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Training in how to do a budget wasn’t part of the seminary curriculum,” said the Rev. Stephen Gemme, who became a pastor only 14 months after his ordination in 2002 for the Diocese of Worcester, Mass. “Being the chief administrator, not only for the parish, but for the largest elementary school in the diocese,” he told Catholic.net, “was a heavy responsibility.”

While the mission of the Catholic Church has never been centered on financial and management skills, such administrative necessities are more critical than ever for effective pastoral leaders. Unfortunately, those skills are rarely taught in seminaries, where the focus is forming priests for the vocational call of the priesthood and not to become managers. As a result, new pastors often feel overwhelmed and underprepared for the administrative rigors that confront them daily, making it even tougher for them to succeed on a spiritual plane.

Mindful of this critical need, a concerned group of lay, clerical and academic practitioners teamed up to find a solution. They created Pastors for a New Millennium: A Toolbox for Parochial Management, an innovative training program designed to give new pastors the skills they need to handle the complexities of church management. The program covers vital temporal issues that seminaries rarely have time for.

The results have exceeded expectations. The program held its inaugural six-day training session in July at the San Alfonso Retreat Center in Long Branch, N.J. The 28 priests who attended from 13 different dioceses (as far away as St. Petersburg, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Galveston-Houston) found helpful not just the management tools they acquired, but also the opportunity to reflect with one another on their role as pastors and to engage in dialogue with management experts.

What makes A Toolbox for Parochial Management unique is that it is patterned after executive leadership programs at many of the nation’s top business schools, like the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Developed with extensive input from successful pastors, the program staff includes laypeople and members of the clergy who are recognized experts in their fields of church management. The first conference included presentations by Bishop Arthur Serratelli, of Paterson, N.J., on the new missal and liturgical renewal; Charles Zech, professor of economics at Villanova University and director of its Center for the Study of Church Management, on parish internal financial controls; Jim Lundholm-Eades, director of parish services and planning for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a widely published author on church management, discussing a “six-month game plan”; and Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable, on communication and Christian stewardship.

But the 15 presentations delivered during the week were only part of the program. Over lunch and dinner and after Mass and each day’s final session, participants gathered in groups of three and four to share stories of parish life today, replete with priest shortages, merging parishes, ministerial burnout and financial challenges. Conversations ranged from what works and what does not to the importance of lay leadership and strategic planning, and to the significance of becoming a “mission-driven” parish.

Piloting the Toolbox program is Seton Hall University, which runs the International Institute for Clergy Formation, a continuing education center for priests. The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management co-sponsored the program. The goal is to give participants a deeper understanding of what it takes to be an effective pastoral manager today, particularly in the tricky areas of finance, administration and personnel management.

Coping With the Pressures

The speed with which priests nowadays become pastors has made a smart, contemporary formation more urgent than ever. A survey in 2005 found that on average 54 percent of diocesan priests and 18 percent of religious priests were made pastors within seven years of ordination. Indeed, it is not uncommon for newly ordained priests to become pastors almost immediately. Compounding the challenge is the fact that 36 percent of the diocesan priests and 20 percent of the religious order priests were responsible for more than one parish, according to the survey. The rapidly growing number of international priests face a variety of cultural challenges and obstacles.

No wonder the early years as the parish leader are considered to be the most critical—and most difficult. During these years, pastors must come to grips with an enormous workload and with what many find to be the loneliness of the job, the lack of support, the personality conflicts and the often unrealistic demands and expectations of the people of the parish.

Toolbox attempts to replace trial-and-error pastoral management with effective stewardship. In the area of finance, for example, participants learn which principles and practices are essential to any well-run organization, public or private: transparency, accountability, economies of scale and use of “best practices.” Pastors—many of whom are the first to admit that their knowledge of financial fundamentals is thin—learn which budgeting and financial analysis and operations competencies are critical to running a strong fiscal house. These include creating and disseminating timely financial reports and providing parishioners with a confidential way to report any suspected improprieties or misuse of parish resources. Participants learn how to work effectively with their finance councils, how to manage the new skills essential to fundraising, how to achieve cost savings through cooperative purchasing and staffing agreements with other parishes and how to deploy best practices in managing their facilities.

The curriculum is no less comprehensive in the field of planning. Here pastors are challenged with the overarching question: How can they become meaningful agents of growth for their parishes? To that end the Toolbox program instructors underline the importance of working with the laity in their parishes to plan and execute well-designed programs—including capital campaigns—and to develop six-month (and longer) “game plans” to inform their strategic decision-making. Learning to assess the needs of the parish accurately and continuously is another major component of the planning discussion.

