Business schooled: Experts weigh in on church management

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Article Parish Life
Father Tom Sweetser, S.J., says it’s not in his capacity to reform the entire U.S. church, but he knows he’s making a difference in the scores of parishes where he has consulted. It is what he is able to do.

Similarly, in the wake of one wretched sexual abuse revelation after another, some of the most influential Catholics in the United States have come together to do what they are able to do. Where Sweetser is a David, they are collectively a Goliath. The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management (NLRCM) formed out of an intial meeting in 2004.

Today the board includes figures as varied as Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy; Father Edward Malloy, C.S.C., president emeritus, University of Notre Dame; Geoffrey Boisi, former Wall Street investment banker; retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik; and Dr. Charles Geschke, chairman of the board of Adobe Systems. The organization works collaboratively with other Catholic groups to improve management protocols in parishes, dioceses, and nonprofits.

NLRCM’s annual conferences at Wharton College in Philadelphia resonate long after the conferences end. In 2008, for example, Larry Bossidy, retired CEO and chairman of Honeywell International, told a crowd of politicians, bishops, and nonprofit presidents that it was crucial for parishes to be conducting exit interviews with Catholics who stopped coming to Mass. Articles are still being written endorsing that obvious yet neglected business technique.

Bossidy also advised empowering laity to raise money in every parish. “At the root of most parish problems is insufficient money,” he said. Undercapitalized, as a business major might say. He also recommended every parish and diocese contribute to a national Catholic public relations campaign to remind people of the good that the church does. Even the church needs to market itself.

Even at this lofty height there has been tension—a healthy tension, some would say—more on the methods than the need for business reform. The NLRCM defuses some of the criticism by frequently assuring that their mission is to offer only management, not theological, advice.

In addition to its annual meetings, the NLRCM has generated publications, a consulting service, the ChurchEpedia (“an encyclopedia of temporal best practices in church management, finance, and human resources”), and the Standards of Excellence initiative. It may be the Standards of Excellence that has proved the most immediately effective in Catholic parishes, dioceses, and nonprofits.

Canon lawyers helped the NLRCM adapt the standards from already existent standards developed by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. As an “ethics and accountability code,” they offer guiding principles based on universal values and best practices around eight areas of parish life:

• Mission statement and ministry program

• Governance and advisory bodies

• Conflict of interest

• Human resources

• Financial and legal

• Openness

• Fundraising

• Public life and policy

The Diocese of Gary, Indiana piloted the Standards of Excellence in 2007. A June 2010 Notre Dame study found they had already led to improvement in five of those eight areas.

This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 7, pages 12-17).

Image: Erin Drewitz