Everyone recognizes that the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was not caused only by the sinful failures of individual priests; it was also caused by the failure of a number of bishops to deal appropriately with these priests. There were not just personal failures; there were also personnel policy failures. In any other institution, the failures of these bishops in dealing with the crisis would be described as failures in management. Seminaries do not train priests to be managers, despite the fact that as pastors, let alone as bishops, they will be required to deal with committees, budgets, buildings and staffs. In the old days, priests would learn these practical skills as associate pastors, working for years under older and experienced pastors. Today, priests are often made pastors shortly after ordination; and in any case, the authoritarian management techniques they might have learned from an older pastor would be counterproductive in today’s more participatory culture.
In the first half of the 20th century, there was little the clergy could learn about management from an uneducated, working-class laity. Today, Catholic lay men and women are in the management and boardrooms of almost every major corporation in the country. They are C.E.O.’s, finance officers, partners, chairs of boards, management consultants and other high-ranking professionals. Can these professionals help the church get its management act together?
In the City of Brotherly Love on July 9, about 175 Catholic lay leaders gathered with some bishops to discuss church management. The two-day meeting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School was organized by Geoffrey T. Boisi, formerly vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase. He brought together an extraordinary collection of talent, including top C.E.O.’s of business and financial institutions, presidents of universities and experts in management, finance and human resources. Frederick W. Gluck, formerly managing director of McKinsey and Company, estimated that if the church had to pay for the advice from this group, the billable hours would be around $1 million.
Although no one argued that the church should be viewed as a business, everyone agreed that there are aspects of the church that are analogous to a business. Both have budgets and personnel and need to plan how to accomplish their goals. So there was much talk at the meeting about strategic planning, financial administration and human resource management as ways to further the mission of the church. Businesses that succeed, it was noted, pay attention to the desires and needs of their customers. And while parishioners are not exactly customers (any more than they are sheep), the parish that makes them welcome and empowered is a successful parish.
Many of the lay participants were novices in their understanding of church law, organization and culture. They were surprised that the power of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was so limited and that it was almost impossible to make binding decisions on the national level. The lack of regular performance evaluations of personnel, especially of priests, also surprised them.
But there was also a willingness to work at improving current structures within the church, especially finance and pastoral councils in dioceses and parishes. These structures allow for lay input in the financial and pastoral life of the church. How to make them work better is of interest to both bishops and laity.
The meeting, called “The Church in America Leadership Roundtable 2004,” may mark a new direction in lay-episcopal cooperation. The positive response of the bishops who attended the conference makes one hope that other bishops will be receptive to such input from the laity. This national meeting could be replicated in dioceses, where local laity could advise bishops on dealing with specific local issues. In the meantime, the results of the meeting are being collated and the presentations will be made available in both print and DVD.