Best-Practicing Catholics

Can the ‘Roundtable' Fix Church Management?

A purchasing agent for the Archdiocese of New York is convicted in a $2-million kickback scheme. A priest supports his opulent lifestyle by pilfering $1.3 million. Another squirrels away over $1 million from weekly collections to buy a horse farm.

The Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University estimates that more than half of the dioceses in the United States have suffered embezzlement on a significant scale. And just as the church’s sexual-abuse scandal gave rise to groups like Voice of the Faithful, the mishandling of financial and human resources has spurred reform. One important initiative is the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. Brainchild of Geoffrey Boisi, a Wall Street investment manager with a distinguished record in Catholic philanthropy, the D.C.-based group has been working since 2004 to address the church’s structural problems, including the decline in monetary giving to Catholic ministries. Its mission is to help assure the institutional future of the church in the United States.

The Roundtable has a full-time staff of four and an annual budget of just under $1.5 million. Kerry Robinson, former development director at Yale’s Catholic center, guides the operation. Start-up money has come from half a dozen Catholic foundations, and board members range from Charles Geschke, chairman of software giant Adobe Systems, to J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Boston Catholic Charities, and Kathleen McChesney, first executive director of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. The group’s economic resources and managerial know-how provide leverage as it confronts the battered infrastructure of American Catholicism. More and more parishes have to share their priests with other parishes, and the ties of younger generations to institutional Catholicism are weakening. Diocesan bankruptcies and parish closings, the shuttering of schools, cutbacks and layoffs in social services, the disappearance of religious orders and the withering of religious literacy—these are no longer distant doomsday scenarios, but pressing realities.

To counter them, the Roundtable is reenvisioning the managerial architecture of U.S. Catholicism. The closest precedent comes from the late 1960s, when Catholic colleges and universities, along with many secondary schools and hospitals, started incorporating, separating themselves from the religious orders that founded them. To cope with the academic expansion promoted by the GI Bill and subsequent Great Society measures, Catholic higher education brought managerially savvy, well-connected laypeople into college and university governance. At about the same time, federal courts ruled that institutions of higher education that were “pervasively religious” would not qualify for public funding. As priests and nuns began to leave the consecrated life, shrinking the supply of clerical candidates for academic leadership, the growth of lay-dominated boards accelerated. The upshot was a quiet revolution in the way Catholic institutions in education and health services operated.

Today, most parishes and dioceses are moving toward a sea change of their own, and the Roundtable has encouraged them to adapt some of the experiments used in higher education and health care, even as it points to budgetary and personnel lessons drawn from business. All this reflects a larger trend in which social movements evolve “from mobilization to management”—the grass-roots convulsions of earlier decades giving way to donors and nonprofits who cast themselves as philanthropic entrepreneurs. The approach rarely sets the blood racing, yet it has significant implications for the services that the church delivers and for the way decisions are made. What’s more, for reasons traceable to differences in church-state relations, private donors play a more important role in American than in European Catholicism. This is especially the case for primary and secondary schools. In contrast to colleges, universities, and health services, they receive almost no public funding.

These circumstances can make for sometimes uneven transitions. Parishes, of course, are pervasively religious. And while the move to modernize Catholic higher education was promoted by priest-presidents at places like St. Louis University and the University of Notre Dame, the push to rationalize parishes and dioceses involves many more laypeople in leadership ranks. This laicization of the leadership sends a new message—a puzzling one to some prelates, for whom parishes are the bastions of authentic Catholicism—about where the American church is headed, and who is taking it there. In addition to worries about the religious spirit of institutions, some express skepticism at the idea of a tidy division of labor between a clergy devoted to spiritual-pastoral chores and a laity taken up with material “temporalities.” Others fear gentrification, “creeping congregationalism,” and the commercialization of the church.

