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Co-responsibility: the way forward for leadership in the Catholic Church

By Fiona Basile
"The church is at a critical point where change needs to take place. We just can’t keep going the way we’ve been going,” says renowned author and speaker, Chris Lowney, who will be in Melbourne and Ballarat in early September. “We need to foster a culture within the Church that embraces change and which truly values and enables co-responsibility.” 
Chris Lowney is an American speaker and author of six books, which focus on leadership and Ignatian spirituality. He has been a Jesuit Seminarian, a Managing Director for J.P. Morgan & Co on three continents and is currently the vice chair of CommonSpirit Health, the largest non-profit health system in the USA.
Grounded in his own personal Catholic faith and love for the Church, together with his vast leadership experience, Chris will be in Melbourne and Ballarat from 5-11 September sharing his knowledge and insights as to how the Catholic Church might navigate its way out. He draws much from one of his recent books, Everyone Leads.
“The Catholic Church is probably facing its worse crisis in five centuries,” according to renowned author and presenter Chris Lowney. “I think we have a crisis where we might now be willing to say: ‘ok, we just can’t go on the way we are. We have to change’."
“We’re at a point where we need to understand how to transform and revitalise the church in crisis,” he says. “Each person has a leadership opportunity and responsibility. This is especially important in the kind of environments that we’re all coping with now where it's very volatile, complex and confusing. Things are changing quickly.”
He suggests: “We need to move from a church where a small number of Episcopal and clerical leaders are understood as the leadership group, to an understanding now where everybody who sits in a pew feels that they somehow have to be part of the leadership solution for the church. So we need a widely distributed sense of what leadership means and who can play leadership and how they lead.”
“We need to recognise the importance of a much greater entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative spirit. The church just needs to confront and accept the fact that many of the ways we’ve traditionally done things is just not working. So we have to be open to new approaches to many of the basic things we do as a church.”
“We need a culture of accountability. In most organisations, whether it’s small businesses or large, people understand their statistics: this is what’s going well, this is what's going poorly and they feel some sense of accountability for that, to make things better if they’re going poorly. As a church we tend to be unaccountable in that way. In other words, we don’t have any measured sense of what’s going well or poorly and therefore, how in the world can we figure out whether things are getting better or worse or what to do?”
He says: “When I wrote Everyone Leads, I wanted to do something that I think tends to be very difficult in the Catholic Church in this moment, namely, to write something that would have to be taken seriously by people who consider themselves traditional, faithful, conservative – whatever word you want to use. And, on the other hand, to write something that would also have to be taken seriously by people who consider themselves progressive or liberal. And that’s really difficult to do because many of the things you might suggest automatically discredit you with one of those wings or another. That to me is a real challenge and is part of the crisis of the church.”
“It's not my job to say how the Catholic Churches practices should change in terms of who’s authorised to play what kinds of roles within the Church. But having said that, there is a huge, wide-open playing field, where historically, authority, responsibility and opportunity has not been shared or taken by lay people, which can or should be.”
“That’s where I feel like we have to make a lot of progress, as both top down and bottom up. In organisations leadership usually comes both ways. Sometimes it comes from enlightened leaders and leaders in authority – and we have a lot of those in the church – and sometimes it comes from bottom up. I feel in healthy organizations, both of those things can go on and should go on. This can apply to the Church as well.”
“Catholics tend to have a consumer mentality. In other words, I go to church and I just absorb what's going on there. To me a leadership mentality would feel more like, ‘I'm co-responsible for this whole thing. And if it's not going well, I have to help be part of the force that will make it better.’ If I’m co-responsible, I have to accept and understand what's happening in the church and also feel like, yes, I have to in some way be involved, and step up and play some role here. Co-responsibility is a very powerful, important word.”
Pope Benedict used this phrase, ‘co-responsibility’ in 2009 when making an address at the opening of the pastoral convention of the Diocese of Rome. He said, “It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted … This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognised as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action…’.” 
Chris says that Pope Francis has made a similar call upon the People of God: “Pope Francis doesn't use a lot of words like ‘leadership’ and so on. But he does often send out the message that we need everybody to step up and help lead the church forward.”
“In one of the first things Pope Francis wrote, he has this great line about how bishops sometimes will be in front, sometimes will be in the midst of the flock and sometimes will be behind encouraging the flock, which will be striking out on new paths. So if there's ever been an icon, an idea of lay-leadership surely that's it. This image of the bishop in the back of his flock encouraging the flock as it strikes out on new paths and leads the way forward.”
In responding to the question: How can we be co-responsible in the current church climate and hierarchical structure, Chris answered: "When I wrote Everyone Leads I spoke to a few folks who are leaders in social entrepreneurship ... people who are showing entrepreneurial leadership in attacking social problems. I asked one of these guys, what are some of the qualities of great social entrepreneurs? One of the first things he said to me was: 'be good at guerrilla tactics'. He said: 'when you're a social entrepreneur, it’s all wind in your face. You don't have the funding you want, people don't like the idea, people don't support you, everything is against the way things have been done'. People who succeed against that entire headwind I might say are creative and innovative. He would say 'they're good at guerrilla tactics'. In other words, they don't get discouraged. They say, 'I'm going to keep fighting. I may have to do it a different way. I might not be able to go straight ahead, but let me figure out a way I could get there.'
A closing thought...
“When it comes to a healthy, flourishing Church, a priest once said to me: 'If you don't hear crying in church, your church hasn’t got a future.’ We don’t have to do everything, but we can all certainly do something,” says Chris.
All are welcome to attend the upcoming events with Chris Lowney in Melbourne and Ballarat:
See the full program, here.

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