How an organization comes to a decision is as important as what is being decided. Every organization has a “way of proceeding” when it comes to making major plans and decisions. In some organizations, decisions are made by one person, with or without input from others. In other organizations, decisions are made by a democratic process (majority rule).
What about the Church? What is our “way of proceeding” when it comes to making plans and major decisions? While the Church has a hierarchy of authority, those in authority do not act as dictators making decisions in isolation. Nor is the Church a democracy, leaving decisions to a majority vote. The Church’s way of proceeding is known as synodal (SIH-nuhd-al).
Simply put, a synod (SIH-nuhd) is an assembly of Church leaders who address and make recommendations regarding a situation or a matter of great importance. A synod is not a deliberative body with decision-making powers. Rather, the assembly of leaders meets to engage in a structured conversation surrounding an issue, with the goal of making recommendations for the final decision-maker. A synod of priests and lay people in a diocese takes place to advise the bishop. A synod of bishops takes place to advise the pope.
Synods do not follow Robert’s Rules of Order (parliamentary procedure), which is a secular model for procedural meetings, with the end goal of making a decision based on a majority vote. Rather, a synod is characterized by a process of discernment and consensus. It is a spiritual rather than a political process. This synodal way of proceeding is characterized by:
- Non-Confrontation. The goal of the synodal process is to engage key stakeholders in a non-confrontational approach to making a major decision or recommendation when there are deep emotions involved.
- Engagement. The issue at hand is to be stated clearly. Everyone involved in the process must have an opportunity to state his or her views and to influence the synodal process.
- Gathering of Diverse Ideas. A facilitator (usually not the final decision-maker) gathers the input and ideas of all participants in order to shape proposals that incorporate everyone’s input. The proposals are not specific courses of action, but rather recommendations for direction—in other words, a way of moving forward.
- “Taking the Temperature of the Room.” Every participant has an opportunity to reflect prayerfully on the information available and to offer his or her stance on the proposal(s), whether that be voicing support, offering amendments and changes, disapproving of the proposal with explanations, or offering alternative solutions or directions.
- Prayerful Discernment. All participants engage in prayerful reflection, asking that God’s will be done and that the final recommendations further the Kingdom of God. Such prayer may include moments of silence as well as Scripture readings, intercessory prayer, and even singing and offering praise.
- Theological Reflection. Scripture and Church teachings are consulted and reflected upon to shed light on the situation at hand.
- Continuing Discussion. Discussion continues until any areas of disagreement are reduced or eliminated.
- Consensus. The process continues until consensus is reached, meaning that the final recommendations are ones that everyone can abide by even if not fully in agreement. Such a process avoids parliamentary procedures that tend to favor those who are more assertive and vocal and discriminate against those who are more introspective.
The synodal process takes time and effort. The goal is not efficiency, but rather effectiveness and engagement—a way of enabling members of the Body of Christ to influence how the Body will proceed. It is a Spirit-led, formational process that shapes the People of God.
In their book, What’s Your Decision? authors J. Michael Sparough, SJ; Jim Manney; and Tim Hipskind, SJ, remind us that a good decision is always preceded by a “God decision.” They remind us that, as St. Ignatius taught, God cares deeply about our decisions (individual and communal), and we can come to know God’s will for us. A synodal Church does not allow itself to be bogged down by politics or manipulated by people with agendas. Rather, a synodal Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. The only agenda is God’s mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Pope Francis has brought the theme of synodality (SIH-nuh-DAL-it-ee) to the forefront of the Church. He convened a synod of bishops in Rome on October 10, 2021. That synod is being followed by local synods in dioceses around the world. Then, following two years of preparation, listening, and discernment, bishops will once again assemble in Rome in October, 2023, to complete the synod. The goal of this synodal process is to renew the Church and collectively discern a future for it by considering the following:
- ways of increasing participation of ordinary Catholics.
- reforming unsustainable and outdated church-governance styles and models.
- focusing on missionary evangelization.
- reaching out to those on the margins.
According to Pope Francis, “The purpose of the Synod…is not to produce documents, but ‘to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.’” (Preparatory Document, #32)