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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

June 25, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 57




Sister Rita Larivee Use closed sessions with caution

Sister Rita Larivee, SSA, NCR associate publisher

The U.S. Catholic bishops gathered in St. Louis this past weekend for their semi-annual meeting to discuss issues facing the American church. One of the inherent customs to such gatherings is the decision to hold many of the sessions behind closed doors, a.k.a. executive sessions.

I have been a chief executive officer, I've served on boards of directors, and I'm currently a chief operations officer. So I have some experience with the reality that closed sessions are often enough a necessity of life.

Yet, in a spiritual tradition that aspires to inclusivity, openness, equality, and collaborative models, closed sessions challenge the consistency and integrity of our commitment to these characteristics. If nothing else, closed sessions should always have a warning label attached that says: "Use with caution."

Regardless of the validity, closed sessions send messages that may not be helpful for building community. For instance: the inner circle, the insiders vs. the outsiders, the secret society, esoteric knowledge, for the privileged only, lack of trust, hidden agenda, a means of control.

Kudos to anyone in management or leadership who has not used closed sessions for personal advantage or simply to discuss others without representation. It is almost impossible to assume these roles without the worst aspects of human nature acting out from time to time. Nonetheless, we can never excuse ourselves from the responsibility to act in accordance with the full spirit of the gospel and the full respect due every member of the community.

It is easy to rationalize the need for a closed session, such as the demands of privacy outweighing the demands of openness or the sensitivity of information being shared. And sometimes this is surely the case.

But if we are truly honest with ourselves, closed sessions can also be used as a way out of having to explain our actions to others or having to justify our behavior. This never contributes to the building of the community. And sometimes, it's just a matter of not having the courage to let all the members of the community know what we are really thinking. Anonymity behind the cloak of the group is hardly ever a good thing.

No one ever suggested that the building of community would be easy. But as members of the Body of Christ, there is no opt-out clause when things don't go the way we had intended. We must challenge ourselves whenever and wherever we can to be as inclusive as possible and as open as possible. Trust is a necessary element of community and can easily become a casualty of our best closed-session intentions, one that's difficult to repair.

Closed-door sessions: Use if truly necessary. Open-door sessions: Now we're talking!

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