Holy Names Sr. Lynda Thompson helps prepare for a caregiver appreciation meal at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where she has been mission director for 10 years. Sister Lynda said mission directors are not watchdogs, but “keep bringing the right questions at the right time.” (Courtesy Providence Health and Services)
Holy Names Sr. Lynda Thompson helps prepare for a caregiver appreciation meal at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where she has been mission director for 10 years. Sister Lynda said mission directors are not watchdogs, but “keep bringing the right questions at the right time.” (Courtesy Providence Health and Services)

Providence Health and Services hires ministry experts to make sure the Catholic system hews to its mission of compassion and caring for patients on the peripheries.

Putting the mission and values on paper is one thing, but designating advocates who are in on every decision is something else entirely, said Jean Powell Marks, senior communications manager at Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland.

“A big part of the mission director role is to sit at the table with executives and leadership, and always ask the question — where is our mission in this decision?” Marks said. “They have a profound effect on what and how we do what we do in our hospitals, clinics and home health care.”

Mission directors emerged in the 1970s when Catholic hospitals had fewer women religious in charge. The strategy was to form lay leaders in the charisms of the religious communities like Providence. In Oregon, Providence has 12 mission directors who are in on hiring decisions, master plans and budgeting, among other matters.

Holy Names Sister Lynda Thompson, previously an educator and chaplain, has been mission integration director at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center for a decade. Sister Lynda said mission directors are not watchdogs, but “keep bringing the right questions at the right time.”

She is impressed with Providence leaders, both because of their dedication to mission and their willingness to hear when they veer off track.

Mission directors need to stay up to date on the pressures and trends that could pose a challenge to the mission — including finances, bioethics and stress among workers.

Mission directors often convene physicians, nurses and other workers to listen to their experiences and in turn create minute-by-minute mindfulness about values. Sister Lynda has taught deep breathing and other stress relievers so employees can more easily continue to see the dignity of patients and families. “We are teachers and we are facilitators and companions on a journey,” she said.

Mission directors sometimes see to it that patients get help even after they leave the hospital or clinic, despite the cost. The values of Providence include connection to ongoing resources and care, said Sister Lynda. For example, elders who lack food get linked to community health providers like Meals on Wheels and other senior services.

Spanish speaking patients get introduced to a team of Providence health promoters at parishes and other places. 

Mission directors get involved in budgeting at Providence, since spending reflects values. But even when the Providence Sisters opened their first Northwest hospital in 1858, it had to be run soundly so it could survive.  

“The Providence Sisters had to make tough financial decisions and develop strategies, asking ‘What do we need to do to continue our mission?’” says Sister Lynda. “We are both a business and a ministry. Leaders today still need the ability to balance.”

Kelly Schmidt, a longtime parish worker and chaplain at Providence’s Center for Medically Fragile Children, is new mission director at Providence Portland Medical Center.

“I truly believe that the caregivers at Providence are Christ’s hands extended to all people, and that as people of Providence we are the living mission,” said Schmidt. “Our whole goal is to make sure the mission is something that is really upheld. Our mission and values ground us and keep us who we are.”

According to Schmidt, Providence executives welcome the constant reminders of mission. “That’s inspiring for me,” said Schmidt.

She feels a duty to sustain the heritage of the Providence Sisters, which is part of the training for every Providence employee, whether they are cleaning toilets or performing brain surgery.

“When the sisters got off the boat they were not looking at how to become one of the top health care institutions in the country,” said Schmidt. “For them, it was about, ‘Whom do we serve?’”