Such misgivings point up the tension between clerical authority and lay prerogatives. Calls for independent audits of diocesan accounts, for instance, have run into headwinds, with some bishops claiming they can’t afford outside auditors—and a few, citing the separation of church and state, refusing to publish diocesan financial reports altogether. The Roundtable’s emphasis on merit and transparency has raised other issues, such as how to evaluate the clergy. Some priests welcome performance ratings, both as a way to protect themselves from arbitrary judgments and as a method for improving their skills; and together with the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, the Roundtable is developing measures for evaluating both clerical and lay employees. But in addition to opening up some dicey questions (if midlevel clergy and laity are evaluated, why not bishops?), human-resource metrics for pastoral work tend to be cumbersome. And with a designed-by-committee flavor, they often go ignored.

The Roundtable has also promulgated “standards for excellence.” This statement of managerial best practices, widely adopted by nonprofits outside the church, casts the traditional perquisites of the hierarchy in a fresh light. In the vernacular of one long-time observer, the upcoming generation of donors wants to keep its money away from “another prince of the church out to buy a $100,000 chandelier.” So far, the Roundtable has adopted an incremental approach to encouraging dioceses to sign on; and some impatient Catholics, acting independently, have taken matters into their own hands. In a few cases, parishioners fed up with pleading for transparency have established separate foundations dedicated to funding schools and other ministries. Some dioceses have vested funds for the retirement of priests, in accounts effectively beyond the reach of the bishop (a funding structure that carries the additional advantage of being shielded from lawsuits brought against the church).

Some of the institutional challenges facing Catholicism in the United States reflect the enormous economic and demographic variations among parishes, and in the episcopal culture of dioceses. Catholicism in the United States is like a vast archipelago, with spotty communication among many of the islands—not to mention the hierarchy. (Take, for instance, the notorious difficulty of transporting health insurance and pension plans across dioceses, and even among parishes within a diocese.) Then there is the recruitment hurdle facing the church. The question of how Catholicism will be passed on to the next generation has as much to do with remuneration and benefit packages as with doctrine, canon law, or iconic continuity; and yet, like many other nonprofits, the church competes poorly when it comes to salary and perks. Perhaps the most daunting challenge involves parish and diocesan schools, where expenses have shot up without a compensating uptick in contributions. Income in some dioceses “is so abysmal,” comments one educational administrator, that it is difficult to fund “a hot-dog stand, let alone a school.”

The Roundtable searches out ideas shown to be effective. Its “ChurchEpedia” Web site disseminates innovations in management, finance, development, and human-resource practices from parishes and dioceses around the country. Requests for advice have proliferated, and six dioceses have already entered into consulting contracts with the group. These joint ventures concentrate on the plight of parochial schools and on strategic planning, with an emphasis on developing fundraising and data-driven analysis. On a more limited scale, a bishop might ask someone from the Roundtable to speak about parish administration to a priests’ convocation; another might consult about finding a chief financial officer; and so on.

While programs like ChurchEpedia help deal with the archipelago problem, the magnitude of the structural crisis facing the church in the United States precludes a silver-bullet solution. The Roundtable can encourage organizational adaptations—clarifying the rules of management, fostering efficiency in the delivery of services—in the hope that such tools will catch on. But apart from the practical problems of policy, there is also a problem of the fit between managerialism and the religious identity of church institutions. While the bishops’ 1992 pastoral letter on stewardship gave a nod to lay participation in institutional development, the theological ramifications of efforts like those being put forth by the Roundtable are a work in progress. J. Bryan Hehir took up the problem in a 2006 talk. He elaborated on remarks made years ago by John Courtney Murray about the church in the postconciliar era. Vatican II, Hehir noted, has typically been understood “as a council of renewal and reform.” But Murray perceived that while renewal was “about ideas, vision...reform is about institutions.” Reform takes place not in the library, but in the political arena. “The challenge we live with in the postconciliar church,” Hehir argued, “is that our vision of renewal will run ahead of our capacity to create institutions to put the vision into practice.”