So is the “Standards of Excellence,” a set of performance guidelines introduced over the past two years by the National Leadership Roundtable and covered by the Toolbox program. “Standards” provides a solid ethics and accountability code that can be used by virtually every parish to guide it in the planning process.

Another area of vital skills training is personnel and risk management. Pastors learn the importance of assembling a high-performance lay staff with talented individuals who can assume some of the pastor’s daily responsibilities, leaving pastors more time to concentrate on “big picture” issues and concerns. Toolbox gives pastoral leaders insights into hiring, evaluating, coaching and inspiring that team. On the risk-management side, the discussion turns to timely issues like: What steps can a parish take to protect its assets? When does a parish need to seek legal counsel? What concerns should a parish risk-management program address?

A Continuing Learning Process

Reinforcing the lessons learned from the Toolbox for Parochial Management is its broad-based support. It is a joint effort of the International Institute for Clergy Formation at Seton Hall University, the Archdiocese of Newark, the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., and the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. Each sponsoring group hopes to ensure that the program will become part of a continuing learning process. Thus, “alumni” will receive periodic newsletters and have electronic access to groups of peers and experts they can contact to pose questions and seek advice.

The success of the program’s maiden voyage suggests an optimistic future for this clerical-lay-academic consortium. Planning is underway for the next session of the program in summer 2010, and a book is being developed based on its content. As pastors left the weeklong gathering of education, prayer, relaxation and renewal to return to parishes around the country, they seemed energized by the message they had heard: Do not fear change, but use it to achieve positive results.

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14 years 2 months ago

This Toolbox  approach seems too narrowly focused on the ordained pastor.  Increasingly many American parishes (in cluster or not) are managed day-to-day by quite capable non-ordained lay or religious.  They need as much help as our ordained pastors.  In fact, I think we should take their inspiration - even, model - and begin to move all parishes to parish management (including internal lay ministry) by capable lay or religious, freeing our priests for heightened sacramental efforts.

14 years 2 months ago

As a former administrator of a large development office of a religious order, I had no formal education in administration, fundraising and finances.  I did have experience. A course such as the Toolbox  Program for Parochial Management would have been very helpful to me and to my religious order.

I congratulate all those men and women who have initiated this program for priests. It is urgently needed.  I am grateful to the bishops who are supporting this creative undertaking.

Mike Evans
14 years 2 months ago

So first question, why isn't stewardship and management part of seminary culture and learning? Second question, before receiving an appointment as a pastor, why not require remedial education in basic economics, accounting principles, leadership and development? In olden days, it took 15 years or longer as an 'associate' in several parish assignments before a priest was even considered for a pastorship. He at least was exposed to several models and varieties of pastoral leadership and expertise in those years. Then he was only entrusted with a very small and stable parish for his first pastorship. Later appointment to more complex parishes were mostly based on his success in early assignments. The 'scuttlebutt' on every priest was pretty well known by his 18th or 20th year of ordination and not too many awful mistakes were made. Today we are appointing rookies who have no real world experience in any administrative capacity who are completely untrained in basic management principles. And worst of all, they are rarely encouraged to rely upon finance committees or administrative staff in their parishes for appropriate advice. They mostly govern in silence and by divine right, even though preternatural gits were long ago lost by the sin of Adam and Eve.

14 years 2 months ago

To John Maine's point - The Leadership Roundtable does indeed provide such training and resources for lay parish leaders too.  The Standards for Excellence program mentioned in the article is designed for priests, parish staff, members of pastoral and finance councils, and other lay leaders.  Customized versions are also provided for diocesan leaders and the staff of Catholic nonprofits.  More information at www.CatholicStandardsForExcellence.org.

14 years 2 months ago

The Catholic Leadership Institute offers a two-year program on "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds."  It is a highly commendable course to learn effective tools for pastoral leadership in today's world.  Visit www.CatholicLeaders.org for more info.  This program has been offered to many arch/dioceses in the country and a number of dioceses abroad.

Roger Gambatese
14 years 2 months ago

The article states, "No wonder the early years as the parish leader are considered to be the most critical—and most difficult. During these years, pastors must come to grips with an enormous workload and with what many find to be the loneliness of the job, the lack of support, the personality conflicts and the often unrealistic demands and expectations of the people of the parish."  Seems to me that the biggest problem for pastors is the unrealistic demands and expectations of their bishop.

How many men, on receiving a call to the priesthood, look upon it as an opportunity to get involved with parish finances, budgets, and personnel and risk management?  I suspect very few.

Expecting pastors to be involved with parish finances, budgets and personnel and risk management is, in fact, very poor personnel management on the part of bishops.  In almost every parish there are dedicated Catholics skilled in such matters who would gladly serve their parish and their bishop with those skills. 

