Six years ago, The Very Rev. Robert N. Smith arrived in Salina, Kansas, with his family, stepping into his role as the 6th dean, president, and CEO of Saint Francis Ministries.
He brought with him a lifetime of experiences grounded in his faith and ministry as a priest, the belief in the importance of reconciliation and restorative justice for healing, and a desire that drew him to the same mission that reverberates in Saint Francis: to work together to bring healing and hope to children and families.
“There’s a dichotomy to this role,” Fr. Bobby said. “I seek to live into the expectation to be the spiritual leader of a very diverse community of people. The role of the CEO , also, is to help set the course far downstream, allowing others in the organization to be able to focus on things that are closer at hand. I’m looking past my own tenure here. It is an exceptional responsibility and a privilege.” As Fr. Bobby built his relationships with the organization’s board of directors, he eagerly asked the difficult questions, seeking to put words to Saint Francis’s mission and vision.
“The first months I was here, I would ask people what it is that Saint Francis does,” Fr. Bobby said. “There were the literalists, who said, ‘Well, we do case management, we help build foster care homes, we provide therapy, and that’s all very true – we do a lot; residential care for youth and adults, family strengthening programs, and so much more. The list is long and impressive. But most often people would say, ‘We give people hope.’ “It was that refrain that started us down the path of looking at the way we understand ourselves by creating shared outcome expectations based around the word ‘hope,’” he said.
As the board members and Fr. Bobby grew together, they began to talk about the organization’s core, fundamental reason for being. It was through these discussions that they were able to find the words that would allow all those at the organization to articulate the deep reason why Saint Francis exists.
Respect & Dignity
The idea of providing hope and healing is not easily defined, and it looks different in all of the work that Saint Francis does. In El Salvador, where the HOPES project is supporting the reshaping of community and offering economic possibilities, hope is tied to “the dignity that comes with respectful work,” Fr. Bobby said.
“In our work to help young people or parents with substance use issues, helping them find their way to reconciliation on their healing journey provides hope.
“It goes back to my deep belief that we’re called to respect the dignity of every human being,” Fr. Bobby said. “What does that mean in an individual context? It means valuing the life experiences that we all have. Knowing that my life experience is no better or worse than anyone else’s. It’s in part a willingness to walk with people on their journey through life, to respect the dignity that they are born with.
“We honor people’s dignity and from there, hope can grow from any circumstance,” he added. “It’s the ministry of showing up, the power of presence. I deeply believe that is what Fr. Bob Mize set out to do 75 years ago, and I think that is what we have been committing ourselves to ever since.
“Also important to the foundational structure of Saint Francis is the presence of God in all that we do,” Fr. Bobby said. “Saint Francis has unapologetically maintained and honored its faith-based roots , and that’s increasingly unique,” he said. Saint Francis has grown in the way it shows up for children and families, adding services to new regions, working internationally, always researching and expanding knowledge to show up in the most effective, compassionate way possible.
That growth is an important part of the organization’s mission not just to serve children and families wherever possible, but to provide stability and security for the 1,600-plus employees who work here.
“An exceptionally important part of the growth is my belief that in this life we should willingly share our gifts and expertise in support of the common good. Growth and change are also valuable as we diversify our revenue streams so we’re not economically vulnerable to any one system in which we exist,” Fr. Bobby said.
Growth also means looking at ways Saint Francis can further support communities, building partnerships and finding innovative ways of meeting needs that delve into the deeper conditions occurring in communities.
“When I ask people why Saint Francis is necessary, the consistent answer has always been because of the scourge of poverty and drugs,” Fr. Bobby said. “If a family has no economic hope, if a community says there’s no economic hope or viability, from that begins the spread of community violence; including the use of substances that can lead to familial and community neglect and other forms of abuse and violence. We must look at being part of the conversation about what economics mean in the life of a family, and that’s the conversation that ultimately drives family stability and system changes.