Best Practices in Church Management

Efforts to improve church management are often sidetracked by three mindsets. First, we can misunderstand the truth that the church is timeless. Of course, Jesus Christ is timeless, some teachings are timeless and much of our worship is timelessbut many other behaviors of the church are time-bound. Second, there is a temptation to locate the church totally outside the world, rather than where Vatican II locates itvery much engaged with this current world. Third, sometimes our administrative strategies and structures are turned into ends in themselves. The church has one central purpose: to spread the Gospel. How we achieve that purpose involves responding to the signs of the times. Best practice in church management requires shifting from a mindset of defensive preservation to one of continuous improvement, and by a clear separation between that which is timeless and the strategies and structures that serve mission. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is attempting to exercise creativity in promoting best practice in church management.

When Archbishop Harry J. Flynn succeeded to the archdiocese in 1995, he was faced with unprecedented growth in three dimensions. He faced growth in raw numbers. There was exponential growth in ethnic and economic diversity. The third dimension could be termed a growth in depth, referring to a need for new clarity and focus in the mission of the local church. The archdiocese was facing a new complexity and scale to which it needed to respond.


Our older approach, which aimed at developing five-year plans and creating a bureaucracy of experts to implement them, was not helpful. In part, this was because traditional five-year plans usually respond better to the past than to the future and are too static. No such static model is appropriate for such a rapidly shifting environment. Furthermore, the church has been facing its own version of Enron and WorldCom, with its public outcry for transparency and accountability. Change occurs in the archdiocese that rapidly outpaces organizational strategies and structures. For the foreseeable future, the archdiocese will be in continuous transition, growth and change.

Some Assumptions

We realized that a meta-framework for dealing with change was needed. Such a framework requires some basic assumptions. A blue-sky group of some archdiocesan leaders and creative people from corporations, a university and state and municipal government met just six times. Among the outcomes of that group’s work were three basic assumptions that guided our design and practice of archdiocesan administration.

1. Conversion to Christ occurs in relationships primarily at the local parish level, more than at the archdiocesan level;

2. Most people in churches are smarter and more capable than we or they themselves think they are;

3. Building capacity to face the future intelligently is far more effective than producing a Big Plan.

We had observed that previous management practice was largely aspirationalthat is, it tended to focus ideologically on what ought to be rather than beginning realistically with what is. The management-by-objectives tools often defaulted more to wordsmithing people’s pastoral shibboleths than to discerning responses to current realities. A clear-eyed assessment of our reality was necessary as we looked at the mission of the local parish and the archdiocese.

We also needed a methodology that would save us from ourselves. We were well aware of the consequences of our own blind spots. We needed a methodology that allowed many hands to be involved in planning. We had very clear and simple ends in view: that parishes have the capacity to face intelligently the future with maximum adaptive capacity and that the central bureaucracy not reserve initiative to itself. The end in mind is an open, outwardly oriented and mission-aligned system. The model itself is deceptively simple. It is shown in Figure 1.

In this model our commitment to best practice means building capacity and alignment rather than determining the Big Plan. The model recognizes that parishes and other institutions are at the business end of the archdiocesan mission and that the proper function of most archdiocesan work is to build up more local capacity. In particular, the proper role of the Archdiocesan Planning Office is two-fold: first, to build capacity in parishes and, second, to shape the archdiocesan offices in their strategies, structures and systems for doing the same with those they serve.

A Place to Start

In this archdiocese our journey toward best practice began with the provision of demographic mapping to parishes at no cost. Parishes were helped to refine their questions when they asked for demographic information, so as to encourage participatory planning processes and the use of sophisticated local resource people. Within three months our assumption that parishes were smarter and more capable was more than proved valid (with a few exceptions). All we needed to do was affirm and work on refining their capacity.

An early strategy we called chumming the waters. We would regularly and strategically place relevant information in attractive and easily digestible forms where many people could see it. The Catholic Spirit (our archdiocesan newspaper), for example, interviewed several pastors about the impact of economic and ethnic diversity on how they did ministry. Demographic data were introduced to gatherings of parish business administrators and other similar groups. We used these strategies to create a yearning and capacity among parishes for data-driven decision-making.

A significant shift toward best-practices thinking is most sustainably achieved, in our experience, by relationship rather than by decree. This includes the connection between the archdiocese and parishes. One of the major techniques of change we have used is visits that have a very simple agenda. One archdiocesan division sent its staff in pairs into parishes over a 12-month period to meet with parish leaders with no other agenda than to learn the successes of those they were meeting. The first surprise was that parish leadership welcomed them and reported that they benefited from this kind of visit.

The second surprise was that the archdiocesan staff learned that they themselves had a surprisingly high level of systemic understanding to offer parishes. This systemic understanding of how good parishes/schools/institutions work is different from and only tangentially related to their own expertise or specialties, such as school administration, catechesis, liturgy, curriculum, finance, human resources and so on.

