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.