Bishop Timothy Senior, a BCSSW Alum, on Servant Leadership

Auxilliary Bishop of Philadelphia Timothy Senior

Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia Timothy Senior

Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia Timothy Senior (MSW, MBA ’92) has adopted the mantra of servant leadership throughout his life work, from his role as Secretary of Catholic Human Services in Philadelphia to his current position as the rector of the city’s seminary. It’s a philosophy Senior first encountered during his time as a School of Social Work/Carroll School of Management graduate student in the 1990s. Since then, his understanding of servant leadership has grown throughout the many challenges he’s faced, from restructuring the church’s social service programs in Philadelphia, to preparing for Pope Francis’ visit.

In this Q&A with BC Social Work, Bishop Senior discusses the upcoming World Meeting of Families, the lasting impact of a Boston College education on his life’s work, and what it means to be a servant leader.  

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Bishop Senior. Tell us about your current responsibilities as auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

TS: I’ve been an auxiliary bishop for the past six years, but I’m beginning my fourth year as the rector of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. It’s like being the president of a small college, and the focus of my work has been to lead this institution through a time of transformation and renewal. The day-to-day work, which is by far the most rewarding, is to work with young men who are discerning a call to the priesthood, and helping them through this process.

All of us here at the seminary are committed to forming priests who will be missionary disciples and servant leaders. The principles of servant leadership have guided my life as a priest, and I think we’re all blessed to be able to learn from Pope Francis, who is doing an excellent job of exemplifying what it means to be a servant leader right now.

I have other diocesan responsibilities of course, but currently, most of my work is centered on Saint Charles Borromeo.

Pope Francis will be visiting Philadelphia this coming September. Talk about what his visit means, at this time.  

TS: From the very beginning, there’s been a hope from those of us involved in the planning that the Pope’s visit and the World Meeting of Families would signal a moment of transformation and renewal for the Church in Philadelphia, but also, for the Church in the United States on the whole. What better place for this kind of renewal than in Philadelphia, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were written?

The fact that the focus of the Holy Father’s visit is family life is especially important to those of us like myself with a social work background, who understand first hand the importance of fostering healthy families in our communities. We look forward to a deeply meaningful conversation on this topic.

We are hosting the Holy Father at the seminary, this will be his base of operations when he’s in Philadelphia for two days, and he will be meeting with all of the bishops who are attending the World Meeting of Families here. Our seminary is very much looking forward to welcoming him.

Let’s take a step back, and talk a little bit about an early stage along the path that has culminated in you being named a bishop by Pope Benedict, and now, planning Pope Francis’ visit to your seminary. You were an ordained priest teaching high school, and enjoying it, when you decided to enroll at BC for the joint MSW/MBA program. Why this decision, at this point in your life?  

TS: Actually, I was asked to go to graduate studies specifically to work in Catholic Charities in Philadelphia. At the time, the director of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia Monsignor Joseph Garvin, who was a graduate of the Temple University School of Social Work, and the Vicar General Monsignor Edward Cullen, a UPenn Social Work alumnus, were looking for another priest to continue leading the network of Catholic health care and social service ministries in the archdiocese. From their own personal experiences, they thought that in addition to the social work training, it would be good for me to have a business background.

I had always had an interest in serving the poor and in working in an urban environment, and I was particularly interested in the opportunities for the church to become involved in community development, so for me it was a great fit. Still, I wondered why they selected me for this important role, a recent seminary graduate teaching high school. But for a variety of reasons, which ultimately I attribute to the Holy Spirit, I began on this journey.

This journey in leadership at Catholic Human Services in Philadelphia would last twelve years. I wish we had more time to discuss the many challenges and successes you must have encountered as Deputy Secretary, and then as Secretary. Can you give us a broad sense of your charge in these roles, and the accomplishments of CHS during this time, from 1992-2004?  

TS: My tenure was during a difficult time in both the archdiocese and in the social service system in Philadelphia. I was called to restructure CHS, and bring together dozens of organizations that had existed separately under the auspices of Catholic Charities. The challenging task became how to unite a variety of cultures, with different histories and different experiences, and bring them together under the umbrella of a common mission.

I remember attending board meetings morning, noon, and night as I set out to listen to each of these organizations; and I remember that there was something distinctly charming about all the unique history and commitment they all had to their work. We had to figure out how to leverage the strengths of certain institutions, and bring together groups of employees into a common entity. It was not an easy task and it took several years to do it.

In the end, I believe we built a stronger, more sustainable, less bureaucratic and more flexible Catholic Human Services that continues to be the strongest entity that we have in the archdiocese. That’s not because of Tim Senior’s leadership by any means, but I think, in terms of my most critical success, it was helping to lead the restructuring and uniting of Catholic Human Services into a high functioning collaborative effort.

I also am proud of the common culture we defined, built with the language of servant leadership and a mission of service to the poor as the common thread –this remains the language of CHS today.

For more on servant leadership, check out the website of the Robert Greenleaf Center. Greenleaf was the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, and a major influence for Senior.

Please share with us more about how your BC experience prepared you to do this important work.

TS: The academic experience at BC and as a whole helped to shape the way I view leadership and how organizations function in the pursuit of a common mission. It provided me with a language to lead, and a body of knowledge for how to identify and address problems, and then to create a truly collaborative environment.

Back in those days in the School of Social Work, you concentrated either in clinical social work, or in SPA, social planning and administration. I was a SPA major. There, they used to tell us, and I’ve never forgotten this, your client was the agency, or the organization you served.

Another idea which I trace back to BC, is the basic social work principle of client self-determination – you know, how it’s important to listen to the client’s experience and absolutely respect his/her dignity at all times – and how it’s so critical to apply this principle to a group of people in a common mission. I learned that you can’t unilaterally approach leadership and come in and tell people what they’re supposed to do – this kind of dictatorial leadership is widely proven to be unsuccessful, even in a crisis. So I have strived throughout my calling to lead, always thinking of the importance of client self-determination, my client being the organization with which I work.

It’s been 23 years now since I graduated from the MSW/MBA program, but I owe this perspective to my BC education, and it’s really been the abiding principle in my life’s work – to let people tell their stories, build alliances, and develop a common vision.

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