Institutional reform is always political. Add in the ethnic dynamic and upheaval in the traditional roles assigned to women, and you have vertiginous change. The Roundtable sees the economic and administrative challenges facing the church as so enormous that Catholics must assign them priority over internal disputes and quarrels about doctrine. The doctrinal probity of the Roundtable is not seriously in doubt. A fundamental rule is to stay clear of theological sore spots: the word “reform” does not appear on the Roundtable’s Web site, and controversy is seen as a distraction from getting the job done. “We’re tired of how the church has been beaten up,” says Roundtable founder Boisi. “It’s time to get the word out about the wonderful contribution that the church has made to this great country of ours.”

The Roundtable’s deliberations and proposals raise questions of ecclesiology and utility. How do the measures it espouses alter the balance of power between clergy and laity? And to what extent does this or that managerial upgrade actually benefit the church’s mission? Some recommendations may run aground on the indifference or ignorance of pastors overwhelmed by the task of keeping things going amid personnel and financial deficits, or among bishops facing burnout past retirement age. In other cases representatives of a parish or diocese may conclude that a proposed change simply doesn’t work.

The work of the Roundtable in aiding the Archdiocese of New Orleans illustrates both the promise and some of the limitations of the initiative. Five consultants spent eight weeks in New Orleans, working with local officials. The features of the implementation plan they developed—instituting a consistent budgeting process, coordinating purchasing functions within archdiocesan schools, driving school enrollment by coordinating marketing efforts, and so on—bear the imprint of the Roundtable’s skill set. Best practices and metrics for educational performance were available as off-the-shelf items, or were cobbled together to meet specific conditions, and a fact-based plan was put in place. Execution and outcomes remain to be assessed, but so far the archdiocesan office reports that it has been satisfied. The devotional side of parish life is another matter. “How do you measure the progress of sanctifying grace?” one prelate mused. Bitterness persists over the sale of some neighborhood churches in the wake of Katrina.

The irony of attempting to revamp the organizational side of Catholicism at a moment when many Catholics are turning away from organized religion is not lost on the Roundtable. Ingenuity and professionalism have improved and paid off for many Catholic schools, universities, and hospitals. Yet the extent to which similar reforms can be adapted to parish activities remains to be seen. Though it may be tempting to view parishes as the family farms of Catholicism—the small towns bypassed by the interstate—in fact many of these parishes are themselves in motion, serving (as in the case of their schools) many non-Catholics. The typical parish in the United States has an operating budget of around half a million dollars. More lay ecclesial ministers and pastoral associates are on the job than are priests. No U-turn solution is viable. Such realities fuel the passion among Roundtable members who want to make sure that an institutional vessel will be around to transmit to coming generations the values of “the church we love.” Almost certainly, the ship will be more tightly run. How many passengers it will carry is another question.

The next few years will see a spike in mortality among elderly priests and religious, who are already retiring in massive numbers. This will bring home the predicament of the institutional church to those who have so far managed to ignore it. “We want to look at things as they really are,” Boisi says. Doing so means examining not only the financial and demographic constraints pressing on the church, but also examining its organizational culture. Navigating these waters requires a mix of expertise and courage, of skepticism and faith; it means prodding leaders and speaking truth to power. Strategizing about the church without facing up to the reasons behind the shortage of priests is like trying to fix the current financial meltdown without taking into account what led to it. Prudence, patience, and respect for institutional mores can keep such issues off the table. But silence is also symptomatic of a penchant for turning discretion into denial.

The record of American Catholicism in primary and secondary education and in the development of human capital is exemplary. But our history of encouraging and developing social capital-participatory lay groups who help themselves and the larger community by standing up to the status quo and refusing to be pushed around—is more ambiguous. The Roundtable’s consolidation of a network of clergy and laity who are capable of taking both decisions and the long view is a genuine accomplishment. Philanthropic entrepreneurs are themselves in transition, moving out from the behind-the-scenes world of generosity-as-usual to a new world of transparency and accountability. It is a path yet to be fully charted.

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 

Peter McDonough is the coauthor (with Eugene Bianchi) of Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits (University of California Press).

Also by this author
Jesuits in Denial

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