Leadership Lessons from a Convent

What one woman learned as an Alongsider

At her Baptist church in Toronto, Susan Murphy sits on the deacons' board—the leadership team charged with making many of the important, grassroots decisions that affect the congregation. When her passion ignited at deacons' meetings, she'd speak up, not afraid to push and push again…to prove a point.

Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree, Susan felt called to pursue a master's degree at seminary with the aim of becoming a certified spiritual director. To afford her studies, she lived for a year in the guesthouse at the convent for the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, a few blocks from the seminary. Before her time was up, these Anglican sisters had invited her to become their first-ever Alongsider. For a year she'd live, work, and worship (four times a day) alongside them in order to experience and better understand the daily life of a monastic, all while continuing her studies.

Susan jumped at this chance to enrich her vocation as a spiritual director. The former businesswoman also wanted to find the balance between the frayed busyness of her life and the key disciplines of silence and solitude. She found something else, though: a way of leading that's challenged her assumptions about how we lead, particularly in church contexts.

Leaders Live for Timeouts…to Acknowledge God

Imagine this: As part of your 8-, 9- or 10-hour workday, you must spend two hours and 15 minutes immersed in worship and Scripture. Every day without fail, you stop during those hours to hear and recite God's Word, pray, and sing—all in the company of women like you: busy, focused, on fire for God, human. No matter what outstanding project needs to be dropped while you pull away—yet again—to worship and pray; no matter your title; no matter that you'd prefer to plow through your work and go home. Having to stop four times a day to join the sisters in their morning prayer, noon service, evening service, and compline taught Susan her first leadership lesson: The sisters "have learned to balance out their call to leadership—their purpose—with what's woven through the fabric of every day…their daily in-and-out of worship and prayer and Scripture."

And what a call to leadership they've had. The women of the sisterhood have had a long history of groundbreaking social action in Toronto. Pioneers in the health field for more than 125 years, they opened the first hospital for women in the late 1800s and pioneered and ran St. John's Rehab Hospital to great renown until 2011. St. John's Rehab is home to Canada's only organ transplant rehabilitation program and Ontario's only burn rehabilitation program. It is recognized as a leader in delivering services that focus on the whole person—mind, body and spirit. Several of the sisters have acted as president or vice president and held other prominent management positions in the hospital over the years, and they remain active with its foundation.

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April 11, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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