Business Plan: Bringing best practices to the church
I have the best job in the world. And I never saw it coming. Seven years ago, heartbroken over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, I visited my spiritual director yearning to lend myself to a meaningful, life-giving pursuit. She suggested that as a prayerful discipline every day for a month, I open myself to the world of possibility while going about the hectic demands of full-time work and motherhood.
Fortified by her wisdom, I flew to Memphis for a board meeting of Catholic philanthropic foundations and received the answer to my prayers in the person of Geoff Boisi, to whom I offered my services. He later became the founding chair of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and invited me to be its first director.
Our network is made up of senior executive leaders from all sectors and industries. These thoughtful, generous men and women—ordained, religious and lay—are chief executive officers, presidents, executive directors, generals and major religious superiors. They are people of profound faith and accomplishment. All Catholic, they come together to help the church respond positively to complex, contemporary and temporal challenges. Our work is neither easy nor expedient. Daily we contemplate the managerial, fiscal, administrative, personnel, communications and public relations challenges facing church leaders.
How? When church leaders ask for help, we respond rapidly with advice, programs and personnel. A bishop from the Midwest, for example, contacted the Leadership Roundtable and explained that the diocese’s pastors and lay leaders could benefit from greater managerial, financial and human resource expertise. The leaders’ proactive approach allowed us to help the diocese implement the Roundtable’s Standards for Excellence, 55 concrete measures to ensure that Catholic parishes, dioceses and nonprofits are operating within accepted best practices. (A recent Carnegie-Notre Dame study confirmed that this local church is now run more efficiently and effectively, and pastors report the advantage of having a credible roadmap to guide their managerial responsibilities.)
We also assist with leadership formation through the Pastor’s Toolbox, a weeklong Harvard Business School-style seminar that equips new pastors with tools for effective management. And when the Great Recession threatened church assets, we convened economic leaders and bishops, a collaboration that led to two national initiatives: coordinated procurement to save money and pooled investment to increase assets.
There is no question that my faith—in possibility, in the church, in God’s providence—brought me to this role. Every day I try to honor this gift by remembering its genesis in vocational discernment and the blessing of meeting Geoff Boisi and our many inspiring colleagues.
When you love something, like the church, you come to know it intimately and see it at its best and at its most ignoble. A close priest friend reminds me that it is harder to hold on to one’s faith the closer one gets to the center of power. There is an irony involved: more care of one’s own inner life of faith must be taken when one works daily in service to the church. What we witness at times (arrogance, fear, control, clericalism, mediocrity, vitriol between the left and right, lack of mercy, distrust) can challenge faith. But it is a challenge my colleagues and I have come to embrace. We commit ourselves to being the church we want to see, to remembering what it is we love most about the church, to serving in a manner that is positive, solution-oriented and faithful.
To accomplish our mission, we hold ourselves to high standards. We seek the best and brightest Catholic leaders, from the church and secular arenas, and assemble them to collaborate on ways to strengthen the church. Recently, when we sought to provide communications expertise to lay and ordained church leaders, we turned to Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, and Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, then vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As Christian stewards, we believe that to complain and refuse to be part of the solution is to be complicit. As baptized Catholics, we are active, grateful participants, engaged in the life of the church while attending to its temporal needs. We meet for liturgy and begin in prayer. We remember how much can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit. We follow guiding principles and maxims that are deeply Catholic: Trust in providence; banish cynicism; extend the benefit of the doubt; be on the lookout for grace; be joyful.
Catholics in the United States have attained education, affluence, influence and executive leadership, which allows for unprecedented lay expertise, support and leadership in service to the church.
I no longer know if it is my work that nurtures a rich, earthy, vibrant inner life of faith or my faith that inspires and sustains my passionate commitment to serve the church. Either way, it makes for a great day job.