Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Last week, Gwynedd Mercy University held a retirement celebration for Sister Kati McMahon, RSM, our Vice President of Mission Integration, who is stepping down after serving her alma mater in myriad capacities for 36 years.  I was privileged to give the reflection at the prayer service that began the celebration.  (More accurately, I unabashedly seized for myself the opportunity to give the reflection.)  The reflection was entitled, “Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati.”  There’s wisdom here for everyone, so–to continue to honor her as she deserves–I’m sharing my words here.

I hope you have a Sister Kati in your life, but if you don’t, please borrow however much of our own Sister Kati’s sage advice as you can use!

Christine

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Kati has been my supervisor for 15 years, which I’m pretty sure makes me one of the luckiest people in the room. Because, unless put off by vacation, hospitalization, or Middle States, I have gotten to sit down with Kati once a week for fifteen years, to talk about work and life and ministry. So despite the title of this reflection (which I just couldn’t help), this is not a roast or even exactly a tribute. Today’s gathering is a prayer of gratitude and blessing, and so I want to reflect briefly on the wisdom I am grateful to have learned from Kati, wisdom that I hope will be a blessing to many of you as well.

1) Begin with the end in mind.  (Yes, I know it’s really Stephen Covey!)

Kati can tell you how much I came kicking and screaming to the practice of assessment. But I have to say, I now have a little internalized Kati voice in my head, which is forever asking “What is our desired outcome?” I ask it not only when sitting down to do planning in campus ministry, but when making an agenda for a parish meeting, planning a dinner outing with friends, even heading into the occasional argument with my sweetheart. (Believe me, there’s nothing Porter likes more than hearing me ask, “What’s the desired outcome of this conversation?”)

From S. Kati, I learned that to begin with the end in mind is the only way to make sure you get where you want to go. As we are always on the brink of something, as a university and as individuals, it is always worth pausing, to make sure that we have set our sights on the right thing, before we set out.

2) Respect the process.

I have watched S. Kati craft incredibly collaborative processes for things she probably could have sat down with a pencil and done all by herself in a couple of hours. One of these processes involved over 200 people, and took the better part of two academic years. Was the outcome better than it would have been if she’d just done it herself? Maybe. But it certainly had more buy-in. (Which is—see previous point—one of the desired outcomes.) S. Kati taught me that it doesn’t matter how fast you get there, if you leave people behind. And so, as we set out to do new things, let’s always remember to look around, see who’s not with us, and find a way to invite them in.

3) Be careful what you are busy about.

I can be a very fussy person. I fuss about work; I fuss about church; I fuss about family. For the last 15 years, S. Kati has been on the receiving end of a lot of that fussing. And here is what she taught me. If I am fussing about something that I cannot possibly do anything about, that is a waste of emotional energy—not to mention brain space. And so I have learned to ask myself, is this situation in my circle of influence? Will my involving myself in this effect any kind of positive change? If not, I shouldn’t be busy about it. And even if it is in my circle of influence, and I can make a positive change, it’s still not worth being “busy” about, when instead I could simply pray about it then contribute what I can. Just think how much more peaceful and productive we would all be if we could remember not to be busy about things that are none of our business! Which brings me to . . .

4) Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths.

I arrived at this job 15 years ago with most of the skills I needed to be a good campus minister and maybe—maybe—half the skills I needed to be a good administrator. S. Kati was incredibly patient about helping me grow, acquire new skills, and learn from my mistakes. But she was also realistic about the fact that no one is good at everything, and that while chiseling at a block of marble sometimes reveals a beautiful statue underneath, jackhammering away at it just makes a mess. She understood that at some point, the energy that we could exert trying to get better at what we’re bad at could be much better spent doing the things we actually love and are good at. So, the next time you’re running up against the stone wall of your own limitations, think of S. Kati, consider whether it might just be time to stop, turn around, and run with your strengths instead.

5) Show up.

Kati shows up. As Vice President of Mission, she shows up for funerals. As Vice President of Student Services, she showed up for games (and probably funerals too). She shows up for events. She shows up for supervision, week after month after year. She has not yet learned to bi- or tri-locate, so sometimes she can’t be there physically. But she shows up with grateful emails after a job well done, and she shows up with holiday wishes when the rest of us are just focused on getting out of the building. At a time when the world is only moving faster, and when a personal touch is so desperately needed, we would all do well to remember those two simple words. Whenever we can, show up.

6) Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own.

Kati’s body has not always been her friend.   Okay, that’s not really true. S. Kati’s body has rarely been her friend. She would say that she suffers from an excess of Mercy hospitality—a body that flings wide the door for everything from sinus infection to arterial obstruction. Despite how cruddy Kati may be feeling on any given day, in my experience, she has never allowed her pain to diminish her compassionate response to the pain of others. She doesn’t pull out her Likert scale of suffering to assess whether you merit her empathy. In this she embodies CS Lewis’ definition of humility: not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. That kind of humility flows graciously from S. Kati’s merciful heart. And speaking of Mercy . . .

7) Remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

More than any other person, S. Kati has helped me understand that Mercy is not just about being nice, or being friendly, or making people feel better (though sometimes it involves all those things). Mercy is about wading deep enough into a distressing situation to know what people really need, and having the courage to respond in practical ways. Sometimes people need a second chance, and sometimes they need accountability, and sometimes they need a fierce advocate, and none of that is fluffy. S. Kati has shown me the face of Mercy, in all its tough and tender manifestations, and for that I will be forever grateful.  

Begin with the end in mind. Respect the process. Be careful what you are busy about. Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths. Show up. Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own. And remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

If we can hold onto even some of these things, as people and as an institution, then S. Kati’s legacy here at Gwynedd Mercy will be us. And that is really something to be grateful for.