Over time a third surprise emerged for the archdiocesan staff. The relationships they formed by these informal connections gave them the capacity and credibility to constructively challenge poor practices at the parish level. As a result, the archdiocesan staff is shifting from leading with their specialty to leading with their systemic perspective. The dependency relationship is slowly giving way to local responsibility for both problems and solutions.

Presbyteral Councils

In another arena, our presbyteral council was stuck in the frustrating practice of receiving often haphazard reports from the deaneries and discussing multiple agendas that arrived at the meeting in no particular way. In a recent change process, council members were invited to experiment with coming to this table not simply as parochial pastors or even regional deans, but with the whole archdiocese in view. The archbishop and council members would choose two or three topics that would influence the direction of the whole of the archdiocese and stay with those topics for an entire year so that they could deeply discuss things that actually matter. Some suggested that their new pattern be repeated in other leadership gatherings: archbishop’s cabinet, executive officer’s meetings, deanery meetings and pastoral council meetings in parishes. What we have been doing is changing the framework in which people operate and connect, focusing them on differences that actually make a difference and managing the quality of exchanges among the differences. The archdiocese is slowly changing the way it connects within itself, and two things are happening as a result. New and creative best practices are beginning to emerge and practices that work are being disseminated throughout the archdiocese.

A key factor in the new way of acting is how information flows through the system. Deliberately opportunistic in its approach, the planning office leveraged the new Web site development by creating conversations around the flow of information generally in the system, shifting the paradigm from the collection of information to the flow of information with complete loops. Principles of practice developed, like: If parishes do not need it, the archdiocese does not need it, and Every collection of data has to be analyzed. No analysis, no collection; no feedback to parishes, no collection. While there are certain mandated exceptions to these principles, the development of them indicates an orientation toward the information needs of parishes rather than the amassing of unused data in the central offices. This is still in the process of development.

New Leadership

Although there is a great deal of stability in church leadership, we know that the current generation of leaders will finish their work within the next 15 years. Therefore, a key to best practice is succession of leadership. In a recent discussion on this in our archdiocese, one group of senior leaders asked, leadership for what? The environment of rapid change requires us to have people who can learn quickly, make connections, create and sustain relationships, think systemically and integrate all this with whatever expertise they may also bring with them. In terms of leadership development and training, we identified seven areas for development. Emerging leaders will be those who are comfortable with transparency, connectedness, ambiguity, life as a middle in the church structure, a pastoral care orientation, a passion for continuous improvement and adaptability to cope with continuous growth, transition and change. They need to be able to enter a parish system relationally and do assessment and intervention. Hiring and developing leaders in this paradigm is seen as key to best practice.

Making Decisions

Keeping all this in view, we are trying to develop a decision-making process that is based on reliable data. Where this model has been introduced it has been very well received. It is shown in Figure 2. It was first developed by Dennis Cheesebrow of TeamWorks International Inc., a consulting company with whom we have extensively worked in this change process.

Our experience was that significant decisions were being taken while minimizing or even skipping the first two steps entirely. As a result, important information was never considered, and excellent opportunities for broad involvement were being missed. It is impossible to overestimate the value of creating several options rather than a single recommendation. The person who makes the decision must make a choice and therefore has to take responsibility and can be held accountable for that choice. A task group that has to develop more than one option and offer the decision-maker an analysis of the pros and cons of each viable option it presents is more creative and thoughtful; and since the group’s work product includes more than one option, not all members of the group have to agree upon any one option. Political divisiveness is lessened to a degree by this approach.

Best practice in church management is possible. It takes intentionality and systemic thinking. It involves holding fast to the mission, beliefs and traditions of the church while adapting strategies and systems to an ever-changing environment. It involves letting go of a static big plan in favor of continuous improvement and adapting to internal and external transitions. The future of best practice in church management lies in thoughtful experiment, some of which will fail, and learning from experience. Our experience has taught us that best practice is, above all, a leap of faith based in our unshakable trust in the local church and what Pope Leo XIII in 1896 affirmed as the church as divinely established.

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12 years 1 month ago
As an associate pastor and pastor, I lived through much of what Jim Lundholm-Eades described. Subsequently, I put myself through a Master of Public Policy and Management for Nonprofits program at the University of Pittsburgh, where we learned best nonprofit management practices. While agreeing with the article's premise, I find it lacking a description of who these leaders will be - clergy or laity - and whether canon law will give laity ultimate responsibility for their decisions. Perhaps that is an issue that can be discussed as the dwindling numbers of priests continues.

12 years 1 month ago
As an associate pastor and pastor, I lived through much of what Jim Lundholm-Eades described. Subsequently, I put myself through a Master of Public Policy and Management for Nonprofits program at the University of Pittsburgh, where we learned best nonprofit management practices. While agreeing with the article's premise, I find it lacking a description of who these leaders will be - clergy or laity - and whether canon law will give laity ultimate responsibility for their decisions. Perhaps that is an issue that can be discussed as the dwindling numbers of priests continues.


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