By: Kristen Whitney Daniels

Sr. Carol Zinn headshot

Sister of St. Joseph Carol Zinn (Chestnut Hill) spends a lot of time thinking about God's "call."

Whether it was listening to God's call for her new role as executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) or utilizing LCWR's "Call for 2015-2022" as her new job description or even looking towards God's call to the future of religious life, God's call seems to be a common theme in Sr. Carol's life.

Though Sr. Carol started her new executive director role on July 1, she has been part of LCWR leadership for the better part of the last decade. And just as she answered the call to her new role, Sr. Carol is excited to see where "God of the future" is calling her, LCWR, and women religious.

"The main work of religious life and elected leadership at this moment calls for a clarity of vision, a consciousness of transformation, a courage of mind, heart and will, and a concerted, collaborative effort to embrace these times of transformation of the life we live and love and the missions and charisms with which we've  been entrusted," Sr. Carol wrote in her application for the LCWR executive director position.

"This work focuses on addressing who we are called to be as carriers of our respective missions and charisms into a future that looks nothing like our past or present."

Sr. Carol talked with the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph about the vital role discernment has played in each chapter of her life, her excitement surrounding her new position, and her enthusiasm to help religious sisters find their future calling.

Staying ‘faithful to the invitations'

Sr. Helen Kearney with Sr. Carol Zinn at her first LCWR assembly Aug. 9 2009.

Sr. Carol's first call with religious life came fifty years ago this September. Growing up, she was introduced to the Sisters of St. Joseph through her elementary school and an all-girls Catholic high school where she was educated by a variety of religious congregations, including the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Although from early on Sr. Carol said she wanted to be a nurse, something changed in high school.

"As any vocation [story goes], at some point, something else entered my awareness," Sr. Carol said.

This prompted her to start asking deeper questions about religious life with one of the sisters at her high school. She went through the discernment process and entered with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill in September of 1968.

In the end, Sr. Carol did not end up pursuing a career in nursing. But she did find her lifelong call into the "ministry of education."

She received a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Chestnut Hill College — a school sponsored by her congregation. She also received a Master of Arts degree in theology from Saint Bonaventure University and her doctorate in foundations of American education and curriculum from the University of North Carolina — Greensboro.

In addition to her teaching ministry, she served from 1996 to 2001 as the education program director for Global Education Associates at the United Nations (U.N.). According to the organization's website, the international organization focuses on "facilitate[ing] the efforts of concerned people of diverse cultures, talents, and experience in contributing to a more humane and just world order."According to the press release for her new position, Sr. Carol has "served as a teacher on the elementary, secondary, college, and post-graduate levels, in educational leadership in elementary and secondary schools, and in religious education and music ministry in various parish and diocesan venues." In other words, she has ministered at almost every level of education.

That wasn't the last time Sr. Carol would find herself working at the U.N. From 2001 to 2009 she was the representative of the Congregations of St. Joseph at the U.N — which is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that represents the global Joseph family through its' general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Following her two stints at the U.N., Sr. Carol transitioned to leadership both within her congregation and LCWR — which is composed of the elected leaders that represent nearly 80 percent of women religious in the U.S., including the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Just as she answered the "call to leadership in her own community" —she was elected to her congregation's leadership team in 2009 — she also answered the call to become chairperson of LCWR's Region 3, a role she served in from 2010-2012. Similar to the discernment process she went through for her congregation's leadership team, she again felt led to answer the call to the presidency for LCWR.

It was during her 2012-2015 presidency term (the organization follows a three-year presidency process) in which the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched a mandate of implementation and doctrinal assessment of LCWR.

Sr. Carol said that the mandate represented "an opportunity to have a conversation that was long overdue." Following those conversations with Vatican staff, Sr. Carol and other members of the leadership team saw the mandate to completion in 2015.

Sr. Carol Zinn receiving flowers at the LCWR Assembly in Aug. 2012.

"It was about a historical moment prompted by lots of things.... but in the end, it was about a group of people trying to discern what does it mean to be faithful to the Gospel," she said.

Sr. Carol talks more about the experience in LCWR's recently released book However Long the Night: Making Meaning in a Time of Crisis. Released in March 2018, Sr. Carol and other leaders (including Sisters of St. Joseph Marcia Allen (Concordia) and Janet Mock (Baden)) reflect in detail about their experience during those years. In a synopsis on LCWR's website, it states that "conscious of the dire national and international conflict existent today, the authors chose to risk telling their story with the hope that it could offer a way forward for others."

