RADNOR, Pa. (RNS) “How many of you have ever studied a parish budget?” the Rev. David Couturier asked the 11 Catholic priests-in-training seated before him. After a few beats, just one hand went up, tentatively.

The Rev. David Couturier, who consults with dioceses around the world on management issues, explains the principles of what he calls "Franciscan economics" to nearly a dozen priests-in-training.

The Rev. David Couturier, who consults with dioceses around the world on management issues, explains the principles of what he calls “Franciscan economics” to nearly a dozen priests-in-training. RNS photo by David Gibson


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“That’s not unusual,” Couturier told them. “Just unfortunate.”

It’s also why these seminarians were at a Villanova University conference center in the leafy Philadelphia suburbs, part of a first-of-its-kind program that aims to provide some real-world grounding to the theological studies that dominate their course work.

It’s a bit of “operative theology” to complement the “abstract theology,” as Couturier put it.

Couturier, a Capuchin Franciscan and a popular consultant on church management issues, was one of several guest lecturers this summer. He spoke about parish planning — “The budget is your best theological statement,” he said. “It will tell you where the priorities of the parish are” — while the Rev. Michael White, who has written widely about building up congregations, probed the principles of effective leadership.

By the end of the course in mid-July, the students will hear talks on finances, human resources, facilities maintenance and security as well as a crash course in civil law.

The reason, and urgency, behind the program is simple: Today more than ever, Catholic parishes are complex entities that require a patient manager and a watchful overseer who can lead a team of collaborators, not just a staff of employees.

Once upon a time, the parish staff usually consisted of a janitor and a parish secretary, maybe a volunteer, while a phalanx of nuns and brothers would teach the students, clean the rectory and fix the meals. No more.

Today, there are pastoral and finance councils, and lay people fill most paid positions, which mean a payroll to juggle and benefits to parse. In addition, parishes have to comply with a range of church and civil statutes on everything from child safety to environmental waste to landmark status for historic buildings.

Moreover, all of this is happening at a time of declining attendance and decreasing contributions that are forcing pastors to do more with less.

Parsimonious pastors also know that a parish is still a cash business, a reality that is regularly driven home by the numerous stories of parish fraud and embezzlement that hurt the bottom line as well as the credibility of a church that is still trying to recover from the sex abuse crisis.

Charles Zech, in red shirt at left, listens along with deacons and seminarians in the Seminarian Leadership Institute started last summer by Zech, a professor of business at Villanova University and specialist in church management.

Charles Zech, in red shirt at left, listens along with deacons and seminarians in the Seminarian Leadership Institute started last summer by Zech, a professor of business at Villanova University and specialist in church management. RNS photo by David Gibson


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The younger people, especially, if they see incompetence, they’re going to walk,” said Charles Zech, director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at the Villanova School of Business and the prime mover behind this program.

Zech also noted another crucial factor: the ongoing priest shortage in the Catholic Church means newly minted clergy are likely to be running their own parish just two or three years after ordination, and may wind up leading several parishes not long after that.

That’s a big change from just a decade or two ago, when new priests could expect to serve 10-15 years as an associate pastor. They used that time to learn the ropes from experienced pastors about everything from who to call to fix the boiler to who to trust when it came to financial reporting — and how to make sure there were checks and balances on everything.

“These guys are also likely to be living alone,” said Zech. “Unless they find a mentor or someone to help them get adjusted, they’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”

That’s why Zech pushed for a decade to start a program to give new priests a head start. Last summer he was finally able to launch the first Seminarian Leadership Institute, a five-week course that works in conjunction with the real-life experience that the seminarians are getting as they intern in local parishes.

Of the 11 men in this year’s class, five are from the Philadelphia archdiocese’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, three are from the nearby Diocese of Allentown, two are from the Wilmington Diocese in Delaware, and one is from across the river in Camden, N.J. Nine are still in seminary, and two are “transitional deacons,” meaning they will be ordained priests next spring, with a parish the next stop.

To be sure, seminarians these days are often older, sometimes in their 50s, and almost all of them have some previous work experience.

This crop of students, for example, includes a former newspaper sports reporter, a retired Navy pilot, and a onetime insurance executive, and some had studied business in college.

That’s still not enough, said Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior, the rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Senior, who raised the money to fund the institute, has more administrative experience than most priests: he has an MBA and a master’s degree in social work, and he worked in Catholic Charities for years and oversaw clergy personnel for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Senior quickly discovered that the top reason that stressed-out priests requested a new assignment was to get out from under the heavy administrative burdens, and he wants to help new priests avoid that pitfall.

“It’s not that you have to be able to do everything,” Senior said. “But you certainly have to be able to recognize what needs to be done, and how to get the right people to do it.”

Senior stressed that he doesn’t want to turn priests into businessmen; instead, he wants them to use good management practices to help them operate a parish more efficiently, giving them more time to be the spiritual leaders they were called to be.

“To try to impose a straight business model on a parish is bound to fail,” said Albert Camburn, 42, a seminarian from Allentown who worked in construction for years before entering the seminary. Camburn was one of the student’s in this summer’s program.

As a foreman, Camburn said he learned some financial lessons that will serve him well as a priest, but the “hierarchy” of a work site didn’t help him develop strong people skills.

“I got very accustomed to barking orders. I didn’t want feedback,” he said. “But that doesn’t work in a parish. It may have at one time, but not anymore.”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

12 Comments

  1. In the later 80’s the only lay professor on the faculty staff suggested that basic book keeping be offered as an elective. He was told by the ordained clergy (who had never been a parish as pastors) that the seminarians would never need to learn book keeping; they would never use the information that they learned.

    Ha! Besides the liturgical/Sacramental aspects most of my job is working with money (paying bills, setting up budgets, etc). While I learned those aspects over the years by being a Parochial Vicar, the younger clergy are being made Pastor earlier than they should. I hope ALL seminarians learn the financial aspects as part of the normal curricula, not an Elective.

  2. This just makes me sad:

    “These guys are also likely to be living alone,” said Zech. “Unless they find a mentor or someone to help them get adjusted, they’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”

    What do they do at age 40 when they discover that God is probably delusional nonsense? A few ex-pastors ought to speak up and help these folks get a more serious occupation.

  3. Catholic priests would not need “management” training if the “management” of parishes was shared with competent members of the parish community chosen by the other members of each parish. The Reformation Churches have demonstrated great success with a process that existed in the early Jesus communities. The Vatican should learn a very belated lesson.

    Of course, controlling the physical aspects of parish life provides the clergy with more control over what is presumed to be the spiritual life of the people in the pews. Sharing management is known as a division of labor. It’s successful in homes. It’s successful in business. And sharing “management” would allow clergy to concentrate more properly on their roles as spiritual leaders.

  4. Perhaps a crash course in civil law will create a force that prevents bishops from subverting justice by hiding pedophile clergy, moving them from parish to parish without informing the new parish of their past harm to young people. Of course, there’s always the sick mind of any bishop who would do that. He’s as guilty as the pedophile priest.

    The condition of the people in the pews who put up with this sinful and criminal behavior is analogous to the electorates in our cities, states, and nation. The evil behavior of institutions where dishonesty and other evil persists is aided and abetted by the people who should stand against it, but sit docilely by. The people as a whole are more to blame than individual sinful criminals.

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