What the Catholic Church can learn from IBM

A prototype of IBM’s Watson computing system in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) What’s the difference between IBM and the Roman Catholic Church?

Well, one is led by a woman, Ginni Rometty, and the other by a man, Pope Francis. And one is more interested in prophets than profits. And one has Innovation Jam, and one doesn’t (more on that later).

But both institutions are alike insofar as they have ambitious goals to pursue in this world. And IBM seems to have grasped, better than my Catholic Church, one of the core truths about what it takes for any organization to attain an earthly mission.

Here’s how one prophet enunciated that truth: “Transformation of an enterprise begins with a sense of crisis or urgency. No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.”

That was Lou Gerstner, the much-admired chief executive who joined IBM when the storied company was rapidly drifting toward corporate ruin. His first task: to convince hidebound executives that they were in crisis and needed to change. With the advent of ever-more-powerful desktop computers, mainframes were like those mandatory blue suits and red ties for which IBM salespeople had become famous. That is, they were not core to IBM’s nonnegotiable “set of beliefs.” Put simply: Only by changing dramatically would IBM thrive in the future.

Ginni Rometty of IBM in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Asa Mathat

Gerstner succeeded in transforming IBM through a new business model based largely on services. Now Rometty, the current CEO, is engineering yet another transformation as IBM focuses on Cloud computing and big data tools like Watson.

The Catholic Church can learn lots from IBM. The rapidly changing world challenges all organizations, churches included. The Catholic Church’s challenges are so profound that the word “crisis” is surely warranted in light of dropping Sunday Mass attendance, priest shortages and flagging interest among young adults, not to mention the headwinds of a broadly secular society.

The first step forward for Catholicism is the courage to name the predicament for what it is: a crisis. Now is not the time for cheerleading, but for a frank call to action to help reinvigorate the church. It will be well-received, I’m sure: There is a deep reservoir of goodwill among Catholics for the church that means a lot to them.

The second step forward is to foster a culture that is more open to fundamental change. That was hard for Gerstner to pull off at IBM but will be way harder for the church. That’s for all kinds of reasons, starting with a profound difference between IBM and the Catholic Church: God didn’t reveal the mainframe computer to IBM.

Contrast the Catholic Church, which, like most religious traditions, believes that its core beliefs, from Ten Commandments to Jesus’ divinity to a whole lot more, are divinely revealed and immutable. That weighs heavily on every bishop and the pope. That burden alone makes the church change-wary. So does 2,000 years of history and tradition.

Faithful attend a Mass of Pentecost celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on June 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Tony Gentile

All understood. But that worthy instinct to preserve what’s inviolable has contributed to fostering a culture that is too resistant to change at precisely a moment where change is needed. Reversing the trends of the last half-century won’t happen by following exactly the same playbook that got the church to this point.

The third step forward is creating a new kind of culture that nurtures imaginative solutions. IBM’s example can help here too. Its top executives are well aware that the management culture of big, venerable organizations invariably becomes bureaucratic and change-resistant (even when God’s Word is not involved). Accordingly, IBM works hard to create programs, from Innovation Jam to Think Place, to foster imaginative new ideas; IBM conscientiously nurtures the most promising ideas with seed funding and mentorship support.

Maybe Pope Francis needs to convene his own innovation jam, welcoming new ideas for how to interest young adults in the church, or to make worship services more stimulating, or to use social and mass media, or to better tap the talents of our women members. And maybe some bishops need to start channeling their inner Silicon Valley venture capitalist, seeking out and fostering the innovations that can help a church revitalize itself.

Today’s billion Catholics wield their imagination and entrepreneurial flair in every occupation and industry; I bet that a great number of them would gladly apply those talents to lend some help to their church. We just need to create the culture where that can happen.

(Chris Lowney chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives and is a former managing director at JP Morgan & Co. He is also author of “Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church”)

About the author

Chris Lowney


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  • As a catholic myself the church would do well to truly, with faith and love, LIVE OUT IT’S BELIEFS. I, and I am sure many others, are sick and tired of clergy that consistently and with full realization sins beyond belief. Never, EVER, has the humility to admit to these sins (grave sins too), and do something about it. This is not to evade the truth that the clergy are human and just as apt to sin as any of us. However, they gloss over their sins like they do not matter, believed to have a free pass to salvation so they can do as they please, and yes to take vows/ordination means that the clergy are suppose to be the example when they are more of what not to do. Their sinfulness is so egregious, their hypocrisy so great, that I either tune them out when they attempt to “pontificate” on how the world should live or I become so disgusted with each revelation of this cesspool.

