By JEAN DRISKELL, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 24, 2014
SMYRNA—There are 35 million Catholic women in the United States, the president of the National Council of Catholic Women told those gathered for an archdiocesan women’s leadership and networking workshop June 14.
“Just think, if we could all act together on a single issue, what we could accomplish,” said Rebecca Woodhull, a Springfield, Illinois, educator.
Of the 108 women who attended the workshop, held at the Atlanta Chancery, 61 were first-time attendees.
Woodhull, who has a doctorate, spoke about the national council’s work, mission and structure and the importance of Catholic women working together to support their Church.
Her background is in secondary and post-secondary education, mainly in the area of research and curriculum. The mother of six children and grandmother of 16, she has served previously at the local and diocesan level, including as president of her parish Council of Catholic Women and as president of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women in Springfield. In 2008 and 2010 she served on the national board of directors.
“It was the history of the National Council of Catholic Women that really inspired me and made me so proud to be a member,” Woodhull said.
The national women’s council was created in 1920 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “for some specific services and we still have those purposes today,” she said.
Among the purposes envisioned was Catholic women having a common voice and an instrument for united action in matters affecting Catholic and national welfare, for Catholics to be represented and Catholic principles to be applied in national movements, and for existing Catholic women’s organizations to be inspired to greater service and to meet the needs of the times.
NCCW was “to be an umbrella for all Catholic women’s organizations,” Woodhull said.
At the parish level, a women’s group may call themselves a council, guild, club, circle or altar and rosary society, she said. In large parishes with many women’s groups doing various activities, a coordinating committee can be created with each of the various groups represented. In this way, the national women’s organization can disperse information successfully to Catholic women and let them know what priorities and projects are underway in the United States.
When women join the parish council, they usually find a niche in one of the three commissions: leadership, service or spirituality, Woodhull said.
“I had a place in my heart that I needed to be filled by being with other Catholic women. I wanted to be able to talk about spirituality, talk about our faith, talk about Jesus. I believe that is the number one need that our ladies have that draws them to participate in our Councils of Catholic Women,” she said.
She said that another reason that drew her to join was “to be in concert with other women as sisters. You’ll be friends for the rest of your lives with the ladies you connect with at the local council and at the arch/diocesan activities. And when you come to the national convention, you’ll find you have sisters all over the United States.”
The structure set up by the U.S. bishops brings the National Council of Catholic Women directly into the dynamic of the Catholic Church in the United States.
“You are represented at the USCCB conferences. I report on what happens at the bishops’ conferences and then turn those into press releases, papers and letters,” she said. “We have representatives from NCCW at key events. We have a representative at the United Nations as an official observer who can give testimony during hearings at the United Nations, and she reports back to NCCW.”
The national office is in the pastoral center of the Arlington, Virginia, Diocese.
“One of the reasons we are in the Washington (D.C.) area is to be close to the bishops,” she said. “If something is going on, we need to show them our support and ask what we can do to help them.”
“We have people who can go over and deliver testimony on the Hill (U.S. Capitol) on legislation pending and that leads us into our advocacy activities,” Woodhull said.
“It’s all about relationships. Start with our relationship with Christ, and also with Our Lady of Good Counsel,” Woodhull said. “I pray for her guidance every day and I ask the Lord for his grace.”
She quoted St. John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone. We need to stand up for the tenets, doctrines, and morals of our Church. We, as women, have a huge influence, not only on our families, but also on our communities and the rest of our Church. Stand up and say this is what we believe, what is right, what we are going to pursue as the right thing to do, the Christian thing to do. I encourage you all to do that,” she said.
‘Begin with yourselves’
Her presentation was followed by talks from three leaders of the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women: Judy Williams, Leadership Commission chair; Fern Bergeron, Southwest district Leadership Commission chair; and Deanna Holmer, AACCW president.
Williams spoke on what it means to be a leader.
“Leadership is not a title or position. It is action and example,” she said.
“By virtue of our baptism we are called to be leaders, not just leaders, but servant leaders,” she said.
A servant leader “is grounded in integrity, wrapped in a spirit of service, tied up with a genuine love for those they lead.”
To be a leader, “begin with yourselves. You must become the person you started out to be and enjoy the process of becoming,” she said.
She presented points of leadership, including delegation, mentoring, and bringing others on board.
“Know your members, find their special interests, encourage them to help out. And once they volunteer, give them positive affirmation by lots of compliments.”
“Calling on the phone is still the best way to reach out,” Williams said. “Yes, email and Facebook are quicker. But there is nothing like a phone call with a personal invitation to encourage someone to become involved.”
Bergeron also spoke on leadership and the organizational structure of AACCW.
“A leader has the respect and trust of her group in order to effect change and move forward,” Bergeron said. “A true leader listens to the ideas and opinions of her followers. (She) then promotes all the necessary changes and moves her followers to meet the goals that they have set together.”
She said that leadership requires building trust, being consistent, fair, open, and inspiring others to become the best that they can be.
“A lot of times the people who start out as followers as members of an organization. They come, they find out what the organization is about and then they become the leaders,” Bergeron said.
Since there are 100 parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, AACCW is divided into four districts: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast. These districts further help AACCW to serve the women in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Worldwide, the countries that have their own NCCW and other Catholic women’s groups make up the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, which was founded in 1910. Today WUCWO has 100 worldwide Catholic women’s organizations.
“The most important entity regarding leadership in any and all Catholic women’s organization is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus, and the spiritual wisdom and guidance of God the Father,” Bergeron said.
Holmer spoke on the importance of using social media to stay in communication with the organizations’ members and to attract new members. She spoke on blogging, websites, emails, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
Women who attended said the sessions were helpful.
“This is my first meeting. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot. This gave me a lot of ideas and I will try to implement some of them,” said Melinda Lillard, secretary of the women’s council at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta.
“We are a new group,” said Vicky Walters, president-elect of the women’s guild at Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain, who was attending the leadership workshop for the first time.
“I want to bring us more in line with the archdiocesan vision and ultimately with the national vision,” Walters said. “We’ve just been active three years. I would like us to become more balanced in our parish with the three commissions. It’s great, nice to get the women together for this workshop. This gives us the overview from the higher level that lets us know how to plug in at the parish level.”
“We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the projects we take on,” Williams said about the leadership workshop. “We work with Catholic Charities, support women veterans, educate women about human trafficking. We want Catholic women at Mass to know we are not just in the kitchen. Serving under the umbrella of the National Council of Catholic Women we are in partnership with Catholic Relief Services and Cross Catholic International, which gives us global interaction. We encourage all Catholic women to join us in keeping our Catholic traditions alive.”
“I was very impressed with the turnout that we had at the seminar,” Holmer said. “It says to me that women in the archdiocese are hungry for leadership direction and answers to the question of getting more participation from the younger generation. We as an organization need to lead by example.”
Holmer said that there are time availability problems for women today, yet they still want to be part of the organization and be informed.
“By using social media to keep all women in their parish apprised of what is happening, they can then choose which things they can help with,” she said.