A Culture of Co-Responsible Governance and Leadership

The daunting task of innovating a new culture for the Catholic Church could be greatly enriched by investing in new structures and models of governance and leadership that draw upon both lay and ordained expertise, as well as further developing those already in place. At the 2020 Catholic Partnership Summit, leaders from a wide range of managerial and ecclesial backgrounds spelled out how that focus on co-responsible leadership could provide a strong and sustainable template for moving the Church into a new age of transparency and accountability. Geno Fernandez, Leadership Roundtable board member, served as moderator of this session on co-responsible governance and leadership. He helped frame the session by inviting the participants to reflect on questions such as “How are decisions made in the Church? Who makes them? And how do we keep the body healthy?” Proclaiming that “good structures head off bad behavior at the pass,” Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, CM, President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, went on to describe for the conference how Catholic higher education and healthcare institutions voluntarily submit to co-responsibility that comes from investigators, auditors, accreditors, government oversight, and independent reporting groups. He cited how these accountability mechanisms make these institutions stronger. “If you have to defend what you’re doing in front of other people, you become more thoughtful and bring outside ideas into the organization. You become better at what you do… It has become part of our culture. That’s how higher education and healthcare works, and the Church uses it to a small extent, but it’s something that could be incorporated further….”

Similarly, Fr. Holtschneider described a potentially collaborative role for the anonymous reporting structures many Catholic bodies have put in place for the public to blow the whistle on alleged cases of abuse of children. “We could put these systems in place for financial reporting, as well,” he challenged the participants. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the next wave of Church scandals for us is in the financial arena, and the more that we can do to fully address transparency and accountability in Church finances, the better.” Here, Fr. Holtschneider credited the work begun 15 years ago by Leadership Roundtable to promote best practices at all levels of the Catholic Church in critical temporal disciplines.

Betsy Bohlen


Learning from What Works

After initial meetings at the beginning of his appointment, Bishop Mark Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, decided not to retain the diocesan pastoral council that only met once a year and had little impact. Instead, he opted to form councils in the diocese’s five deaneries. He seeks to transform the culture of councils in how they operate by drawing into the conversation people from all levels of the Church. We’re talking about “the kind of discernment where you don’t start with an agenda, but let the Holy Spirit work,” he explained. “Many of my priests are stuck in maintenance mode,… others are dying to do something going forward. We’re trying to do the latter, but I can’t get the information to direct the diocese unless we can have a conversation from the bottom up and hear really what’s on the minds and the hearts of our people.”

The membership of the deanery pastoral councils is two-thirds laypersons and one-third clergy. Bishop Bartchak noted, “I can’t predict how it’s going to go, except thanks be to God, I’m already hearing around the diocese… people want to be part of that experience and I can’t tell you how excited I am for the possibilities that await us.” Throughout the planning process, each dean has been assisted by an experienced layperson and these executive partners have agreed to stay on to offer advice and support. This has already had an impact on the deans and made their local leadership more effective. All the deanery councils will come together at least twice a year for a roundtable summit and this will form the basis for a diocesan pastoral council.

That collaborative, synodal spirit is also integral to the administrative culture at the Archdiocese of Chicago. Before making any important decisions, chief operating officer Betsy Bohlen consults with the vicar general and cardinal. “I think it always requires a partnership approach,” she said. “On many of our teams, I make sure two people are assigned: a person with administrative skills and one with pastoral skills. You definitely need both.”

But making co-responsibility the ballast by which the Archdiocese of Chicago routinely operates presents its own set of challenges, as Ms. Bohlen, a former partner at McKinsey & Company, pointed out to Church leaders. Those include balancing the needs of the individual with the broader needs of the Church, adapting the skill sets of new employees to a vastly different pastoral environment, and reconciling acceptance and inclusion with accountability and excellence. “Historically, I think we have underestimated the complexity and the challenge that comes with governing and managing dioceses,” Bohlen told her audience. “[If] you put people together and expect them to operate well together, that won’t happen on its own. Part of the job of a person with managerial experience is to get people to work together as a team.” Bohlen’s hopeful message for those looking to reengineer Catholic Church culture is that the essential resources are often available and waiting to be tapped. They include newly retired individuals and people between jobs with unique skill sets who are anxious to serve their Church. “When they have understood that we were trying to do something transformational, and that their gifts are called for, the talent we’ve been able to attract in this difficult environment is beyond my wildest expectations.”

Bishop Mark Bartchak, Betsy Bohlen, Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, CM


Shared Decision Making

Knowing how to effectively share power among those leaders is no less important to a high-performance culture. As Fr. Holtschneider put it, “Good fences make good neighbors, and so do very clear governance structures of who does what…. This way, multiple groups have a role in a single decision and no one body can suddenly impose its will on the rest.” One method that Fr. Holtschneider shares with organizations to help master the dynamics of power-sharing is the RAPID decision-making tool developed by Harvard Business School, where each letter represents a discrete responsibility (Recommend-Agree-Perform-Input-Decide) on the decision tree. “It is a method that serves large, complex organizations,” said Holtschneider, “but it also helps organizations that are newly learning how to share power.”

