Business 101: More priests learning the ABCs of spreadsheets

By The Georgia Bulletin
and ChicagoCatholic

Between morning prayers and quiet time before the Eucharist, priests attended a business leaders boot camp, getting a crash course on budgeting, hiring and fundraising at the Toolbox for Pastoral Management program, held at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

Nearly 30 priests from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and other dioceses spent a week at the Conyers monastery without a theology book in sight. They focused instead on mastering business tools and practices.

“They don’t teach us this in seminary. That is crazy. I don’t remember any of this in seminary, and I was in seminary for eight years,” said Father Jaime Rivera.

The Toolbox for Pastoral Management has been an initiative of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

A lay nonprofit that knits together expertise from the business world with the needs of the Church, Leadership Roundtable has partnered with more than 70 percent of U.S. dioceses to improve management practices.

Parish priests are trained in seminary on giving homilies, philosophy, and canon law, but not necessarily on crafting a parish budget or dealing with insurance and financial controls.

“Seminaries do a remarkable job of providing the necessary formation for priesthood. But any priest will tell you that there are so many things that seminary does not, cannot prepare one for,” said Monsignor James Schillinger.

Now priests are given more responsibility sooner to lead instead of having many years of on-the-job training. In the past, men could expect to serve as associate priests for longer periods of time, learning from pastors about financial planning and working with staff.

“Now it is probably closer to four or five years,” said Monsignor Schillinger, “and there have been instances when that number has been even smaller.”

And the move to pastor for most is a big one, although sharing the same ministry.

“The position calls for a whole new set of skills,” said Monsignor Schillinger, who recalled his own shortcomings leading a parish despite being ordained for 18 years. His first pastorate was at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta for a dozen years.

“It was a wonderful experience, tremendously gratifying. But it also can be exhausting and filled with all sorts of troubling issues,” he said, adding he was surprised to learn how much time was spent on issues that had little to do with preaching from the pulpit.

Father Rivera said he felt fortunate in his priesthood to have been mentored by pastors who encouraged him to broaden his understanding of parish needs by reading and attending conferences. Those practices filled in gaps in training that seminary never provided, he said.

The benefits last long after conferences end. Father Rivera said presenters share willingly their e-mails and phone numbers, which in turn widen his network of experienced professionals to lean on when he faces unique situations.

The retreat in Conyers mirrored executive leadership programs at many of the nation’s top business schools, like Emory University and the University of Georgia. The effort is to promote replacing trial-and-error management with business standards.

Monsignor Schillinger said the program almost sold out, an indication church leaders recognize the need for this training. Bishops and recent popes are calling upon priests to ensure training doesn’t end at ordination, he said.

The week of programs covered 11 key areas. The men took courses on building advisory councils, human resources and financial controls, and on other operational issues.

In an afternoon focused on complex pastoring situations, the men learned ways to navigate pitfalls.

Most priests are trained to take on leadership in a church that doesn’t exist in reality—a church that has one priest, one parish and one culture. Half of the Catholic community in the United States is Hispanic, and the faith is lived among a diversity of ethnicities and languages, said Mark Mogilka, a national speaker and author with more than 40 years of experience in church management.

A successful pastor accepts with humility that he doesn’t have all the answers.

“You will have to learn to be a leader,” Mr. Mogilka said.

The Church preaches unity, but the complexity of a multicultural parish means different things. A pastor would be wise not to force an artificial unity but acknowledge the differences in how faith is lived and celebrated, he said.

Different groups can gather as one at “bridging opportunities,” Mr. Mogilka pointed out. “It’s OK to have a diverse mosaic, a community of communities.”

A priest is not an executive and a parish is not a business, but that doesn’t mean that pastors can ignore good management practices.

Mundelein Seminary is trying to help its students learn some of what they’ll need — from budgeting to keep the lights on to managing the combination of staff and volunteers that make ministry happen — with a five-week class module called the School of the Good Shepherd.

It’s a need that’s so obvious that most laypeople who hear about it tell Father John Kartje, rector/president of Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake, that it makes all the sense in the world.

“Well, that’s the polite ones,” Father Kartje said. “The others can’t believe it took us this long.”

Creation of the class coincided with the seminary’s move from a quarter to a semester calendar, leaving space around what was once the “pastoral quarter” for second-year theology students, in which they work and learn in a parish for 10 weeks.

“We didn’t want to make that the whole spring semester, because they would be away from their spiritual directors all the way from Christmas through summer and then to the next fall,” Father Kartje said. “That’s a long time for them to be away from the seminary.”

Instead, seminarians return in January for a one-week retreat about leadership, and then learn about spreadsheets and budgets and how to find people who can share their expertise with the parish.

“You don’t automatically know how to do all that stuff,” Father Kartje said. “You’re spending time in seminary doing heavy theology and some pastoral stuff.”

That’s not to say that the School of the Good Shepherd is five weeks of condensed business school.

“A shepherd leads in a way that is spiritually fulfilling, not just for his people but for himself,” Father Kartje said.

After five weeks of classes, they get sent off to see how it works in the real world.

Brother Matthew Schuster, who was a seminarian studying to become a priest of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, said that learning some of the administrative skills a pastor needs before his internship at a parish prepared him for dealing with the practical duties that fall on a pastor.

“It’s not that administration is the No. 1 purpose of a pastor,” he said. “Ultimately, the pastor is a father. But if the administration is not good, the effects are disastrous.”

After observing the work of the pastor and other priests, Brother Schuster said he thought it was especially important for priests—most of whom will be pastors within a few years—to learn about how to deal with human resources. That includes hiring and firing, but also making the best use of the people on staff and volunteers.

“It’s really about realizing one man cannot do everything by himself,” he said. “You need people working with you. The priest needs to be a leader, and that’s a real skill.”

It’s not a coincidence that seminarians’ pastoral internships happen in the spring, giving the parishes an extra set of hands and giving the seminarians a front-row seat for what is usually the busiest time of the year: Lent, Holy Week, the Triduum, and Easter, not to mention the first Communions and confirmations that also are concentrated toward the end of the school year.

Father Kartje says he wanted to add more components about the practical side of parish leadership throughout the curriculum.

“We’re certainly not attempting to do everything in five weeks,” he said. “It kind of is knowing what you don’t know.”

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