Pope’s leadership inspires community sector CEO

The teachings and concrete example of Pope Francis’ actions continue to inspire and inform the leadership style of Western Australian community service CEO Debra Zanella.

The Ruah Community Services CEO, who has 20 years’ experience in the community sector and is a strong advocate for vulnerable and disadvantaged people, spoke at the recent Stirring the Waters: Australian Catholic Women Responding to the Spirit colloquium in Adelaide.

Ms Zanella said Pope Francis’ leadership had been a significant influence on the mission and focus of Ruah Community Services.

“Pope Francis’ rhetoric is inclusive, but one of the things that inspires me is that I see the connections between what he says and what he does, so there’s an authenticity to his words and it’s reflected in the way he is with people and the action that he has taken,” she said.

“And my experience of leadership is that people will follow you if they believe that your leadership is authentic. What they won’t follow is leaders who say one thing and do another.”

Ms Zanella said the Pope has also “named what we’ve always known in the Church, which is that the Gospels have a preferential option for the poor”.

“So he’s reframed that to talk about going to the outskirts, to opening the doors of the Church to let Jesus out,” she said.

“That call to me, particularly in community services, is core to what we do. We’re to go out to work with those in need, not to stay in areas where it’s now mainstream.”

Regarding the ongoing push for greater participation of women in leadership roles within the Church in Australia, especially in the lead up to the Plenary Council 2020, Ms Zanella said: “All people were needed for the good of the whole.

“To have it all, we actually need each other. So we do need to create opportunities where women in their own expertise come forth in the Church and where space is created for their voice to be actually heard,” she said.

“There are some women who need to be in important decision-making places and there are women who are in other aspects of the Church. And, if we want balanced decision-making, if we want decision-making that is in the best interest of the other, for those that we serve, then you need both genders to be able to do that.”

Ms Zanella also told the group of more than 160 women from Catholic communities and organisations across the country that the Church needed to be more active and speak out more forcefully about the ongoing scourge of domestic violence and its strong link with homelessness.

“One woman dies every week in this country at the hands of either a current or previous partner,” she said.

“One in five or six women will have experienced some sort of sexual abuse and/or violence in their lifetime. Seventy-two thousand women across Australia in 2016-2017 experienced homelessness, so they were homeless, as a result of family and domestic violence,” she said.

Ms Zanella encouraged Colloquium participates to dream big in the face of need and to form partnerships to create a better world.