Offering spiritual and biblical resonance for modern-day shared decision making and co-responsibility was Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta who serves at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Baptism makes us all servants, prophets, and priests, the Archbishop said, allowing laypeople to share in the teaching ministry and in governance of the diocese through their skills and expertise. He described how the servant governance model envisioned by Jesus enables a leader to “serve the flock, but you don’t own it.” Affirming the need for co-responsibility, he said “It’s all about relationships…. We have been talking about a culture of structures, they are necessary, they are a skeleton that you can actually put muscle to, but don’t forget to put the heart.” 

Archbishop Charles Scicluna




Co-Responsible Governance


  • Publicly commit to and provide the resources for co-responsible governance and shared decision-making structures at the parish, diocesan, and national level
  • Create independent boards that embrace best practices, including term limits, diverse members, accountability structures, auditing, etc.
  • Create a governance reform working group, similar to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, to produce a plan for reforming governance structures
  • Practice subsidiarity by delegating responsibility and decision-making authority to deaneries, leadership teams, and pastoral and finance councils
  • Model co-responsible governance by convening priest and lay ecclesial convocations and utilize parish discernment processes to involve parishioner input in pastoral planning
  • Expand the use of lay pastoral coordinators in parishes as permitted by canon law



  • Develop an external audit system with public reporting for governance structures and practices in dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic entities
  • Establish external financial audits that represent robust and objective best standards for religious nonprofit entities
  • Seek outside accreditation with the Catholic Standards for Excellence or a similar model of best practices for dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic entities
  • Publish ad limina reports to further advance transparency and accountability



  • Welcome the diversity of gifts and expertise of the laity as part of their baptismal call to governance (munus regendi); ensuring our structures reflect that governance is not only reserved for the ordained (see canon law 129 §2)
  • Define clericalism, its root causes, and the various forms it takes in order to move towards co-responsibility and shared decision making
  • Systematize a partnership model at the diocesan and parish levels, for example, pairing a management expert with a pastoral leader
  • Create structures for the inclusion of women in leadership and decision making at every level of the Church Personnel Management and Assessment



  • Require best practices in human resources: effective selection, clarity of roles and responsibilities, orientation, assignment, evaluation, compensation, and continuing education
  • Hire competent, diverse lay personnel at all levels of the Church
  • Invest in family-friendly personnel policies that enable flexible schedules, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, unemployment insurance, etc.
  • Invest in greater support for lay and ordained pastoral leaders including pastoral care, spiritual direction, sabbaticals, mental health, etc.



  • Be intentional about succession planning and term limits for leadership teams and councils at the diocesan and parish levels in order to ensure a diversity of people and opinions
  • Initiate a more structured and transparent promotion process, separate from the undue influence of the current supervisor, that includes search models, interview committees, etc.
  • Create a new process for identifying bishops who have the skills to lead and utilize a genuine discernment process that includes laity and clergy
  • Utilize 360-degree assessments for bishops and all Catholic leaders that begin in seminary or ministerial programs; assessments should be linked to appointments



  • Create an environment where learning takes place after failures happen
  • Develop a conciliation body and appoint an ombudsman to address concerns and conflicts
  • Implement and publicize a whistleblower policy and procedures for both laity and clergy, with clear protections for employees who report concerns
  • Implement a restorative justice model and praxis when there has been harm or trauma


Advancing Synodality


  • Encourage senior leaders to build trust by setting up listening processes and opportunities to be held accountable in order to create a culture that promotes dialogue
  • Make sure there is broad diversity (such as gender, race, age, etc.) on every advisory council and provide the formation and tools the members need to participate
  • Create regular opportunities for bishops and other diocesan leaders to hear directly from priests and laity, without the filter of gatekeepers
  • Create a conduit for young Catholics to dialogue with and share ideas with leaders



  • Reform the structures and approaches within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops towards greater synodality between the secretariats and dioceses in order to work on shared pastoral initiatives
  • Organize forums across the country to develop a shared understanding of co-responsibility and how to incorporate this model of leadership at every level
  • Hold regular synods in the diocese and encourage all parishes to have listening sessions
  • Choose delegates to ensure a broad voice from the diocese including: women, deacons, religious, lay members of the diocesan pastoral council and parish councils, theologians, representatives of diverse racial and ethnic communities, etc.


Formation of Lay and Ordained Leaders


  • Provide strong leadership training in the areas of human, spiritual, and intellectual formation, and management training that emphasizes that all the baptized are co-responsible for the mission
  • Expand the support that Catholic universities offer towards leadership formation, focusing more on practical and contextual training
  • Create formation programs and processes based on common standards
  • Enhance training and mentoring programs for new bishops
  • Develop and invest in mentorship and coaching programs for all lay and ordained leaders
  • Develop intercultural competencies, including a specific understanding of Hispanic culture and ministry
  • Involve women faculty in diocesan programs for ongoing clergy formation



  • Ensure seminary curriculum and formation address improved human formation, solid academics, and leadership and management competencies
  • Reform seminary formation to include a diverse student body, faculty, and staff, as well as collaboration between seminarians and lay women and men
  • Involve lay faculty members in seminarians’ initial screening and subsequent evaluation for ordination


Bishop Steven Biegler

Sr. Betsy Pawlicki, CP, Joe Regan


This piece was originally published in the Leadership Roundtable 2020 Summit Report.

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