Photo by Richard Freeda
I want to be like them
Kerry Robinson, who was formed in the world of Catholic philanthropy and inspired from childhood by modern-day saints, now leads a remarkable effort to assist and strengthen the Catholic Church in the United States.
August 17, 2010 | When Kerry Robinson was a child, one of her favorite places in the world was Hartefeld, her grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania. A descendant of one of America’s first great Catholic philanthropists, she loved visiting there. The rambling stone farmhouse always overflowed with aunts, uncles and cousins. Missionaries from around the world were frequent guests, with an open invitation to use the farm for respite.
There, and at meetings of the family’s foundation, Robinson met priests, nuns and laity who were doing the church’s work across the globe. They were providing health care in Africa. Working with juvenile offenders in inner-city New York. Running an orphanage in Colombia. Caring for people with disabilities in India.
Even as a child, Robinson noticed that, however challenging their ministries, all these people radiated joy. They had a palpable goodness and a certainty about who they were and what they were doing.
“It was really freeing to witness that,” Robinson said. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like that. I want to be like them.’”
It was the first stirrings of a call -- not to be a priest or a nun, but to give her life to initiatives that would make their ministries more effective.
Robinson has been answering that call ever since. Now 43, married and the mother of two -- a son, 15, and daughter, 12 -- Robinson is leading a remarkable effort to assist and strengthen the Catholic Church in the United States. She is the executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a nonprofit organization of Catholic laity, religious and clergy who are working to improve the church’s administrative practices.
The brainchild of legendary Wall Street investment banker Geoffrey Boisi, the Roundtable was prompted by the clergy sexual abuse crisis that erupted across the Catholic Church in the United States in 2002. Drawing on the expertise of prominent senior executives from business, industry, health care and other fields, the Roundtable focuses on administration, finance, communications and human resources.
At a time when many people -- Catholic and Protestant -- see the church as irretrievably broken, Robinson and the Roundtable are signs of hope and promise. They offer lessons for all Christian leaders about the gifts that laity can bring to the church and the need for excellence in church operations. Accountability and transparency, they insist, are not antithetical to the gospel, but essential. And as Robinson’s own story suggests, excellence is its own form of evangelism. Exposure at a young age to the very best the church has to offer creates faith disciples.
Questions to consider:
- Kerry Robinson’s story suggests that evangelism may be more about being than doing -- about being a church or a leader that inspires others to say, “I want to be like that.” How does -- or could -- your organization prompt that response?
- In many ways, Robinson’s background uniquely positioned her to do the work she is doing. What in your background might you draw upon in your leadership?
- Robinson says that the Roundtable is “clear about who we are and who we are not.” Does your institution have such clarity?
- The Raskob Foundation is an illustration of an organization that invests in the young. How do you or how might your institution invest in similar ways?
- Robinson grew up seeing the church at its best. How can your organization connect members with “the best of the church” amidst day-to-day life?
- What do you love most about the church?
For those who struggle with the church and worry for its future, Robinson has some advice. It’s the same counsel she gave Roundtable members in June, when they gathered at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia for their fifth annual meeting. It’s the same advice she gave in May to graduates at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University:
“Always remember what it is you love most about the church, and membership in it. Name it. Claim it. And be radically grateful for it.”
That love of the church will sustain you in challenging and difficult times, she said.
‘The church at its best’
Robinson has felt that love from the time she was a small child. She grew up seeing the church from a rare vantage point. Her great-grandfather John J. Raskob was a child of immigrants who became treasurer and vice-president in charge of finance at the DuPont Company and General Motors. One of the wealthiest people in the United States in the 1920s, Raskob was a visionary financier and businessman. He created General Motors Acceptance Corporation and built the Empire State Building.
In 1945, Raskob and his wife, Helena, established the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, a private foundation that supports Catholic projects around the world. Today about 100 Raskob descendants volunteer as foundation members, meeting annually to discuss critical issues facing the church and vote on grant applications.
In addition, Robinson’s father, Peter Robinson, was the first president of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities), an organization that provides research, education and support to a network of private Catholic philanthropies, including the Raskob Foundation. Kerry was born in London and grew up on the East Coast, including Washington, D.C., and Greenwich, Conn.