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Principles of Synodal Leadership: Moving into a Preferred Future

Pope Francis states that the synodal process is not an isolated event, rather it heralds a new

way of being Church: "Synodality is a style, it is a walk together, and it is what the Lord expects from the Church of the third millennium." To be a synodal Church, though, requires synodal pastoral leadership. In this article we will propose underlying theological principles that provide a framework for the processes and skills integral to a synodal approach in our faith communities.


What is synodality?

At its most simplistic, synodality means “journeying together.” Pope Francis uses the Emmaus story in Luke (LK 24:13-35) as the image for how leadership is exercised in a synodal community. Based on the belief that the Holy Spirit lives within and speaks to all the baptized, synodality is a dynamic process that integrates our lived experiences with the Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium of the Church. It’s a process of praying, listening, speaking, discerning, and finding a way forward as a faith community.


Setting the Leadership Arena

Synodal leadership mobilizes the faith community in their efforts toward Jesus' mission: building the Kingdom of God.  It is leadership, defined by leadership experts Hersey and Blanchard, as "the process of influencing the activities of an individual or group in efforts towards accomplishing their goals."


Jesus' call to share in creating the Kingdom of God and Pope Francis' call to become a more synodal Church require what Sharon Dolaz Parks calls "Acts of leadership (that) move people beyond familiar settings into unknown territory of greater complexity, requiring new learning and new behaviors."  This required shift in leadership is difficult.  Margaret Wheatley observes that leaders today are faced with enormous challenges not of their choosing.  She goes on to say, "In this environment, no leader can hope to succeed by using old style mechanistic management.  Attempts to lead by command and control are doomed to fail."  This is synodality's leadership arena.


Principles of Synodality Leadership

The call to ministry is grounded in Baptism. Therefore, ministry is constitutive of membership in the community, all are called to active participation in the community. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist. Our work is to learn to listen to and then have the courage to follow the Spirit. The Spirit unleashed in Baptism shifts the emphasis from hierarchy to communio, from authoritarian to co-responsible, and from ordination to charism.


Shift from a functional approach to ministry to one that is based on the giftedness of the individuals in the community. St. Paul, in his various letters, lays out his vision of ministry based on the charisms within the community. Therefore, synodal leadership calls forth the gifts of the community, connecting them with the needs of the community. Leadership that will enable synodality connects the mission of the community defined by their hopes, dreams, joys and anxieties with both individual giftedness and the collective power of the gifts given to the whole community.  An effective synodal leader defines the mission field, identifies the community’s gifts/charisms, and empowers individual’s gifts to focus on the mission.


Shift from a well-established, hierarchical model to an unstructured, parochial approach to shared ministries. Catholics today have been raised in and steeped in hierarchy. Chaos will come when we unleash people into the larger mission field to follow the Spirit's lead. This approach is imbued with collaboration - an embrace of the dignity of all the baptized, seeing each baptized person as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and therefore as a potential voice of the Spirit in all decision-making (listening and speaking boldly with love). This centers the Spirit on relationships, healing, problems solved or at least attempted, and love (other centered focused behaviors).  This is not the Church of tidy monthly's a community on the go who come together for nourishment, for encouragement, for spiritual wisdom and guidance, for consolation, and for ongoing discernment. 


Synodality requires a shift in our Church culture. Organizational culture includes the values, attitudes, processes, and structures that impact relationships, networking, and community life. The macro shift is from internal focus (how to make the Church vital) to mission focus (how to bring Christ's healing touch to the world).  And this can only be achieved by becoming more chaordic, blending chaos and order.


These synodal principles underlay the actual exercise of leadership in the faith community. Pastoral leaders are challenged to examine and refocus current processes of decision making, strategic planning, resource allocation, visioning, and programming, while developing the practical skills and spiritual practices for synodal leadership that can move the Church into a   preferred future. Onward!



Debbie Stollery and Bob McCarty are on the team of the Pentecost Vigil Project (, which provides resources for a synodal Church. PVP now offers a workshop in Synodal Leadership: Moving the Church into a Preferred Future.

Photo Unsplash Riccardo Annandale


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