heralding change, aren’t always the most popular people … But as I think of the teams as they’ve served us, each one brought its own gift.”

Judith R. Saidel is executive director of the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, and associate professor of public administration and policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. Kathleen Fletcher is a consultant to nonprofit organizations and a part-time faculty member at the University of San Francisco and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.