New CEO of Catholic Charities brings unusual skill set.
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to lead Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
But it can’t hurt.
Ken Williams, the new president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, boasts both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aerospace engi- neering from the University of Kansas. He’s even met some astronauts — including the ultimate “top of the pyramid” test pilot, Gen. Chuck Yeager.
But having heard enough jokes already, said Williams with a laugh, “I don’t tell people that I’m an aerospace engineer very often anymore just to avoid it.” Williams succeeded Jan Lewis on Aug. 12.
Williams, along his wife Diane, grew up in the Kansas City area, and the family now belongs to St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood,
Despite his degrees, the better part of Williams’ professional life has been spent working for various firms at the executive level in finance, business development, marketing, project management, operations and strategy development.
Just before coming to Catholic Charities, Williams was senior vice president and global treasurer for the global engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch, headquartered in Overland Park.
Lest you think the move to a faith-based social service entity is a bit of a stretch, you should know that before Black & Veatch Williams was chief financial officer of World Vision International, the faith-based nonprofit that has worked to help lift children out of poverty all over the world. But the two endeavors are not as unrelated as they might appear at first glance.
“[Engineering taught] me to think, to solve problems,” said Williams. “The logic and thought processes that I go through to solve any problem . . . I learned in engineering school.”
Williams succeeds Lewis, who herself has an engineering and construction background. Lewis took the helm of Catholic Charities seven years ago.
“Some health issues in our family came up, and that caused me to take a time out and take a look at where God wants me to spend my time now,” said Lewis, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lansing.
“I truly believe he’s calling me back home to focus on my first vocation as a wife and mother,” she continued. “I’ve been praying for the Holy Spirit to bring forward a really strong leader to follow me, and God has answered that prayer.”
Lewis’ tenure has been marked by change and the challenge of the worst economy since the Great Depression, which quadrupled the demand for Catholic Charities services.
The watchwords under her leadership have been “Catholic identity” and “Catholic mission.”
“[My greatest achievement] was reconnecting Catholic Charities to its Catholic roots and Catholic identity,” she said, “and refocusing the organization around how we serve and the work we do with an overarching value of love.”
Williams, for his part, is delighted to be back with a nonprofit organization, especially one so important to his own Kansas City community.
“There’s nothing like being in an organization where everyone has that call and passion to serve,” he said.
He wants to carry on and build on the work of Lewis, who has stressed not only the importance of the quality of services, but also the importance of how one serves.
Lewis stressed that there can be no charity without love. Charity — from the Latin “caritas” — is not about reaching down, but reaching across to brothers and sisters. A big problem, believes Lewis, in Catholic Charities operations across the country had been that disconnect between the peo- ple in the pews and entities like Catholic Charities.
“I plan to continue the work and build on the work that Jan has already done,” said Williams. “She has done so much of the hard stuff for me, so we can focus on the growth and integration of Catholic Charities in the church, bridging that gap that still exists to some extent.”
That gap can only be bridged, he said, by mobilizing the people in the pews. To do this, they must first understand the needs of their communities.
And then they must act.
“We must help them get past empathy,” he said. “Empathy is great, but it’s not enough. Catholic Charities will grow beyond where it is today through volunteers.”
“Empathy takes you [only] so far,” said Lewis, “but what we are called to as church is solidarity — to stand with the one in need.”
This great challenge comes at a great time, when Pope Francis is telling the church to go out and engage the world in true Christian witness and charity.
Catholic Charities can’t be all things to all people or meet all the needs in the community. That’s impossible. However, much is possible and can be done.
“We’ve got to get out of our own pews, out of our own homes, out of our comfort zones, and help,” said Williams. “Then and only then will we have a thriving Catholic Charities and church, meeting the mission that Christ called us all to — to serve the hungry and the needy.”