“How one leads or shepherds one’s flock is every bit as important as what one accomplishes.”
Bishop Richard G. Lennon recently acknowledged what many within the Cleveland Diocesan administration, staff and parishes have known for several years. In a May 21, 2012 letter to all the priests of the diocese, Lennon wrote: “Over the past month, or so, I have become aware of a growing disconnect between many of the priests who serve so faithfully in this diocese and myself. It saddens me to hear reports that a number of our priests feel anxious and uncomfortable in my presence and that rather than being co-workers with me, a number of priests feel left out of consultation.” One can only take the Bishopʼs confession as a heartfelt expression.
Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I did not add that I believe a disconnect also exits between the Bishop and significant sectors of the lay Catholic Community, many religious leaders of other faiths in Northeast Ohio, many religious women and several civic and elected officials, who feel the Church has diminished its commitment to the region.
The Bishopʼs candor is striking for a number of reasons. Over the six full years since his installation as the tenth Bishop of Cleveland, Lennon has projected an image of being in total control of all things Catholic; laser like in his focus to tasks, no matter how small; the sole arbitrator of parish property; disinterested and impatient with honest dialogue; quick to label priests, staff or parishioners as disobedient or disloyal; and singularly committed to advancing his priorities. Some may give him high marks for his work ethic, commitment to matters of faith and morals, intense desire “to right size” the diocese, outreach to youth and young adults, and capacity as a fund raiser. Not many would give him high marks for his skills as a communicator, willingness to listen to diverse opinions, flexibility in correcting course, or for manifesting concern for the feelings of others.
What the Bishop has admitted is that the pastoral side of his leadership is somewhat lacking. As reported, at least three priests have called for his removal, 12 parishes are in the process of being reopened for his failure to comply with canon law, and two, long time popular and effective staff members summarily dismissed. What is not widely known is that Lennon was heavily criticized by members of his own priestʼs council after they learned of his shuttering of the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Office without their consultation. To many priests, this was the last straw and most likely precipitated the Bishop scheduling nine listening sessions with the priests of the diocese.
How one leads or shepherds oneʼs flock is every bit as important as what one accomplishes. Bishops are authentic teachers within the Catholic Church, however, this does not mean they cannot be servant leaders. It seems to me that in these challenging times, there is still a place for Bishops who act with humility, compassion, empathy, understanding, a sense of justice, a desire for personal conversion, an openness to discern the spirit and a love for all Godʼs people.
Bishop Lennon has pledged that he will come to the upcoming priest meetings and will “listen with an open heart.” If he is to regain the respect, trust and affection of his priests, he must not only listen…he must be open to changing his manner of leadership.
Tom Allio retired as the senior director of Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office in March 2010. He served the diocese for 32 1/2 years.