Toward a Bottom-Up church

Alfredo Romagosa

Pope Francis has called for a multi-year process that will culminate in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, dedicated to the theme “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” in October 2023. His objective is to encourage a more participatory attitude in the Church. In a recent address to Italian bishops he said the this process must begin at the grassroots with "the smallest parish, the smallest diocesan institution. The synod must begin from the bottom up."¹ The term synodality comes from the Greek, and it literally means “walking together.” The process of gathering in synods or councils has always been an integral part of Christian history.

This call reminded me of a process that I, along with many in the industrial world, went through during the decade of the 1990’s. This process also had to do with wider participation and consultation. It is well described in the book The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production.² This book concentrates on the experience of the Toyota car company. Many of these elements were subsequently prescribed by the United States Department of Defense (DOD) for the use of its contractors under the name of Total Quality Management (TQM).³ But these ideas did not originate with the Japanese industry or the DOD. The primary formulator was Edward Deming, a neglected American electrical engineer (my profession also) and professor who was asked by the Japanese industry to lecture on production techniques. The result was the well known revolution in the quality of cars lead by Toyota. 

My specific experience was in implementing TQM in the computer company that I worked for during the 1990’s. I will concentrate on the elements of this process that are relevant to our Church context. I will render in bold comparable phrases in the industry and Church  documents and experiences. The DOD document calls for “A working environment where all employees seek continuous improvement.”⁴ In more detail:

Management creates a new, more flexible environment and culture that will encourage and accept change.⁵

Management actively involves all people in the improvement process; encourages and empowers people to create ideas and make decisions within their area of expertise not only to do the work, but also to improve the system. The ultimate objective is to empower the workforce to exercise self-direction while continuously pursuing improvement strategies in routine work as well as on special projects.⁶

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that the Japanese culture had some characteristics that made it naturally receptive to these techniques, in their sense of community. An article from the  America magazine from 1992, “Religious Community as a Model for Understanding the Japanese,”  reflects on this:  “People do not operate first and foremost as mobile individual ‘selves’ bent on maximizing personal utilitarian satisfaction, but as members sharing a tradition, strong family life and commitment to a work seen as a life’s work, calling or vocation.”⁷ TQM recognizes this as “Developing and Maintaining a group of people who are working together for a common goal,”⁸ and in this to  develop team that will “openly share data, build norms of shared and collaborative action, and teach team members to reinforce one another.”⁹

In our engineering department we adopted weekly meeting where we would brainstorm for new product ideas as well a evaluating our performance. The meetings would not only include all the engineers, but also the technicians that supported our work. We also had the opportunity of having some of out customers participate in the meetings by phone. During that decade, our products achieved dominance in our market segment.


There were successful experiences in many other departments of our company. One example was the team of employees that did the packaging for shipping our products. They were given individual business cards with their names and phone extensions, so that they would take personal responsibility for their work and listen directly to complaints from customers so as to improve packaging. In another example, the maintenance employee team recommended a change in the air conditioning system that saved thousands of dollars in electricity, and they received an award for this.

Let us review Pope Francis’ call to a synodal church in this context, using the Preparatory Document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.¹⁰ First, as implied befire, it is important to emphasize that synodality is not a new process, borrowed from the Japanese or from professor Deming, but a natural healthy human quality. This was recognized and practiced in the historical Israelite communities and especially in the Early Christian Church: “In the first millennium, ‘journeying together’—that is, practicing synodality—was the ordinary way in which the Church acted.”¹¹ Unfortunately, there is also a negative human tendency to seek individual power, and this has been an element in Church History. But even in the worst of times, the Church has maintained a practice of getting together in assemblies at different levels. 

The first step in any process that seeks improvement is to analyze previous and current experiences, with an openness to a “continuous improvement” dynamic: “by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to live communion,¹² to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission.” Traditions are important, but as the pope often comments, they should not be used to freeze the Church in the past by saying “we always did it this way.” It is important to recognize that by being open to the Spirit, “a dynamism is activated that allows us to begin to reap some of the fruits of a synodal conversion, which will progressively mature.” ¹³

How do we discern? Christian assemblies begin with an invocation of the Holy Spirit: “In this ‘journeying together,’ we ask the Spirit to help us discover how communion, which brings together in unity the variety of gifts, charisms, and ministries, is for the mission: a synodal Church is a Church ‘going forth,’ a missionary Church ‘whose doors are open.’ ¹⁴ The following questions can be helpful in this: “Where, in these experiences, does the voice of the Spirit resound? What is he asking of us? What are the points to be confirmed, the prospects for change, the steps to be taken?¹⁵ But in listening to the Spirit, we must remember that “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). So every effort must be made to encourage everyone to share: “How do we promote a free and authentic style of communication within the community and its organizations, without duplicity and opportunism? ¹⁶


