Crunching the data

Deacon David Duhamel armed with information as he leads schools’ sustainability

By Jim Wogan

Deacon David Duhamel is aware of the expectations that come with his new job.

Among the lessons that came with battlefield leadership and a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, and the accomplishment of earning a master’s degree in business administration and turning that into another career in corporate leadership, the deacon has earned his stripes in more ways than one by adapting to challenges.

In May, Deacon Duhamel stepped away from the corporate world, leaving his position in international transportation security at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a chance to lead the Diocese of Knoxville in areas that include strategic planning, training, and school sustainability.

During an interview prior to the start of the new school year, he reflected on his background and experience, and how those fit into plans the diocese has for this new position.

“Working with my combat experience, a high-stress environment, and being able to adjust on the fly, not being married to a single plan, and having worked with so many different cultures and so many different people in my project work at the Oak Ridge National Lab, I have seen a lot and done a lot. Those are experiences that may not be directly transferable, but the skills you develop in those situations are skills that are absolutely transferable to church work,” he said.

Deacon Duhamel, who serves in ministry at St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, will work alongside new diocesan schools superintendent Mary Ann Deschaine to address school issues like enrollment, admissions, and future sustainability.

“At the school level, I am just starting to peel away at the very basic level of data as it relates to budgets,” Deacon Duhamel said. “From a sustainability aspect, those are the areas that I am interested in, but it’s very much in the infancy stage. We can look at where we are gaining efficiency or where we are not gaining. Can we look at some good practices to share among (all the schools)?”

Enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade increased almost 3 percent at Catholic schools in the diocese in the 2022-23 academic year, but the trend in Catholic education nationwide is different.

The National Catholic Education Association says that school enrollment across the country is down 2.6 percent since 2019-20. Schools in the Southeast are showing growth, but the NCEA says most of that growth is driven by an increase in enrollment in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Enrollment and admissions are just part of the equation. Last year, the Diocese of Knoxville and its parishes provided almost $5 million in tuition assistance for families. That’s a financial stress that the diocese and its parishes are willing to embrace, but is it sustainable?

“The diocese hasn’t been as effective as a support mechanism as I think it should be,” Deacon Duhamel said. “Do (the parishes and schools) need us right now? No, but it’s not going to get any better. What they are going to find is that they are going to squeeze as much as they can out of what they’ve got, but they might not know where else we can be looking.

“We are too small of an organization not to look for areas where we can be a lot more efficient. We don’t have the resources to waste. The data allows us to be more efficient with whatever resources we are given. We can try trial and error to a certain extent, but there is a cost to that.”

During his military and civilian career, Deacon Duhamel visited 72 countries and managed the scope, schedule, and budgets for more than 30 international projects in countries as diverse as Russia, China, Argentina, Morocco, Kenya, Japan, Egypt, Romania, and many other nations that didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the politics and goals of the United States.

“I have gone where people have very strong anti-American feelings, and we try to win them over, not by giving them money but by showing them that this is why we do what we do. I told people all the time, I am here because I love my family, but I love your family, too, and I know that you do, too. So, we must work together to protect our families. I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated that phrase because I honestly believe that. That’s what we are doing in the Church.”

That diplomacy will help him serve a mission diocese with 51 diverse parishes, 10 accomplished schools, and countless active ministries. In doing so, his diplomatic skills will be called upon again.

“My job right now, as I see it, is building trust. I can’t do strategic planning if I don’t have the trust of the people I work with. That is my goal. We need to figure out how to bridge what we do here in support of the parishes.

“I do have a role in the school office. Not with the schools per se, except for when it comes to looking at development and how we can help sustain the schools. At the end of the day, people say my title is school sustainability.  School sustainability is money. How do we make the case that this is a valuable investment for our Church and the families of our Church? If we are going to be successful, we need to figure out how to fund them.

“The simple answer is we need more money, but the complex answer is we’ve got to do business differently. I think we do a pretty good job, but we must continue conveying the value proposition for a Catholic education for both Catholics and non-Catholics so that we can keep our enrollment numbers where they need to be. I am going to focus on how do we communicate the Catholic school message? How do we raise money? And then, what else do we need?”

The diocese has experienced an impressive level of growth since its establishment in 1988. By a large margin, there are more registered Catholics, more parishes, more ministries, and more religious communities that have enriched the diocese beyond expectations. But sustaining that growth, especially for Catholic schools, isn’t guaranteed in any diocese—big or small. Although he’s been retired from the military for 10 years, Deacon Duhamel compares his current job with the task he faced in the Marines.

“The Marine Corps, being the smallest service, has always been the most underfunded. We didn’t have a lot of money in the 1990s. We were not as flush as we are now. That faucet, if you will, didn’t turn on for the Marine Corps until about 2000. That is what formed me as a young infantry officer growing up. You still achieve your mission with whatever resources you have. And part of that is making sure your (team) feels a part of the problem-solving, that they are fully engaged, but they’re always taken care of. I think that is directly relatable to our Church here. We have a mission. We have finite resources. Are we doing things the best we can? And most people will always say there is room for improvement,” he pointed out.

Deacon Duhamel was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2022 and balances his busy schedule as a father of seven children with his wife and his ministerial duties at St. Mary.

He’s been on the job at the diocese for just a few months, has visited some parishes and schools, plans to visit more, and said he will reach out to school leaders. He said the diocese is facing many other important issues including the growth of the Hispanic community, which now outnumbers the Anglo community in at least one large parish in the diocese.

Developing and training leaders in those communities, placing schools on a sustainable financial path, and drawing up a long-range strategic plan that serves the diocese and its parishes well into the future isn’t such a small task.

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