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.

Update: Kerry Robinson is now global ambassador for the Leadership Roundtable.

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.

Robinson was a baby when she first attended the Raskob Foundation gatherings. At 14, she became a foundation member and was admitted into business sessions, participating in discussions, voting on grants, and even analyzing the foundation’s grant-making trends. At 20, while still at Georgetown University, she was elected to the foundation’s board of trustees and for six years attended board meetings and traveled the country representing the foundation.

The Raskob Foundation, she said, intentionally focuses on the youngest family members, giving them great responsibility and meaningful opportunities for leadership. New members -- the invitation age has since been raised to 18 -- serve a three-year apprenticeship during which they are mentored by another Raskob descendant.

For Robinson, this early immersion in the foundation’s work gave her confidence in her leadership abilities. More importantly, it was a form of evangelization.

“It exposed me to the life of the church in all its breadth and diversity,” she said. “I got to see the church at its best and biggest, reaching far beyond the local parish.”

The Raskob Foundation has awarded more than $150 million in grants since its inception. In the past three years, the foundation has made from 255 to 341 grants totaling from $4 million to $6 million annually, with an average award of about $15,000. The grant list offers a glimpse of the forces that shaped Robinson’s call.

After graduating in 1988, Robinson began to answer that call. She spent several years in London and Washington, D.C., working for nonprofits and faith-based organizations. After marrying Dr. Michael Cappello, she moved to New Haven, where he began a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at Yale University.

While he continued his medical studies, she enrolled at Yale Divinity School, studying Catholic theology and ethics with Margaret Farley and graduating with a Master of Arts in Religion degree in 1994. A Sister of Mercy and Catholic feminist theologian, Farley was the first woman serving full time on the Yale Divinity faculty, and she shared with her friend Henri Nouwen the distinction of being the first Catholic faculty.

Now an emeritus professor, Farley remembers Robinson’s earnestness and engagement with social issues.

“She was profound and wise beyond her years,” Farley said. “She was and is a totally dedicated young woman.”

It was Farley who was the source of Robinson’s advice to “always remember what it is you love most about the church.” It was advice she gave all her students to help them avoid cynicism.

In 1997, Robinson put her talents to work when the Rev. Robert Beloin -- Yale’s Catholic chaplain since 1994 -- asked her to become his director of development. Never a major presence at Yale, the Catholic campus ministries had fallen on hard times. Built in 1938, St. Thomas More Chapel had a leaking roof and a long list of other overdue repairs. It was open only during the two Sunday Masses, and they were poorly attended.

Initially, Robinson wasn’t interested, but after much prayer, she took the job. Her father and others assured her she could do it. “It’s not about raising money,” they said. “It’s about bringing to fruition the potential that is there.”

Beloin said Robinson always thinks in terms of abundance, never scarcity.

He should know. He asked Robinson to raise $5 million over five years. She raised $50 million over 10 years: $5 million for the chapel, $25 million for endowment and $20 million for a Catholic student center. Designed by renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Center opened in 2006 and has become a focal point for Catholic life at Yale, open every day from 10 a.m. to midnight. With more than 600 people attending three Masses every Sunday, the chapel has the largest weekly worship attendance of any religious group on campus, Beloin said.

While Catholics now account for 25 percent of the Yale student body, most -- like college students across the U.S. -- arrive on campus with only a rudimentary knowledge of their faith, Robinson said. Without a vigorous Catholic presence on campus, many would drift away from the church.

To Robinson, the mission was urgent: the Catholic Church could not afford to lose these bright and talented future leaders.

“Kerry brought it to a very clear focus,” Beloin said. “We’re not going after money. We’re going after programs. Kerry always believed that money follows mission.

“Kerry is a great gift for the church. She made a big difference here. Catholic life on campus is substantial because of her.”

‘How dare this happen’

But in 2002, as Catholic life was coming of age at Yale, the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded across the U.S. Robinson was devastated. The scandal and the church’s response had tarnished the work and ministry of all her childhood heroes.

“How dare this happen!” she said. “How dare they compromise the lives and ministries of good, inspiring, selfless people!”

If there was any grace in those dark days, it was that the crisis roused Catholics out of their lethargy, Robinson said. The way Robinson saw it, Catholics had two possible responses: walk away or be part of the solution.

She chose the latter.

As part of their effort to invigorate Catholic life, she and Beloin had held forums illuminating various issues from a faith perspective. In March 2003, they held a three-day conference on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The crowd was so large they had to relocate the conference from St. Thomas More Chapel to Yale Law School.

Elsewhere, others, including Geoffrey Boisi, were also searching for ways to be part of the solution. Through FADICA and other avenues, they began making contact with one another. For two years, from 2003 to 2005, Boisi brought together a group of advisers, including Robinson, to help him think through the church’s challenges.

A former vice chair of JPMorgan Chase, once described by The New York Observer as “the deal-maker’s deal-maker,” Boisi knew the vital role that management, human resources, finance and communications play in any organization. It seemed to him that many of the church’s problems stemmed from breakdowns in those areas.

“These are all areas where we saw we could rally leaders from all walks of life, people who share a common Catholic background, who could identify best practices and offer them up to the church,” he said.

To Boisi, the crisis reflected, in part, a crisis of management stemming from a lack of modern business practices in the church. Greeted cautiously by some when it was launched five years ago, the Roundtable has won over most skeptics. In a recent editorial, America, the Jesuit magazine, called the Roundtable one of the “gifts through which the Spirit is already rebuilding the church following the failures of decades.”

From those early talks, the Roundtable was formed, and it met for the first time July 11, 2005, with Boisi as chair and Robinson as executive director.

Boisi had been struck by Robinson’s intelligence and vision for the church and recruited her for the post.

“Kerry is the real deal,” he said. “She is a terrific person who lives out her faith daily.”

For Robinson, it was a dream job.

“I love being part of a group of people who think big, who never give up, who are mission-driven, and who want to share for the common good,” she said.

‘An incurable optimist’

As executive director, Robinson continues to live in New Haven, working in her home office and overseeing a staff of ten who work in the Roundtable’s office in Washington, D.C. They stay in contact and have weekly staff meetings online and monthly meetings in person.

One of the biggest parts of her job is to serve as the public face of the Roundtable. Robinson travels frequently, talking with bishops and other church leaders, and giving presentations about the Roundtable’s work.

In its first five years, the Roundtable’s greatest task was to establish its credibility, Robinson said. In a polarized church, where many in the hierarchy look askance at lay involvement, they have been able to do that. Early on, the Roundtable decided to be nondoctrinal, staying far away from issues that divide Catholics.

“We’ve been able to gain credibility by being absolutely focused on our mission and being clear about who we are and who we are not,” Robinson said.

As challenging as that mission is, Robinson is finding great joy in her work. But how could she not?

Joy, she said, is part of the Catholic imagination, one of the very things that she loves most about the church: “It has its hold on me, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually.”

It’s about joyfulness, the sheer audacity of knowing that you are completely and radically loved by God, and the desire to love God back. It’s also about the paschal nature of the Catholic faith, that out of suffering and death comes new life.

“That’s always been part of our makeup, part of what we believe,” Robinson said. “I’m an incurable optimist. I know we can achieve more than we think we can, because we trust in God’s providence and because our intentions are sound. Some fruitfulness will always come of fidelity to generosity and selflessness and God’s imagination.”

 

 

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