Innovation and the Potential to Transform the World

A Message from the Board

Earlier this month I watched a panel discussion from Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, The Church Innovative: How and Why the Catholic Church Fosters Change, about change and the Church, primarily how our Church fosters innovation.

Nick Sawicki, Duffy Fellow at Fordham, facilitated this discussion with panelists Kerry Elys Robinson (Leadership Roundtable), Sr. Helen Alford, O.P. (University of St. Thomas), and Francis Davis, Director of Policy at Edward Cadbury Center in the UK. There were so many great words of wisdom, and it left me pondering innovation in our ministries and in this organization.

It was three years ago this last month that I was commissioned into the role of President and Chair of the Board of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. So much has happened in those three years, it seems a lifetime ago – which makes it a great time to pause and reflect on all that change.

The Trajectory of the Organization in 2018

Three years ago, we experienced the second cataclysmic sexual abuse scandal in my lifetime with the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. The restructuring of parish and diocesan catechetical offices followed. Budgets were drastically reduced, partially due to the leadership crisis of that scandal, partially due to the continued disaffiliation of so many Catholics. Far too many Catholic leaders were displaced. We experienced that loss on our board when one of our Executive Committee members lost her job in this crisis. We grieved with the rest of the Church.

The following year we took a hard look at the trajectory of this organization and knew something had to be done to correct that course. We recognized a pattern that had taken place over a number of years prior to this review. There were fewer members, fewer participants in the annual conferences, a decrease in engagement even by members who had been involved for many years. Leaders shared how professional development budget lines had taken a cut; travel for conferences was gone altogether. Smaller staffs meant fewer people doing more work, thus having less time to engage in efforts to support national organizations. We called it a perfect storm. Few people know how bad it really was, even as I remembered our prior treasurer warning us year after year.

Investment in the Future

The board invested in the future of the organization that year by hiring an outside consulting agency (Meitler) to facilitate a comprehensive deep dive into the organization’s systems, structures, revenue streams, guiding documents, and more. Meitler held up a mirror and told us the hard truth, sharing with us that it is best that an organization pivot when it begins that downward slide. We weren’t at the beginning of that slide. We were years in. We would have to be bold and innovative. We needed to clearly articulate our mission, name our core values, and only take on projects that furthered that mission and aligned with those values.

Through much reflection on Meitler’s report and prayerful discernment, In Word and Witness was born. In Word and Witness stands on the foundation of NCCL and on the shoulders of all those who contributed their gifts to that legacy. But this is a new venture and incredible investment has already been made in its vision, mission, leadership, and potential.

Hope in Our Future

Three years ago, I had hope, but it was not grounded in innovation. It was based on a maintenance model that wasn’t working, that somehow, I thought might turn around. Today I have incredible hope! I see our potential to realize our mission – to transform the world by reflecting Christ.

  • The stories Catholic leaders have shared around their calling unite us in this mission.
  • Our resource library continues to grow! I have used so many of those resources already. Thank you to all who are contributing these gifts in support of our ministries and our leaders. What incredible stewardship!
  • Our first major project, the Vaccine Equity Project, through the Catholic Cares Coalition, was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and aligns with our core values of solidarity, inclusion, community, and stewardship.
  • We have held multiple virtual events – Witness, Magnify, Christ Awaits, Partnered in Mission, and Vaccine Equity: A Catholic response to COVID 19 – encouraging innovation, nourishing our leaders, calling us to discipleship.

The Incoming Board

And I have hope because we had so many Catholic leaders apply to become members of the Board of Directors of In Word and Witness. The nominating committee put in countless hours providing the process, the interviews, and presenting this board with their recommendations. I cannot wait for these new board members to be presented to you in the coming days. They are a broader representation of our Church, coming to us from academic institutions, religious organizations, parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions. They represent a variety of ministries, and the commitment from these 12 people to this organization, fills me with hope and with gratitude. I am thankful because I know what they’re up against. I know the work, the visioning, the leadership, the innovation their success will require.

They need our support and our commitment to that mission as well. At a time when the Church has given us The Directory for Catechesis (2020) and its fresh perspective on our ministry and our call, and Pope Francis has given us Antiquum Ministerium, an apostolic letter officially giving recognition to the role of the Catechist, we need this lay-ministry-led organization more than ever.

In the panel discussion I mentioned at the beginning, Robinson challenged us, as believers, to a greater understanding of stewardship. “One definition of stewardship is the proper care of all that has been entrusted to one – but for the Christian believer, for the person of faith, stewardship is also the recognition of and proper care of the potential at hand… People of faith should be in the space of bringing potential to fruition.” We have the potential to transform the world! Will you commit to this national Catholic community of leaders dedicated to evangelization and catechesis? Will you commit to our stewardship of that mission? I do.

I will remain on the board for a few more months as the Chair-Elect begins to live into that role and into our new vision for this model of leadership development. And I will remain committed to our projects and to our storytelling beyond my term as Chair. Jackie Hopper will stay on as Vice Chair for another year until the next election, and John Gaffney will remain in his role until a new treasurer is discerned. In both of these people I have the utmost respect and have developed friendships that I know will continue beyond our time serving here together.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to thank the people who are completing their terms on the board with this installation of new members. These people have given of themselves tirelessly to this organization, have walked with each other as we navigated these very uncertain times. We have had board meetings, special board meetings, subcommittee meetings, Meitler meetings, and more. Through it all they believed, and they committed to this organization and its mission completely. I am eternally grateful for their witness and their friendship. Maria Covarrubias, Sara Carey, and Lori Dahlhoff, thank you.

Denise Utter
Chair of the Board of Directors
In Word and Witness