    This church will not come back from the ashes based on whether one wants the NO or TLM, communion in the hand or tongue, women priests/deacons, or any other practice or outreach to younger people. The clergy and therefore the hierarchy, are sick with sinfulness, hypocrisy, scandal, politics, power, everything that Jesus Himself admonished. Everything else is white noise. No one, including myself, do not want nor can follow a group the says one thing and does the complete opposite.

  • Who needs IBM to generate a Watson-type updated Apostles’ Creed? No one as it has been done already:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2017: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request

  • I think you are onto something important here, but many do not want to hear it. Many are either in denial or in attack mode. But you have allies who want to constructively engage. Lets name our problems, confront them, and renew our faith. The first step is to be honest and direct about the problems. You have shown a light into the darkness. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  • If you want to renew the Catholic Church, first cast out all the homosexual priests and bishops and their enablers who brought about the abuse scandal. Then restore the true Mass not the rotissarian fellowship celebrations we now have which was cobled together by bureaucrats and Protestants. Do that and you will be well on your way.

  • What a goofy article and it misses the whole point: whether or not Christianity is true. If it is, it is impossible to change the core teachings for God cannot change. If it is not true, then why bother at all for it is all a hoax. Furthermore, the author seems to have no clue that what he proposes is precisely what has led to the crisis: a watering down of Church teaching, changing to adopt to the culture. The only churches growing are those who have not done so, while all the mainline protestant communities and Catholic dioceses that have conformed to the current culture are bleeding members. The one reason the Church has survived for 2000 years is because it does give in to this and if it had, it would have expired long ago.

  • We should not follow the group; Christ gave us the Church, but it is up to each and every one of us to learn the doctrines and dogmas of that Church.

    The husband of a very active Church couple spotted my copy of TCoCC, placed conspicuously on the shelves next to our mantel place, while at my birthday party. He commented that he had never actually seen a copy much less read it.

    I went upstairs and fetched a copy of the CoTCoCC and gifted it to him.

    We must correct the errors of those that have fallen away from the teachings of The Church.

  • Hmmmm, something about people using monikers to articulate what they believe to be one their defining characteristics.

    It will come to me…

  • “Here’s how one prophet enunciated that truth: “Transformation of an enterprise begins with a sense of crisis or urgency. No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.”

    Well, the Catholic Church is certainly in need of transformation all right, as its now at that place of crisis and urgency! Of course no one takes note of this, since the Church’s worldwide membership is made up largely of poor, uneducated people who attend church and support it with their scarce resources out of guilt for their presumed sins, mainly sexual ones. Many US Catholics attend a few times a month or year, and have struck an accommodation with the Church about all sexual matters.

    Oh, something the article didn’t mention: IBM doesn’t allow pedophelia among its ranks!

  • “It does give in”?
    Actually the history of the Catholic Church is one of adapting to a changing culture.

  • This is reprehensible. Since girls are also abused casting out all the heterosexual priests as well makes perfect sense according to this bigoted reasoning.
    And what in the Sam Hill are “rotissarian fellowship celebrations”?

  • Necessary perusal of the following documents were required to update the Apostles’ Creed. Let us know when you finish your perusal.
    See Professor Crossan’s reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books
    especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor
    Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

    Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published
    similar books with appropriate supporting references.

    Part of Crossan’s The Historical Jesus has been published online at

    There is also a search engine for this book on the right hand side of the
    opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

    See also Wikipedia’s review on the historical Jesus to include the
    Tacitus’ reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

    From ask.com,

    “One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is
    a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second
    centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals,
    exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to
    time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward
    what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not
    blunt) writing style.

    Then there are these scriptural references:

    Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20;
    6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John
    19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b)
    1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b;
    (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion
    org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

    Added suggested readings:

    1. Historical Jesus Theories,
    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html – the names of many of the contemporary
    historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the

