Sister Joan Kobe knows who is in charge

McCORMICK – She is applauded as a ‘wonderful leader,’ but Sister Joan Kobe knows it is God who truly leads

Sister Joan has advanced degrees and decades of training and expeience to prepare her, yet she still admits that her current work is challenging.

Sister Joan is the pastoral administrator to two small parishes in the Upstate, Sacred Heart in Abbeville and Good Shepherd in McCormick. Some people wanted no one other than a priest to head up the local church; some abhorred the idea of a woman leading a parish. Some, she said, did not accept her at all and went elsewhere for church.

But the Daughter of Wisdom persevered and, two years after beginning her pastoral ministry, she felt confident enough in her position to participate in an official installation ceremony. “The high point of the year was when Bishop (David B.) Thompson came up for confirmation and to install her,” said Sarah Berry, a public school teacher who has been a member of Sacred Heart since 1957, nearly all her life. “We all joined in the applause.”

Berry called the sister a “wonderful leader” who has given the parish direction and stability. Sister Joan herself calls the responsibility of her work awesome and the effort required enervating, but she finds satisfaction in it. She keeps her equilibrium in good times and in bad by remembering one simple, basic truth.

“We need to realize that God is the one in charge. These are God’s people, this is God’s church. Everyday I ask myself, What does God want me to do for God’s people? There are many things we can do without a priest,” Sister Joan said. In both parishes, 25 miles apart and different in congregational make-up, the communities gather for services, prayer groups, study sessions and spiritual formation. Sister Joan is able to recruit a priest for Mass on most weekends. She visits the homebound, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. She counsels, teaches and participates in wakes and funerals. Berry said that the pastoral administrator has the leadership tools to make it all work.

“She really gives us the idea that we are a faith community. She has tremendous knowledge of scripture and of our tradition. I don’t know where we’d be without her,” Berry said.

Sister Joan Kobe came to Abbeville and McCormick after a three-year stint as pastoral administrator in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the Diocese of Jackson. Before that, she taught school and was pastoral assistant at St. Thomas Church in Madawaska, Maine, for 10 years. She moved to the pastoral assistant post at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City, South Dakota, and then ran adult faith formation for the Diocese of San Diego. She ministered in California for nine years in that role before heading east again to Mississippi.

In between all this, she managed to complete a graduate program in math at Boston College and earn a master’s degree in divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. She also trained in hospital chaplaincy for 4,800 hours in Massachusetts and Illinois and worked as supervisor of pastoral care at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago.

Despite that impressive background, Sister Joan’s modus operandi is anything but officious. She sees her attitude as part of the job. “Pastoral administrators should be willing to use a different style of management,” she said. “We must work much more cooperatively and with the good will of the people. One primary challenge in this ministry is to develop a sense of corporate ownership (of the parish). To do anything, it has to be done in little pieces that get put together.”

She sees that the role of pastoral administrator is not part of an upwardly mobile career track, that the work could end suddenly if a priest became available. She sees the benefits for rural parishes, however. “People are assured of an official pastoral presence,” she said. “It’s important to have clear lines of accountability in any form of leadership.”

Leadership can also be lonely. Sister Joan Kobe lives alone in a trailer house and spends much of her time on the road. Last year, for instance, she drove 31,000 miles. She uses her driving hours as her quiet time, a base, she said, to prepare for one thing or to come down from another. She finds it easy to sympathize with other pastoral administrators and pastors in rural areas: “People in pastoral ministry in rural areas need to know how to take care of themselves.”

Dianne H. Atkinson of Good Shepherd Mission, a nurse who owns her own health care agency and who is on the parish finance council, thinks that Sister Joan Kobe has demonstrated that she can do just that. She said that the administrator has had serious acceptance problems, among some of the older parishioners especially, but has survived with her spirit intact.

“Sister really has managed herself very well. I’ve had the opportunity to be with her a lot and I find her easy to work with. She has been an inspiration to me,” Atkinson said.

Despite her impressive credentials for the job, the woman religious has her feet firmly planted among the people of the parish, according to Atkinson: “She seems to fit into any situation.”

Atkinson said that she is highly impressed with the sister and her efforts in the parishes. It is not an easy task that Sister Joan Kobe has undertaken for herself, but she intends to continue working for and with God’s people.