How management and leadership theory can contribute to discerning the signs of the times

What do we do when the Faith is there but the transmission is poor? Janet Forbes, a member of the Irish Synodal Task Group, offers key insights found in other disciplines that may offer assistance to the Church.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis stated, ‘It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.’ Francis’s pontificate, framed within the current change of era heralded by the Second Vatican Council, is characterised by a mandate of reform coupled with a reimagining of what it means to be Church amidst a ‘new phase of reception’ of the Council.

Theology underpinning

It is clear that the theology underpinning the council has solidified as an understanding that, with the Council, we experienced a movement towards the reality of a global Church. The question now critically turns to how we create such a vision of Church. Rafael Luciani articulates the view that this chapter involves meaningful integration of the vision and spirit of the Second Vatican Council in concrete and real terms.

The Venezuelan theologian states that this reimagining of structures and processes, coupled to muchneeded reframing of mindsets, is marked by a space of openness and creative innovation regarding existing processes and practices within the Church.

Joseph De Smedt, Bishop of Bruges, appealed to the Council on December 1st, 1962 that the Second How management and leadership theory can contribute to discerning the signs of the times Vatican Council should ‘terminate the triumphalist, clerical and juridical appearance of the Church’.

 It strikes me that this appeal and the Council itself were prophetic, for neither Bishop De Smedt nor the Council fathers could foresee the change and challenge that lay ahead.

It is clear when reflecting on the intervening years that the need for reform within the Church has become an imperative. In the years since the Council, this movement to reform rigid and inflexible structures and processes has also been experienced and enacted within other areas of life and business.

This parallel activity points to the fact that Bishop De Smedt’s appeal addresses hierarchical and clericalist mentalities, and signposts more general issues that reflect the world the Council fathers faced and indeed the context of the world today. Contextually within the Church, such concerns relate directly to the transmission of the Gospel in real terms, therefore necessitating urgent attention.

 In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis addresses the crisis of communal commitment, acknowledging that ‘humanity is experiencing a turningpoint in its history’ and that ‘the joy of living frequently fades’ amidst an era of epochal change that has ‘set in motion enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances in the sciences and in technology’.

Christian community

In truth, we find ourselves unable to cognitively frame our role in the world as Christian community, and it is clear, from Pope Francis’s perspective, that the institutional model of Church is failing and simply not able to cope with the demands placed on it by our current reality.

Simply put, the Church is no longer able to adequately transmit the Christian message in the third millennium. I suggest that we are better able to understand the unwillingness to engage with the Church within the framework of a crisis of transmission of faith and not simply a crisis of faith.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis challenges, among other things, individualism, the lack of respect for the human person, financial and economical frameworks that dominate, and the growth of consumerism and populism in the world. Contrary to popular perceptions, such difficulties have also been reflected on and challenged within secular disciplines. Many organisations and individuals hold views consistent with those of Pope Francis and have even moved into a space whereby concrete plans and action are being formulated to tackle such challenges.

In the period since the end of the Council a quiet revolution has been occurring in progressive circles associated with the disciplines of economics, leadership, and management, one that is marked by an admission that old paradigms and mindsets created during the enlightenment are also no longer fit for purpose.


Some notable protagonists within this group are economists Kate Raworth and Joseph Stiglitz who respectively acknowledge in their works, Doughnut Economics and People, Power and Profits, the failures of aggressive economic models, and strongly challenge the disparities that exist in our world.

Each highlights abuses of power, offering alternative models designed to integrate justice, equity and the development of robust ethical frameworks. When considered in a complimentary fashion with the teaching of Pope Francis, they offer concrete solutions to those problems we seek to challenge in the Church, along with affirmation of our current reading of the signs of the times.

Of significance for this conversation is the fact that, within these disciplines, processes and practices designed to assist thorough analysis of the context are at an advanced stage, providing reasons for the breakdown of old models, with many leaders exhibiting profound willingness to adapt structures and practices in ways necessitated by changing circumstances.

Within the best examples offered in the field of leadership and management rigorous analysis of the cultural context is the norm and has resulted in perpetual rationalisation and differentiation of processes, structures and practices, so that anything non-essential to the primary mission and stated values is subjected to change.

This openness and ability to change, with its orientation towards the overarching mission of the organisation and the flourishing of people therein, draws direct parallels with the ministry of Pope Francis. This in itself offers insight for those in positions of leadership within the Church affirming the mechanisms of synodality that now take root.

 Eduardo P Braun, leadership expert and author of People First Leadership, lays out five roles of leadership that mark the shift experienced in the fields of leadership and management. These are the ability to: ‘inspire a vision’, ‘being all about your people’, and understanding the role of ‘communication’ in elaborating a vision and in relations with people.

In People First Leadership it is telling that Braun utilises Pope Francis as a paradigm of ‘new leadership exemplified’ stating that ‘in the end leadership comes down to being an agent of change, whether it’s shifting vision or radically altering hundreds of years of social and cultural practice’.

For too long in the Church we have perhaps focused on management of resources in the fiscal realm to the detriment of articulating our ultimate vision and navigating towards that North Star. Central to any meaningful integration of this work is the understanding that the source of the vision and mission of the Church is what ultimately differentiates our endeavours from those operating within the realms of leadership and management.