    Early Christian Writings,

    – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

    30-60 CE Passion Narrative

    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q

    50-60 1 Thessalonians

    50-60 Philippians

    50-60 Galatians

    50-60 1 Corinthians

    50-60 2 Corinthians

    50-60 Romans

    50-60 Philemon

    50-80 Colossians

    50-90 Signs Gospel

    50-95 Book of Hebrews

    50-120 Didache

    50-140 Gospel of Thomas

    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel

    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ

    65-80 Gospel of Mark

    70-100 Epistle of James

    70-120 Egerton Gospel

    70-160 Gospel of Peter

    70-160 Secret Mark

    70-200 Fayyum Fragment

    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion

    80-100 2 Thessalonians

    80-100 Ephesians

    80-100 Gospel of Matthew

    80-110 1 Peter

    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas

    80-130 Gospel of Luke

    80-130 Acts of the Apostles

    80-140 1 Clement

    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians

    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews

    80-250 Christian Sibyllines

    90-95 Apocalypse of John

    90-120 Gospel of John

    90-120 1 John

    90-120 2 John

    90-120 3 John

    90-120 Epistle of Jude

    93 Flavius Josephus

    100-150 1 Timothy

    100-150 2 Timothy

    100-150 T-itus

    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter

    100-150 Secret Book of James

    100-150 Preaching of Peter

    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites

    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans

    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas

    100-160 2 Peter

    4. Jesus Database,
    http://www.faithfutures.o-rg/JDB/intro.html –”The JESUS DATABASE is an
    online a-nnotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings
    of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era.
    It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to
    the traditions found within the Christian New Testament.”

    5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bis-sar24.htm

    6. The Jesus Seminar, http://en.wikipedia.o-rg/wiki/Jesus_Seminar

    – books on the health and illness during the time of the NT

    8. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman,
    Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

    9.The Gn-ostic Jesus

    (Part One in a Two-Part Series on A-ncient and Modern G-nosticism)

    by Douglas Gro-othuis: http://www.equip.o-rg/articles/g-nosticism-and-the-g-nostic-jesus/

    10. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical

    Presented on March 18, 1994


    11. The Jesus Database- newer site:


    12. Jesus Database with the example of S-u-pper and Eucharist:


    13. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:


    13. http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/jesus.htmm- Historical Jesus Studies

    14. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/

    15. D-iseases in the Bible:


    16. Religion on- Line (6000 a-rt-ic-les on the
    hi-story of religion, churches, theologies,

    theologians, eth-ics, etc. religion-online.o–rg/

    The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT n-tgate-way.com/

    Writing the New Testament- e-xi-sting copies, o–r–al tradition etc.


    19. JD Crossan’s c-onclusions about the
    a-uthencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the c-onclusions of other
    NT e-xege-tes in the last 200 years:


    20. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books
    by t-itle with the complete translated work in English

    21. Luke and Josephus- was there a c-onnection?


    22. NT and beyond time line:


    23. St. Paul’s Time line with discussion of
    important events:


    24. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JD
    Crossan’s books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books
    are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be
    found on-line at Google Books.

    25. Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s words of wisdom
    as found in his books.

    27. The books of the following : Professors Gerd
    Ludemann, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and
    Bishop NT Wright.

    28. Father Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY,
    1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.

    29. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus

    Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for
    Jesus of Nazareth [Hardcover]

    Bart D. Ehrman

  • Sure, Dr. Crossan is a well-known scholar, (and yes I have read his “Historical Jesus” textbook), but no way in Hades has he put any dent in the Apostles Creed. Forget it.

    The only question these days, is whether you want to pay $27 for a professional scholarly textbook that refutes Crossan and others (e.g., Dr. Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, or also Dr. N.T. Wright’s books), or do you just prefer some free, relatively brief Internet gigs that do the job anyway.

    Here’s a good online example from CRI that torpedoes Crossan’s book:


    So there you go. Skeptizoids cannot defeat the Bible. The End.

  • Obviously, you did not peruse my comments past the first reference. After correcting this error, get back to us.

  • To be in a constant state of outrage must be wearing. I suggest that you pace yourself.

  • To be so inarticulate as to only be able to respond with personal attacks as you do exhibits the paucity of your argument.

  • I’m not outraged. You confuse articulating when something is wrong with ire. Of course as usual you yourself are just crawfishin’, but still.

  • Well I noticed several of the works cited were from theologically conservative authors. Wasn’t quite sure why.

  • What a pile of rubbish. Rare that one gets to see a full-blown corporate idiot expounding on the need for the Church to adapt to the secular culture.

  • Pity me? Shoot, I have fun holding up the mirror to you who are in the school of outrage. The look on your faces is priceless when you realize how silly you look. That’s an old strategy high school principals use. Hang a mirror behind their desk so when outraged parents come in to yell at them, they see how stupid they look. Works most of the time.