Sister Donna Koch reflects on the gifts of eight years as Community President
by Renae Bauer
(May 2017) -- Religious life -- particularly that as Community President -- isn’t what you think it might be. It isn’t 9 am to 5 pm. It isn’t boring. And it certainly isn’t about furthering one’s own agenda.
In fact, Sister Donna Koch says, one goal of Community leadership is to arrive at decisions that are for the good of the whole Community. It’s about communal goals, not individual goals. This requires learning, listening, trusting, collaborating, consulting, and leaning on the Holy Spirit.
She offered these observations as her second and final four-year term as Community President will conclude on June 14. Reflecting on the 2008 election, Sister Donna knew she would be nominated. The question was whether she would leave her name in or withdraw it.
“I realized I didn’t have a reason to say ‘no’ and that perhaps at this point in our history I would be able to make a contribution that would be helpful for the good of the Community,” she says.
And so it has been for eight years. She says serving as President has required putting aside her own wants and plans so she could be available to respond to the Community’s needs.
“You need your cell phone charged and your gas tank full because it’s a 24/7 responsibility,” she says. In addition to administrative work such as budgets, investments, contracts, policies and the like, the role of President means being present to Sisters before, during and after office hours. On any given day, Sister Donna might visit a Sister in a nursing home or dash to the hospital after a Sister has fallen, or listen to a Sister who, like Sister Donna, has worked all day and needs to talk about something weighing on her heart.
Working with ‘dream’ Teams
These administrative and ministerial responsibilities are shared among the Leadership Team members (President, First Vice President and Second Vice President). Joining Sister Donna on the Leadership Team during her first term were Sister Sally Ann Brickner and Sister Jane Riha; for the second term, Sister Nancy Langlois and Sister Ann Rehrauer. Sister Donna describes all four women as magnanimous.
“What was beyond my expectation was what wonderful teams we developed. We looked at each other’s gifts and skills and asked, ‘How do we complement each other? How can we build this team together so that we are a very positive witness to the rest of the Community?’ In both my terms in office I think that’s been a blessing.”
Sister Donna is keenly aware of the blessings from the Holy Spirit, too.
“From the very beginning, I’ve almost tangibly felt the power of the Holy Spirit,” she says. “There is a saying in religious life, ‘If you have the position, the grace will be given to you.’ I don’t know if I ever believed that so much as when I was elected and I felt the presence of God in a deeper way. That’s the only way I can say it. I’ve felt the power of prayer in decision-making and I have a deep gratitude to God. I am humbled by the support and trust of others.”
This trust, particularly from the Sisters, is one of the greatest rewards Sister Donna has experienced during her time as President.
“I’ve always felt the support and trust of the Community. Always,” she says.
Being a student to the student
This abiding trust probably stems from some principles practiced by Sister Donna. She stresses that in all her roles -- teacher, principal, liturgist, spiritual director, etc. -- she has always viewed herself as the student. “As a student of my students I need to listen to where they’re at, what their needs are, and what I can do so that they can move forward. I could apply that to everything I’ve been doing. When I don’t have the answer I have to consult. I need to rely on the expertise of others. I need to remember that not all the answers reside in me. I hope that kind of leading has a witness value for others.”
Inspired by her Sisters
And as a perpetual student, Sister Donna has learned much from her Sisters and the whole Community.
She’s been inspired by the Sisters’ “adaptability in times of transition and their ability to hang in there,” says Sister Donna. “They do it because someone asked them to and they have said ‘fiat’” (a Latin term meaning ‘let it be done’). “They are an inspiration. I’ve had to tell some of them some really hard stuff and they’ve said ‘OK’. That’s very dear to my heart because I have seen such faith-filled women. The vows are lived by them. They truly have their ear to God’s heart.”
She has also witnessed the Sisters living their charism of Cross, Word and Eucharist in their daily lives and in service to others. “I think of those who are experiencing physical diminishment. That’s Cross, that’s poverty, and if I were to ask them I bet they’d tell me the source of their strength is Eucharist. And they also are ‘eucharist’ for one another in how they respond to the needs of the other person. If they can move a finger they are going to help someone. That diminishment is how they are living their religious life, that’s how they are called to witness to the rest of us. They’re reminders to me of the power of prayer and presence of God’s grace working in them.”
Time with family, friends
As her term draws to a close, Sister Donna wants to leave office with as little unfinished business as possible, which has left little time to think about the next chapter in her life. For now, her only plans are to spend some quality time with family and friends near and far, lead a directed retreat and spend some time at a hermitage. No doubt, this “student of the student” will continue to listen, learn and give support wherever the Holy Spirit leads her.
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