Crucial to this is a fundamental understanding that all we do in Church finds its source in God, with all agency imbued by God through the Holy Spirit. Lumen Gentium articulates the Church’s mission succinctly when it says that ‘proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all’ is the Church’s North Star.

The question that emerges from such an articulation is how and in what way we are called to do this in our time. I think that at the root of the crisis we currently experience lies the fact that we have lost sight of this primary vision and mission.

Peter de Mey in ‘Sharing the Threefold Office of Christ’ highlights a pastoral letter from Bishop Joseph De Smedt to the Secretariat for Christian Unity on the main distinction between the royal priesthood of all faithful and the ordained ministers. De Mey notes that the pastoral letter of De Smedt reminds its readers that there is but ‘One priest: Christ Jesus’, and from this the priestly work of all the faithful emerges.

I believe that the mission and vision are mandated by God and the work of developing mechanisms for achieving that vision are the task of all within the Church.


Within the wider framework of society and regardless of the discipline, it is undeniable that it is no longer acceptable for decisions to be taken in isolation by one person or by a few through specific commission or ordering.

The challenge for the Church is to reimagine appropriate frameworks and structures for decision making. St. Cyprian, who was bishop of Carthage from 248 to 258, left behind a collection of letters which offer much when considering synodality and the development of synodal processes, practices and structures today.

St Cyprian’s letters present important insight into the role of laity in decision-making in the early Church. St Cyprian speaks of the participation of the laity in decision making in four different contexts: in the election of a bishop, in appointments to the clergy, in conciliar decisions, and in the reconciliation of repentant sinners.

Essentially, in the letters of St. Cyprian, we learn that anything that affected the entirety of the Church in Carthage was ‘judged and voted upon by all’. In Lumen Gentium, in which Bishop De Smedt is credited as being an architect, the structure and ordering of the chapters is deliberate. These were debated at length in the council and are crucial to our current understanding of what synodality is and is not.

Following an articulation of the nature and mystery of the Church in chapter one of Lumen Gentium, chapter two articulates a vision of Church as People of God, whereby all ‘holy people of God share in Christs’ prophetic office spreading abroad a living witness to Him’ and that: the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief … manifesting this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.

This understanding of People of God is considered the normative key through which we understand the Council and represents a significant shift, because it firstly acknowledges the ability of all to discern the movement of the Spirit and secondly, expresses a horizontal and equitable understanding of the agency all persons hold within the Church.

It is this understanding that lies at the core of synodality, specifically the ability of all to discern the movement of the Spirit that mandates change, opening conversations around the mechanisms of how all people are to be included in the discernment of the Spirit, the elaboration of decisions within Church and the future placement of juridical power in the Church.

Within the fields of leadership and management a similar movement towards equity and inclusion of all subjects has occurred, but my assessment is that a fully integrated model and schema such as that articulated in the Second Vatican Council has yet to be invoked within the secular realm. However, more progressive organisations realise that if your people are not with you, the organisation experiences great difficulties in realising vision and mission.

 These organisations have allocated significant resources to the task of respecting people, forming people and helping them thrive in a way that the Church has not. Trust and credibility are taken seriously within exemplar businesses and it is openly stated that without both it is nearly impossible to orientate your people to your mission.

The Church could benefit from carefully studying the mechanisms used by organisations within the realm of business and leadership. This is of critical importance because central to the teaching of the Vatican II is an understanding that each person is unique and imbued with specific charisms.

Collegial synodality

With regard to decision-making and decision-taking within a synodal framework, I believe the current epochal change we are living through represents a significant and notable shift in the reception of the Second Vatican Council, whereby the spirt of episcopal collegiality realised in the institution of the Synod of Bishops by Pope Paul VI has, during Pope Francis’s papacy, developed further into what is now understood as collegial synodality.

Crucially, with regard to developing a truly synodal Church recent developments in Latin America, specifically with regard to the Synod on the Amazon, mark a move towards what is now termed synodal ecclesiality.

Synodal ecclesiality is a reality whereby all persons as equal ecclesial subjects are afforded agency and power with regard to discernment and concrete mechanisms of governance within the Church. It involves discernment by all subjects within the Church about where and how the Spirit moves, and links it to discernment processes designed to enact tangible responses regarding the primary mission of evangelising in a specific and local context.

It also marks a shift in real terms to a position whereby every resource, structure, process and practice must be orientated towards this primary mission. It is also marked by its integration of all the People of God in all dimensions of Church life, and not just some by virtue of ordering through ordination.

More importantly, ecclesial synodality is significantly marked by a decentralisation whereby local Churches, local bishops and ecclesial bodies are encouraged and empowered to deal with issues specific and unique to their specific cultural context.

Many secular organisations have acknowledged that the world has changed beyond recognition and most have responded to these circumstances by changing their practices, structures and processes so that they better serve their mission.

 Reading culture is perhaps the single most important area whereby the disciplines of leadership and management can help develop robust frameworks for assessing the societal landscape, so that the Church may exact necessary and appropriate reforms.

Pedro Arrupe, in a letter to the Society of Jesus in 1978, stated that ‘the changes which have taken place, and which will keep on taking place in the future, have their origin in the criteria of Vatican II’ and that ‘these changes will have no practical effect if we do not allow the transforming power of the Spirit to modify our personal life from within’.

Janet Forbes is a member of the Irish Synodal Task Group and works in pastoral ministry. Ms Forbes holds a qualification in pastoral theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and is a recent graduate of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

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