Envisioning a New Culture of Leadership

The twin crises of abuse and leadership failure have prompted Catholics to imagine a healthy and thriving Church of the future that is not just changed, but transformed. A new culture of leadership is needed that values strong relationships, creative thinking, and unfettered dialogue among all members to advance solutions. By the same token, the crisis has challenged Catholics to not simply entertain that bold vision, but create a structural model of how it could

become concrete reality. Leadership Roundtable’s 2020 Catholic Partnership Summit represented a major step along those promising pathways towards a hopeful new era of Church leadership and management. Offering a framework for the imposing task ahead was Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, Secretary for Health and Social Services of the Archdiocese of Boston and Harvard professor. He told the Summit participants, “Remember the roots of the crisis…, refuse paralysis since we are bigger than the crisis… and recall what you see in this room, especially when times are tough and you seem alone. Look around this room at the potential of the Church in this country.”

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, CSsR


The Hallmarks of a Reimagined Church 

That charge was quickly taken up at the Summit. Moderator Kim Daniels, Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, challenged the panelists to envision a flourishing Church. She cast a vision of a Church that embraces the notions of synodality, co-responsibility, and trust and “puts what Pope Francis calls the ‘beating heart of the Gospel’ at the center of what we do.” A panel of leaders and subject matter experts provided thoughtful and creative suggestions that envision this new culture of leadership.

Christina Lamas, Executive Director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, invited the audience to imagine walking with her into a church where they are immediately welcomed and greeted by worshipers and ministers. “People are drawn to this parish because the leadership is cultivating a sense of community and belonging to something much bigger than themselves,” she said. “And no matter the age, all individuals feel heard and acknowledged as individuals. Everyone matters in this place because leadership cares.” She went on, “You see people working together, there is ownership, new ideas are flourishing, and they are all serving a common purpose.”

For Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, leadership is entwined with the notion of pilgrimage, which teaches us that the mission of the Church is not founded exclusively on reaching one’s destination, but pays attention to whom we walk with to get there. “I really believe that Pope Francis’ long-game is synodality,” he said, linking the word to its original sense, meaning people who walk the same road and share the same journey as companions, or pilgrims, guided by and always listening intently to the principle of unity, which is the Holy Spirit. Indeed, synodality conjured up for Cardinal Tobin the image of a listening Church, one that pays attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Synodality is “a culture that recognizes the variety of gifts but always searches for and responds to the unifying Spirit,” he proposed. “It’s a culture that is able to look critically at the wider social angle, not in a condemnatory way, but to say: that isn’t the gospel.” In describing how a culture of continuous discernment could provide the foundation for a reimagined Church, Cardinal Tobin offered Pope Francis’ concept of “pastoral conversion”. Cardinal Tobin mentioned that he spent 18 years of his life in leadership of his religious community “trotting around the world talking about restructuring, and it never felt right because it sounded like it was simply trying to find better administration.” But Pope Francis has helped us see that it is really about pastoral conversion, making it clear that “not simply that my heart needs to change, but also my strategies and my structures have to change. And change to what? To align with the mission that’s been entrusted to us.”

Christina Lamas


Transform the Church

The primacy of relationships in creating a new culture of leadership for the Catholic Church was powerfully articulated by Sr. Carol Zinn, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She shared UNESCO’s definition of culture as a group of people coming together to teach and learn something; who have ways of communicating; who possess ways of organizing; and who have a sense of purpose or mission. Sr. Carol then invited the Summit participants to reflect on these hallmarks of culture in the context of Catholic tradition. “Our Church, whom we love, has a culture. It meets those four criteria,” she said, and then asked whether our current culture is one that nurtures the relationships that help us live the gospel. In developing a new culture for the Church, Sister Carol stressed the need for a new “consciousness” and to recognize that a precious moment is at hand to not just change structures and management policies of the Church, make them more transparent and accountable, but to actually transform them. “I’m actually not interested in any conversation about changing our Church whom we love, because we will end up with the same form and function with a few tweaks,” she argued. “It’s not enough. I think we’re being offered through this crisis to [have] a consciousness of transformation, like a caterpillar to a butterfly… where everything of the caterpillar dies, no holding on, and bringing together all of that capacity in that cocoon to let something else be created.” Equating the analogy to the Church, Sister Carol continued, “You know you’re in a transformational moment or process when you have a new form and a new function….I’m talking about relationships that are built on mutuality, respect, and dialogue….” 

As a final challenge to participants, Christina Lamas amplified the vision of a transformed Church built on relationships of accompaniment. At its spiritual and functional core must be leaders who are visionaries and Christ-centered, leaders who bring hope and encourage others to do the same, leaders who connect seamlessly with other people, and leaders who are not managers but…well, leaders, she said. “Leadership is about presence, accompaniment, a willingness to share, and being a servant,” Ms. Lamas affirmed. “We just need more leaders like that in all aspects of our Church and society.”

After listening to the Session 1 panelists on the topic “Envisioning a New Culture of Leadership”, Summit participants responded to the question: “What does a thriving Church look like?”

Kim Daniels, Christina Lamas, Sr. Carol Zinn, SSJ, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR


A Church that Values Servant Leadership

“A thriving Church looks like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. There is humility. There is a sense that the structure of the Church and her leadership is organized in a way that is radically different from other organizations. This is rooted in service.”

“It is a humble, listening Church that values every voice and brings them into harmony to form a symphony directed at proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus and moving people to fulfill his mission.”

“It is about servant leadership, a change of heart and mind, a courage to think and act differently, for example, a Church of the poor.”


A Church that Values Co-Responsible Governance

“The Church should represent the Body of Christ: we are different parts, but from the same body; we have different roles, different responsibilities, but we work together collectively for one common goal.”

“A Church that actively promotes lay involvement and respects lay expertise.”

“A thriving Church is like a round table with high levels of engagement and a sense of mutuality. It is people standing shoulder to shoulder, working towards a common good that comes from the heart the gospel message. Relationship is at the heart of mission.”

“We need to work collectively for the mission. When we focus on the mission, not trying to preserve what exists, then new things emerge.”


A Church that Values Diversity and Inclusion

“A Church composed of all cultures, all generations, at the table together and, if they are not there, let’s ask ‘Who is not around the table?’”

“One that recognizes that the Spirit gives gifts to both men and women and calls both men and women into leadership.”

“A Church that holds up young people as leaders, inviting them to share in the visioning process and to help the Church be better.”


A Church that Values Missionary Discipleship

“Pope Francis has said, the Church is not a country club of saints, we are a field hospital for sinners. We are all pilgrims together. Pope Francis invites us to go to the peripheries, to invite people in.”

“Have a spirit of welcome at every parish, asking people’s names, inviting people to Mass. This is a Church that looks out rather than in.”

“A Church that recognizes the lived experiences, the sense of the faithful. It is a Church that facilitates a dialogue with our rich tradition, and that dialogue leads to action.”

“A thriving Church is where prayer is the source from which ministry and ministry planning flow.”


A Church that Values Trustbuilding

“A thriving, co-responsible Church encourages honesty.”

“Polarization in public life is very much a part of Church life. We need to be explicit in building bridges and trying to find common ground.”

“Focus on Jesus as a means to build trust.”

“Trust between lay people and clergy, working together with a true focus on and love of Church. Trust is the foundation of transformation and listening is important in this process.”


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

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