Developing spiritual leaders

Sept. 14-20, 2006
Developing spiritual leaders
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
Dr. Elinor Ford visits diocese and brings her unique gifts

She charged through the class head bowed, shoulders squared and asked the class, “How do you get to the top?” Then she answered her own question in unison with the group, “By doing things differently.”
Dr. Elinor Ford has spent most of her life teaching and leading people so that they can motivate others and create change. She was at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt downstairs in the brand new classroom area the week of Aug. 14-18. Ford is Professor Emerita at Fordham University and had just finished a teaching a class at Oxford when she came to Syracuse. And she told the teachers and principals from the diocese that she was teaching them the same thing she had taught at Oxford. Ford, 74 years old, takes concepts such as “quantum thinking,” “transformational leadership” and the “Sigmoid Curve” and breaks them down into simple, understandable ideas.

Ford led a group of more than 30 diocesan educators through the week-long class titled “The Spirituality of Leadership” at Holy Cross. The class was offered as a Le Moyne College Summer Institute. Father Charles Vavonese, assistant superintendent for Catholic Schools, was course moderator. Ford’s sister, Marilyn, died during the week of the course and rather than pack up and leave, Ford chose to stay and finish the course. Father Robert Yeazel, pastor of Holy Cross, celebrated a Mass for Ford’s sister on Aug. 17. The course attendees helped Ford through the difficult situation and presented her with a monetary gift on her sister’s behalf. Ford described her sister to the class that day saying that she was not necessarily an intellectual person, but that she “did more in her life than I have in mine.” She said her sister loved to dance so she asked Father Vavonese to accept part of the gift back to be used for a party in honor of Marilyn. The remaining portion will be used for a Mass celebrated by Father Yeazel in memory of Marilyn. Ford thanked the class participants many times for their generosity and compassion. Many had given her cards and expressed their condolences. The class began that day after the memorial Mass in the morning. Ford picked up where she had left off the day before.

On the agenda that day were communicating the charism of spirituality and use of collaborative techniques. A course with Ford means much communication, much animation and, much to learn. A presentation by groups of “cohorts” was due by the end of the week. The diocesan educational leaders offered a variety of week-ending possibilities such as a spin on the television show “Family Feud,” a presentation on the misconceptions of Catholic schools, a presentation on “The Spirituality of Mom and Dad 101” and more. Creativity that sprang forth from Ford was obviously contagious as the groups came up with numerous ways of presenting to her what they had learned throughout the week.

Some of the concepts Ford broke down for the educators were parallels to spiritual truths. She took Peter Senge’s work, which involves the “U” theory, and described it by saying, “Unless we can suspend our assumptions about things — and the less educated we are, by the way, the less bias we seem to have — we will not have peace. We have to go down deep within and reflect. What happens when you are empty, when you let go of all assumptions, is that you take the time to reflect. You reflect deep within. What happens when we take time to reflect? We hear a voice that tells us what to do and we only hear the voice when we are empty.”

Senge’s great work included a study by 150 of the world’s most brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs who came together at their own expense to share ideas on how to change people and organizations in societies. Ford said that all of the great work done in that study boiled down to Lectio Divina — “Let go and let God come,” she said. “Once God has spoken, you take off no matter what anybody says. Why be afraid? God is with you.” So, she said, “Ford’s interpretation of Senge is, ‘God’s will be done.’” Ford said that concept can lead to great things, whether an individual is planning a career change, a change in family situation or any other life change.

Beth Baird teaches at Blessed Sacrament School in Syracuse and said the course with Ford was “beyond my expectations.”
“She makes something complex seem simple,” Baird said. “As teachers, we constantly hope we are doing the right thing, that we’re on the right path. She [Ford] is reassuring us that we are.” Another diocesan teacher commented that Ford helped her “recharge” her batteries. “She reminded me why I teach in a Catholic school.”

Eloise Smarrelli teaches at Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville and she said that Ford’s sessions made her realize that her choice to teach in a Catholic school is a vocation. “I knew teaching in a Catholic school was different. Now I realize it is a vocation. There are so many in-services that we take. This one we take to remind us that we are ‘Catholic’ school teachers.” Smarrelli also said that Ford has the ability to take concepts that come across as “fancy ideas” and break them down to a very simple truth — God and love.

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