Francis’ 10 Leadership Lessons for Bishops

Pope Francis spoke to 300 U.S. bishops today, Sept. 23, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He took the occasion to give them advice that could be understood as lessons in leadership.

1. Trust you managers.

The first lesson was by example: He showed the bishops he trusted them.

“It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy,” he said. “I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I trust completely in the voice of the One who ‘teaches all things’ (John 14:26). Allow me only, in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers.”

All the same, he went on to “share some reflections which I consider helpful to our mission.”

2. Stay true to the mission — by staying close to Christ.

Good leaders stress the mission of their organization. For Francis, the mission is a person.

“The heart of our identity is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching (Acts 6:4) and in shepherding the flock entrusted to our care. Ours must not be just any kind of prayer, but familiar union with Christ,” he said. “Such trusting union with Christ is what nourishes the life of a pastor.”

3. Be relevant to the lives of those you address.

Pope Francis warned specifically against a few caricatured understandings of bishops. For one: The out-of-touch bishop who doesn’t understand what “real people” go through.

“It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The ‘style’ of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant ‘for us’. May the word of God grant meaning and fullness to every aspect of their lives; may the sacraments nourish them with that food which they cannot procure for themselves; may the closeness of the shepherd make them long once again for the Father’s embrace.”

4. The sheep, not the shepherd, are? the focus.

Another caricature Francis rejects: The self-important bishop who towers above his flock.

“Shepherds who do not pasture themselves but are able to step back, away from the center, to ‘decrease’, in order to feed God’s family with Christ,” he said. He said to “flee the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless,” adding, “Certainly it is helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator, but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us.”

5. Be in constant contact with those you serve.

How to avoid being that bishop? Pope Francis stressed the importance of actually talking to the people one serves.

“We are promoters of the culture of encounter,” he said. “Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16). The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”

6. Propose a positive way rather than criticizing.

Pope Francis told bishops that spelling out the positive, relevant aspects of the faith is more important than critiquing the world’s shortcomings.

“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing,” he said. “Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by ‘consuming fire from heaven’ (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who ‘heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked.’”

7. Keep the flock together.

Echoing Christ’s prayer to the Father for the Church, “That they will all be one, just as you and I are one,” he put unity at the heart of his message:

“Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven. With these two realities each of the Churches entrusted to us remains Catholic, because open to, and in communion with, all the particular Churches and with the Church of Rome which ‘presides in charity’. It is imperative, therefore, to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations.”

8. Focus on the most important issues of our day.

He said “it is wrong to look the other way or remain silent” on key issues of the day, which he identified as:

“… the innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature,” and “no less important …the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.”

9. Be a servant to your priests.

He asked that bishops be available to their priests as an encouragement — and an example.

“Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants. Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests. Support them, so that they can continue to serve Christ with an undivided heart, for this alone can bring fulfillment to ministers of Christ. I urge you, then, not to let them be content with half-measures. Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters.”

10. Make the Church a landing path for immigrants.

Last, he asked that the Church be more welcoming to immigrants.

“No American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities,” he said. “Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. … [D]o not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”

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