My experience in industrial improvement processes taught me that the crucial element is co-responsibility. All members of a group must feel that they have a say and a possibility of influencing the actions and future of the group: “A synodal Church is a participatory and co-responsible Church. ¹⁷

Many of the documents relating to synodality clarify that the intent is not to convert the Church into a voting democracy, although there is has some elements of this, as for example the College of Cardinals elects a new pope through voting. The leadership structure will remain hierarchical so as to be able to maintain unity. But then, returning to my industrial analogy, companies are not called to become democracies either. There will still be managers, directors, vice-presidents and presidents. In our experience, what helped in creating co-responsibility was the fact that the voice of employees was being heard, and their good suggestions were being implemented, and everyone took special pride in their role within the company. There were also mechanisms for bypassing reporting levels when it came to suggestions. The Church is trying to do this also, so in addition to the consultation through the normal structural channels, 

Equally valuable will be the contribution of other ecclesial entities to which the Preparatory Document will be sent, as well as that of those who wish to send their own contribution directly. Finally, it will be of fundamental importance that the voice of the poor and excluded also find a place, not only that of those who have some role or responsibility within the particular Churches.¹⁸

But we need to ask ourselves: “How is authority exercised within our particular Church? How do we promote participation in decision-making within hierarchically structured communities?¹⁹


The corporate or team nature of the Church has always been recognized with the biblical images of the Body of Christ in Paul and of the Tree and the Branches in the Gospel of John. The first social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII reflects: “We read in the pages of holy Writ: 'It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one falls, he shall be supported by the other.'(Ecl 4:9-12).²⁰ And the Second Vatican Council has reinforced this team consciousness: “God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.”²¹ And teamwork is most functional when the talents of individual members of the team are recognized in “exercising the variety and ordered richness of their charisms, their vocations and their ministries.”²²

For decades since Vatican II we have been saying that we are the Church, but this is seldom more than words, rather than being an effective reality. A prescribed by TQM, management must facilitate the proper environment and culture. In the Church, “management” would correspond to the next higher level of authority, but we saw that  Pope Francis is hoping for a bottom-up process: “It is important that the synodal process be exactly this: a process of becoming, a process that involves the local Churches, in different phases and from the bottom up, in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.”²³ Rafael Luciani, a lay theologian and a member of the synod’s Commission for Theology reflects on the complexity of the situation: 

Inverting the pyramidal structure of the Catholic Church may be frightening for some, proponents admit, raising concerns the Vatican will become nothing more than a bureaucratic step in the church’s decision-making process or — worse still — akin to a nongovernmental organization. Instead, the new synodal process is “a spiral,” Luciani explained, where at every phase the decisions are sent from the dioceses to the episcopal conferences to Rome and then back again. “For the first time there is an interaction, it is not a linear way of proceeding,” he added.²⁴

Consultation has already begun at the bottom level of parishes and organizations, and there will be interaction at all levels, and the pope will have to keep prodding. At the meeting of the Italian Synod mentioned at the beginning of this article,  Cardinal Bassetti candidly asked the pope “maybe you will give us a push, a bit of courage."

¹ Cindy Wooden, “Synod process must begin 'from bottom up,' pope tells bishops” reported in National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2021.
² James Womack et al, The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production (New York: Free Press, 2007).
³ Unites States Department of Defense, Total Quality Management Guide, 1989.
⁴ Ibid., p. 15.
⁵ Ibid., p. 17.
⁶ Ibid., p. 24.
⁷ Paul D. McNelis, “Religious Community as a Model for Understanding the Japanese” in America, December 12, 1992.
Total Quality Management Guide, p. 68.
⁹ Ibid.
¹⁰ Holy See Press Office, Preparatory Document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 2021.
¹¹ Ibid., #11.
¹² Ibid., #1.
¹³ Ibid., #2.
¹⁴ Ibid., #15.
¹⁵ Ibid., #26.
¹⁶ Ibid., #30.
¹⁷ Ibid.
¹⁸ Ibid., #31.
¹⁹ Ibid., #30.
²⁰ Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum novarum, 1891, Paragraph # 50.
²¹ Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium document, 1964, #9.
²² International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (2 March 2018), # 6.
²³ Pope Francis, “Moment of Reflection in Preparation for the Opening of the Synod” reported in Vatican News, October 9, 2021.
²⁴ Reported by Claire Giangravé in the Religion News Service, September 2, 2021.

Alfredo Romagosa is the Director of Education of the Pedro Arrupe Jesuit Institute. He has also taught theology classes at the Southeast Pastoral Institute and the Lay Ministry program of the Archdiocese of Miami, and is an engineering consultant. He has degrees in Electrical Engineering from Marquette University, a Master of Science from the University of Miami, and a Master of Arts in Religious Studies from Barry University.