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How do I recognize synodal leadership? Part 3 in a series

This continues a series of blogs in which we share what we are discovering about how to recognize synodality. We expect there will be more to understand and more signs of it in practice as we journey together, and as the 2nd Assembly of the Synod on Synodality brings forth its wisdom. And we expect some of you have insights you can share with us. Please do! Contact us here. We are co-learners along this #synodjourney.

Do our lay and ordained parish leaders understand what synodality is? If they don't, then how is our parish supposed to join the #synodjourney?

I think it's fair to say that as I write this on May 15, 2024, most parish leaders still do not understand what synodality is. Most clergy did not participate in the first global consultation and so did not learn the method "Conversations in the Spirit" and did not see how the results of those global listening sessions informed the work of the First Assembly of the Synod on Synodality. Most parish staffs and other lay leaders did not participate either. On what is this conclusion based? Sheer numbers. About 700,000 people in the US participated. Sounds like a lot until you know that according to the Pew Research folks, about 72 million people identified themselves as Catholic in the US in 2021. Yep. 700,000 participants out of 72 million potential participants. For those of you who like numbers, that .0097% of the people. So that's how I came to the conclusion that too few of our parish leaders understand synodality. They simply haven't gotten on the journey yet.

But that does not mean there are not plenty of signposts for US Catholic Church leaders as they begin to follow Pope Francis' direction for the Church in the third millennium. This blog is going to concentrate on leadership behaviors (signposts) that, when practiced and observed/experienced by the people, point to leaders embracing synodality.

Synodal leaders practice listening to the People of God, those who share leadership with them, the cries of the poor and the signs of the times. Yes, there it is of the hallmarks of synodality is the regularly scheduled, structure practice of deep listening, heart-to-heart, to hear what the Spirit is speaking through each of these constituencies. There are several components to this listening: the firm belief that the Holy Spirit dwells within all the baptized and so they have a Spirit insight to offer, the acquisition and practice of sound basic listening behaviors, experience participating in and facilitating Conversations in the Spirit and the ability to sift through (the root meaning of discern) the messages to determine when more listening needs to take place before any decisions are made or that it is time to make a provisional decision and test it.

Synodal leaders respect and therefore cultivate sacred silence within the community. Dominican Paul Philibert says this of communal silence, " attitude of silence helps create conditions for deeper conversation....We have to desire to listen to others, to hear about their experience, to acknowledge it. ...Silent prayer and the development of interior silence make the quiet moments of common prayer resonate with deeply felt awareness of the presence of God....Silence is a necessary condition for listening to God, to our neighbor and to our own hearts." There's plenty written about the role of silence in the liturgy. Synodal leaders embrace silence there, but also see communal silence in the midst of meetings as part of making space for the Holy Spirit to be in charge. It's not wasted time. It's creating sacred space for the Spirit.

Synodal leaders embed substantive prayer into their personal lives and into their gatherings with the People of God. It seems like this should be a given, but I've been in meetings (an appalling number of them, to be honest) with clergy and other leaders where prayer was either non-existent or "zipper prayer" defined as a quick Hail Mary to open and a rushed Our Father to close were the nods to this important action. "There's just so much we have to do. We can't take time (or waste time) praying. We will just presume since we are about the Church's business that God's here and leading us." And from that point forward, the agenda, the clock, Father's capacity, wishes and mood, and a need to feel like we are "getting things done" allow little room for the Holy Spirit's ways of working. Synodal leaders adopt the perspective that "we are too busy not to pray."

Synodal leaders engage in regular reflection. How is this different from prayer? It might not be if the reflection is something like the Ignatian practice of Examen. However, each individual who leads within the Church also engages in practices of thinking and pondering the Scriptures, the Deposit of Faith, great spiritual writers, and the Saints, making space for the Holy Spirit to instruct them, to form their minds into the mind of Christ. At this level, this kind of reflection seeks to help the leader become more like Christ. Reflection is also an intellectual practice of questioning, of assessing processes and outcomes, of looking for the fruits of the Holy Spirit, of comparing decisions to mission and values, of looking for guidance and perhaps correction from the Scriptures and Tradition. Reflection makes space for the Holy Spirit to instruct, guide, admonish, affirm and inspire both the individual leader and their decisions.

Synodal leaders continuously check their ideas with others. They have a fundamental disposition of humility, knowing that just as the Lord has given them ideas, so has the Lord given others ideas as well. It is in the dynamism of the community sharing ideas that the Holy Spirit sets hearts afire, corrects and instructs, sets agenda/direction and equips the faithful. Synodal leaders eschew unilateral decision-making unless it's an emergency. Synodal leaders know their work is to help the entire community hear the Spirit's call and respond to it, over and over again. Synodal leaders know the Holy Spirit is the One in charge and create the communal conditions for the Spirit to reveal God's continuously checking their ideas with others' ideas.

So there you have five identifiers of a synodal leadership. It's time to start practicing these intentionally if you are an ecclesial leader. It's time to ask your leaders how they are already embracing these practices and encourage them to do so even more intentionally if you don't know if these behaviors are happening. And as a baptized member of the Body of Christ called to co-responsibility, it's time to engage in these practices yourself: regularly, intentionally. It may well be that synodality takes root this way: when the faithful embrace synodal practices and are then called by the Spirit to lead others.

I certainly don't know how the Spirit will embed synodality. But I do know that each of the above practices can deepen my faith, open my Spirit and lead me closer to Christ. Win-win, then...right?

Still not convinced we need synodality? Purchase our White Paper on how synodality helps us navigate our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) times.

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