BOSTON - Sister Julianne Hau became a nun 20 years ago because she felt a call to bring God’s word to anyone who needed it. But these days, that’s not the only requirement when running a convent, parish or diocese.
Managing finances and personnel well are enormously important skills, and now — prodded by a group of prominent lay leaders — a handful of Roman Catholic universities are offering management courses to lay church workers and clergy.
Villanova University has a new summer training course, which Hau completed so she could better serve her Baltimore-area religious community. “The religious feel the call from God,” she said. “They don’t necessarily feel the money part.”
Boston College is creating a graduate church management degree program, and the University of Notre Dame has long trained students to work for nonprofits, though not necessarily church-run organizations.
Lay leaders say using best management practices in administration and finances will mean more efficient use of resources. Some claim it also strikes at the arcane bureaucracy and secrecy that nurtured the clergy sex abuse scandal.
“It’s an area that needs an awful a lot of sunlight,” said Frances Butler of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, an organization of Catholic philanthropists and charities. FADICA helped create the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a group of 225 prominent Catholics that are pushing the church to adopt best management practices.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he welcomes better church management, but he doubts it can touch the problems that led to rampant molestation.
New management practices won’t change church leaders’ inclination to try to keep abuse cases quiet, he said.
“One can’t overestimate the shrewdness of and determination of abusive priests and complicit bishops,” Clohessy said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Butler believes better management can make a big difference, and said that became obvious to FADICA’s membership as the scandal broke and revealed the church’s shaky financial picture, including big, unpaid retirement costs.
Though many dioceses already have strict accounting and personnel rules in place, and most parishes have business managers, there’s no requirement for uniformity in human resources or financial practices.
Some churches and dioceses rely on clergy who learn on the job. Others tap retirees with business backgrounds or volunteers with varying levels of expertise. That can lead to wasted money. Boston College professor Thomas Groome, who came up with the BC graduate program, recalled the example of a small Southern diocese that badly overpaid for insurance because it didn’t know it could save money by banding with other local dioceses.
“The U.S. Catholic community does an estimated $100 billion in business a year,” said Groome, who directs the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. “Is this being managed according to the best practices of good management? I don’t think anybody would say the answer to that is, ‘Yes.’ ”
Problems can arise when lay leaders don’t understand the church’s laws or when clergy and volunteers are ignorant of civil law.
Religious institutions also don’t have the same financial reporting requirements as private businesses. The Boston Archdiocese, for example, released a major financial audit in April, but it was voluntary.
Villanova professor Chuck Zech said open financial records would have exposed irregular expenses incurred prior to and during the scandal that broke in 2002, such as payouts for abuse victims and extended counseling retreats for abusive priests.
“It wouldn’t have exploded into the major scandal it was had the church been better at this management early on, especially this reporting, being transparent in finances,” Zech said.
Zech, a member of the national roundtable, heads the Center for the Study of Church Management. Besides the summer training institute, which was attended by church workers ranging from chancellors to nuns, Villanova plans to debut an online business course for church workers.
Boston College’s new management program, which begins in January, aims to create a professional class of lay church managers — thereby freeing a strained clergy to minister more, Groome said.
The BC program includes a master’s degree in pastoral ministry with a concentration in church management or a joint MBA/master’s degree in pastoral ministry.
Groome, also a member of the national roundtable, said adopting best management practices would merely bring Catholic parishes in line with their Protestant and Jewish equivalents, which are run by their own congregations and have long ago adopted best practices.
Said Groome: “It’s a maturing, rather than a loss, to the Catholic laity, where we basically grow up and accept responsibility that we are the church.”