Rather than offering pastors special help with parish finances, budgets and personnel and risk management, bishops should assign lay people experienced in those matters to those duties and, instead, offer special training to pastors in coping with loneliness on the job, the lack of support, the personality conflicts and the often unrealistic demands and expectations of the people of the parish.  Training in giving homilies, individual spiritual guidance, and counseling to troubled parishioners would help, too. 

14 years 2 months ago

We read with interest of the efforts of Mssrs. Healey and Eriksen et al to improve fiscal and administrative control in parishes.  Certainly something that is greatly needed.We would , however , submit an alternative approach to this vexing issue. To wit : In light of the diminshing number of priests and the primacy of their spiritual responsibilities to their respective flocks, the gentlemen might better use their time in either training capable laity to perform these funtions and/or convincing local ordinaries of the wisdom thereof. Combining those ideas with the threshold recognition that priests and seminarians are not by their very nature either business people or administrators ( or why would they not have pursued those career paths instead?),it seems most unfair to them as well as their parishoners to put priests in that position. They have much, much more important things to do which are consummately more congruent with their interests and sacred calling.Bottom line: Join with the sound and proven practices of most other major faith traditions and let the laity render unto Caesar while the clergy render unto God!

14 years 2 months ago

I read with much interest this article on the Pastors' toolbox workshop. Programs such as this are vital for the success of the future Church, especially as non-native born clergy become more prevalent. The ripple effect back to their native countries is as important as it is for the just administration and stewardship of the Church in the United States. 


A brief mention was made of Villanova University's Center for Church Management. Doctor Zech and the University are at the forefront of offering leadership and education that complements the seminary education we have all received. For the past two years I have studied with a wonderful cross section of Church leadership persons in Villanova's new online master degree in Church Management. The primary emphasis of the program is to make us better stewards of the gifts we have inherited as leaders, or future leaders, in parishes, dioceses, religious orders and other church institutions. As a cross section of men and women, ordained and non ordained, Catholic and non Catholic, this program brings out the best in its students and challenges each one to think outside of the traditional box that ministry sometimes drops us into. For those interested, the site for the program is: http://www.villanova.edu/business/graduate/church/. We are reminded all the time that seminaries, in every denomination, really aren't designed to teach us these administrative skills, but other institutions and centers of learning are around to continue our formation as ministers and servants of the Church.

Any effort that can be made to better one's ministry is worth the time invested. Extraordinary effort reveals the love that organizations like the National Roundtable and Villanova University have for the Church. May we be seen as good and faithful stewards for trying to better the church for those who will follow us.

Jacob Broder Fingert
14 years 2 months ago

I am a strong believer that faith-based organizations play a critical role in serving society, and I think it is very important to provide them with the necessary tools and skills to become more effective.  It seems like this program is a good step forward.  One challenge I often see in faith-based organizations is that it can be very difficult to measure success.  For example, do we measure our success by the number of people served, the quality of our services, or the impact of those services on individual lives?  Going forward, I would like to see more learning and knowledge sharing around measuring impact, so that all faith-based organizations can have a common way to measure success and guide their resources to serve others more effectively.

14 years 1 month ago

Thank you very much for this article.  However, I think the program at Seton Hall needs to be expanded to include permanent deacons.  Many Bishops are using these men to administer parishes to allow the priests to take care of the sacramental side of things.  While some permanent deacons may have had business experience, it is not the same as administering a parish.  Deacons used as administrators are often called "Parish Life Coordinators".

Monica Lavia
14 years 1 month ago
Reading this article made me sad. We are already suffering from a severe shortage of ordained clergy, and now we are proposing a plan to overwhelm them even more, adding to their already heavily burdened workloads. Please hire people who do have the financial and management skills and training to handle the business of running the parish, and save the priests for performing those duties that can only be performed by priests. Programs such as this are not vital, nor even desirable. This is a huge step backwards in providing pastoral care for parishes. The article states, "those skills are rarely taught in seminaries, where the focus is forming priests for the vocational call of the priesthood and not to become managers." Please keep it this way. I am grateful that my pastor is focused on his vocational call of priesthood, instead of attempting to pursue a second career in business management, thus depriving the parish of his much needed pastoral presence.
I can appreciate Rev. Leo B. Shea's comments as relating to his position as a "former administrator of a large development office of a religious order", but that is a totally different issue than depriving a parish of their pastor. Perhaps the reason the mission of the Catholic Church has never been centered on financial and management skills is because the mission of the church is to follow the example of Jesus, and His focus was not on these issues. Neither should be that of His ordained followers.

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