After those three years at LCWR, Sr. Carol said it was clear to her that "there was some pretty significant — both evolutionary and transformational — work that religious congregations were really engaging." This led to her responding and accepting an invitation to work as senior vice president for mission integration at Plante Moran. There she helped congregations in future planning "but from the perspective of … discernment around the future of their particular mission and charism and the future of the living of the life."

Sr. Carol is clear that her job was more about "trying to discern where it is that God" is calling each congregation, beyond what to do with buildings and ministries.

"Scriptures [say] ‘God is doing something new, do you not perceive it?' And the something new is not about what shall we do with our motherhouse or how should we restructure our organization," she said. "The something new in terms of Gospel life is always much deeper than what appears apparent, in terms of structures, and organizations, and all the accoutrements that go with institutional structure of anything."

 As Sr. Carol transitioned from her position at Plante Moran to LCWR executive director, she knew she'd carry that mindset with her.

"So, I felt — and still feel — very called to that kind of priority of really trying to be faithful to where the invitations to transformation of the life seems to be, even though none of us knows what that really looks like," she said.

Looking toward the future

Only three years after Sr. Carol's presidency ended, she answered another call to LCWR, this time for the executive director position. After being "called forth" and "prompted" by the Spirit, she went through a period of discernment, prayer, and reflection, and speaking with her spiritual director.

"It just feels like a definite privilege and a grace for me to be invited into this ministry right now," she said about her new position.

Sr. Carol Zinn at the LCWR Assembly in Aug. 2012.

Sr. Carol assumed the executive director position from LCWR's interim director School Sisters of Notre Dame Sister Carole Shinnick July 1. 

While she believes that not much has changed mission-wise since her presidency, she sees some differences in priorities from her time in the presidency, with the main one being "what has happened in the past three to five years in religious life in the United States."

"You know one of the pieces that no one could anticipate of course is the impact or the reality of the acceleration of the pace of change within individual congregations," Sr. Carol said.

"The scope of divesting that congregations are doing, whether its ministries or buildings, and of course the most profound divesting or letting go that we are doing is the letting go — the loving letting go of our members, the deaths of so many of our senior sisters."

Though some of the concerns have accelerated, LCWR did foresee some of this future when they created LCWR's "Call for 2015-2022," a document that outlines the organization's priorities and was created during Sr. Carol's presidency term. In addition to the document being a "seven-year timeline" to move LCWR forward, she also described it as essentially her "job description."

While the document outlines some of the critical missions LCWR aims to take on, the two-page document also provides initiatives for the leadership to focus on. The initiatives include embracing critical change, providing skills and resources for contemplative and anticipatory leadership, and standing for social justice in response to the needs of the time.

In addition to today's accelerated pace of change that is occurring in religious life, Sr. Carol also sees challenges in addressing the needs of all of God's people.

"Another [challenge] is the equally accelerating needs of the people of God and all creation," she said. "You know what's happening with the movement of people, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers — what's happening with all the -isms that you can think of. All of that Gospel justice work is really near and dear to the heart of women religious, so those needs have also accelerated since 2015."

While both of those challenges will be a significant part of Sr. Carol's new job, she believes that after discernment and "really trying to hear what God [is] calling us to be faithful to," that LCWR — and religious sisters — can then make a plan.

Sr. Carol Zinn at the LCWR Assembly in Aug. 2016. "I think these times are calling us to go much deeper into what is the purpose of this vocation right now and how we help the life itself move into the future when it's pretty clear that what the life has looked like the past couple hundred years is coming to an end," she said. "And what it will look like next is God's work. Our work is to help create space for God to be able to bring into existence an expression of religious life that is needed for the 21st century."

Though Sr. Carol feels religious life will look different moving forward, that doesn't mean she's lost any of her enthusiasm for the vowed, religious life.

"I absolutely love this life … All of us who are living it, do really love it. We are living it with great joy and great passion and great energy," she said.

As Sr. Carol looks towards the future of LCWR and religious life, she is optimistic and excited to see what the future call will look like.

"Whatever this dream is that God has for the future of this world, for the future of all of our brothers and sisters, and for the future of every species on this planet — I have a lot of energy and a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm about being part of those kinds of conversations at a national level with other organizations who serve religious congregations."

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is the Assistant Executive Director of the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph]