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Creeping democracy in the U.S. church


An August 1997 Vatican document with the lengthy title Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest stated that, “directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the parish ... are the competencies of a priest alone.” The Roman authors further proclaimed that “it is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as ‘pastor,’ ‘chaplain,’ ‘coordinator,’ ‘moderator,’ or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the pastor, who is always a bishop or priest.”

Ironically, the Dec. 5, 1999, issue of NCR that detailed the Vatican document also carried a prominent advertisement from the human relations office of the San Bernardino, Calif., diocese listing current ministry employment opportunities with the apparently illegal titles of “pastoral coordinator,” “pastoral associate,” and “parish business manager.”

Granted, want ads hardly enjoy the ecclesial status of a Roman document signed by eight congregations. Still, the fact that San Bernardino parishes expressed a need for ministers without stating any preference for canonical status stands in stark contrast to the Vatican pronouncement that management competencies rest with clerics alone. Church leaders seem confused on how best to describe workable parish management models.

Anyone employed in parish ministry needs to understand two notions to follow the discussion on parish management practices. First, disputes over the exercise of authority in the American church are not new. Clerics have been jousting laity for control of the assets of the American Catholic church since the days of John Carroll and the American Revolution. In fact, present disagreements over suitable titles look tame when measured against the statistic of 200 casualties suffered in a riot where supporters of the bishop battled the parish council for possession of St. Mary’s Parish in Philadelphia in 1822.

Second, current fiscal and personnel data suggest that the managerial structure of the American Catholic church is changing from a clerical culture to increasing numbers of lay managers at all levels, who manage by objectives using budget spreadsheets and personnel manuals.

From lay trustees to lay employees

The lay trustee form of parish government happened in this country after the American Revolution for a number of reasons. Politics certainly played a part; American Catholics needed to define their relationship to a foreign religion as strictly a spiritual tie. They showed their neighbors their temporal independence by adopting the Protestant congregational model of electing trustees from among the dues-paying members to mind the business affairs of the parish.

Sheer necessity also gave shape to the management structure adopted by Catholics; there were few priests to service parishes separated by hundreds of miles of horseback travel. Parishioners could not rely on resident pastors to oversee such mundane chores as patching the church roof or balancing the parish budget. Circumstances dictated a system of shared authority and responsibility in the young American church.

In many ways, similar factors are converging today to move Catholicism toward a much less clerical model of leadership. A 1998 article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the trend.

The piece featured as a headline, “But As Daughters of Charity Build a $2 Billion Reserve, Some Question Its Goals.” The article detailed the complexities of managing a chain of 49 hospitals with an annual revenue stream of $6 billion.

The existence of a $2 billion dollar cash reserve for a charitable health care corporation struck the Journal editors as strange. The sisters required the services of 25 outside investment managers to oversee individual portfolio pieces. The fact, though, that the sisters named a lay chief executive for the hospital chain in 1995 represents a more startling departure from past patterns than enormous budgetary growth. At the present time, 250 sisters struggle to maintain a Catholic identity in a health care system that employs 70,000 lay staff.

The story of the evolution of the management of the charitable works of the Daughters of Charity may only model changes in the American church at large. Parish and school budgets continue to grow and, at the same time, slip swiftly under lay control. Church leaders manage finances in a much different fashion from the informationally mysterious days when the pastor knew best and the bishop consulted only with God. These circumstances suggest that the American Catholic church may be returning to a congregational style of management more common at the beginning of the 19th century.

In August 1996, the National Pastoral Life Center prepared a document titled Called To Be Catholic, which listed 13 issues its authors felt contributed to a situation in which “it is widely admitted that the Catholic church in the United States has entered a time of peril.” Concerns included governance, personnel, organizational and theological topics. The document also listed “dwindling financial support from parishioners” as a problem confronting Catholic church managers.

In 1997 a Catholic school planning project sponsored by the Lilly Endowment and the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University presented data that indicated that church revenue is growing, not declining. A paper summarizing one aspect of school management, A Plan to Pay for Catholic Schools, included estimates of parish and school revenue. Revenue for 18,754 parishes and 8,293 elementary and secondary schools probably grew from $10.8 billion in 1990 to $13.1 billion in 1994.

Budget control shifts

The U.S. Catholic church may be in peril for other reasons, but revenue to parishes and schools has generally grown -- by an average annual rate of 5.3 percent between 1990 and 1994. Inflation for that same period averaged 3.2 percent. Catholics provided increased program fiscal support well beyond the requirement of merely maintaining buying power.

While the budget for schools has grown, school fiscal data show that the practical center of budget control has shifted from the rectory to the principal’s office and the public forum of monthly school board meetings. The American church has become a minority stockholder in the Catholic school business.

At one time pastors probably paid all school bills from the proceeds of the Sunday collection. In 1950 religious filled nine out of 10 teaching positions in Catholic education programs. These teachers lived in community and only needed the parish to pay the convent grocery bill and provide a modest stipend to the motherhouse to support the training of postulants who would one day fill the parish classrooms.

In 1969, when the National Catholic Educational Association first surveyed school finances, parishes still paid 63 percent of the elementary school costs. Since they relied largely on tuition, high schools served a smaller proportion of the Catholic audience. By 1990 school boards raised 66 percent of the funds needed for the operation of a typical elementary school; the proportion of the elementary budget raised by program leaders rose to 73 percent by 1994.

Catholic secondary schools presently raise 92 percent of their budget from tuition and school-sponsored fundraising. The fact that parents and school staff raise the funds to operate school programs inevitably leads to involvement of elected community leaders in decision processes.

Another of the causes of rampant democracy at the parish level comes from an unlikely source. The revised Code of Canon Law, Canon 537, instructs every pastor to institute a financial advisory committee of parishioners. Canon 1284 contains specific instructions on how parish finances are to be managed. Finance councils should keep all records current, pay obligations on time, keep well-ordered books of receipts and expenditures, and draw up a report on their administration at the end of each year. The canon further strongly recommends that parish managers prepare annual budgets of receipts and expenditures.

This new law mandates the inclusion of parishioners in what was once the pastor’s private preserve. As a result, parish finances can no longer be conveniently conducted in secret. Committee structures normally serve as a focus for public discussions.

There are approximately 19,000 parishes in the United States. If an average parish involved five parishioners on a typical finance council, about 95,000 American Catholics would be working to determine how to spend parish money. Present fiscal circumstances suggest that de facto lay trustees take care of Catholic money in an arrangement where thousands of advisers and non-canonical employees shape budgets and sign checks.

Shared decision-making, more common in the structures of the early American church, could result from the present operation of a committee-based parish governance system.

A changing work ethic

In addition to a much different money management system, personnel data point to the development of a historically unique workforce in the American church. Much has changed since the halcyon days when seminaries and motherhouses bulged with prospective employees for church programs. A drop in the number of seminarians from 41,129 in 1960 to 4,578 for 1995 gives some indication of the trend in ordinations for the foreseeable future.

For example, ordinations in the New York archdiocese averaged 11 per year between 1990 and 1997 while clergy deaths totaled 21 annually. Likewise the number of active diocesan clergy in Los Angeles declined by about 12 priests per year between 1990 and 1997. Eight clergy deaths and an annual average of 15 resignations more than doubled the Los Angeles annual ordination rate of 12.

To cope with a shrinking supply of canonical workers, pastors and parish councils currently replace the dwindling numbers of professed religious and priests with lay employees. Parish congregations also frequently hire from within their own membership rather than look to chanceries and motherhouses as a source of pastoral employees.

A look at parish and school personnel data in The Official Catholic Directory points to a complete change since 1950 in the church staffing model. In 1950, ordained clerics and professed religious filled 93 percent of parish and school professional positions. Given a growth at that time in the numbers of postulants and seminarians, pastors and religious superiors likely considered the employment of 15,262 lay staff in schools in 1950 as a necessary temporary accommodation to the demands of a church growth spurt called the Baby Boom.

The history of subsequent decades happened in a very unexpected fashion. Lay employees constituted 17 percent of parish and school employees in 1960 and a startling 41 percent by 1980. The temporary staffing solution of the ’50s had become the permanent fix of the ’80s. More recent data from The Official Catholic Directory in 1995 indicate that lay employees currently constitute more than half the professional labor pool of the American Catholic church (53 percent).

Recent research completed by the staff at the National Pastoral Life Center in Manhattan, N.Y., revealed that parishes employed 20,402 full-time and 8,744 part-time lay parish ministers in 1997. Parishes have hired 1,364 additional lay ministers a year since 1990. In addition, a total of 304 more permanent deacons join the church workforce annually. These new employees likely fill some of the teaching, pastoral and administrative positions once performed by the shrinking pool of ordained clerics.

In past years, parish personnel arrived at new assignments at the behest of a bishop or mother superior. In “Going My Way,” Bing Crosby, portraying a young cleric at St. Mary Parish, announced that the bishop had sent him to take care of the youth of the parish; present parish youth ministers apply for positions where the pastoral responsibilities are described in formal job descriptions.

In addition, new parish pastoral employees frequently come from within the community. The Pastoral Life Center research revealed that most pastors recruit prospective employees from within the group of their personal acquaintances. Nearly half of the new workforce began their pastoral careers as volunteers.

The initial volunteer involvement apparently leads, for some, to paid employment and continuing education in pastoral ministry programs that have sprouted on the campuses of most Catholic colleges. The present staffing dynamic works in a non-hierarchical fashion.

Real world management

The 1997 Vatican pronouncement on parish management practices stoutly maintained the juridical concept of complete clerical control. “It is for the parish priest to preside at parochial councils. They are to be considered invalid, and hence null and void, any deliberations entered into, (or decisions taken) by a parochial council which has not been presided over by the parish priest or which has assembled contrary to his wishes.”

In fact, harried pastors readily and sometimes happily concede de facto direction of finances and programs to parish finance committees and pastoral councils. The complex realities of running parish and school programs that required the successful management of $13.1 billion in 1994 mean, in the real world, that no one person, either lay or cleric, could possibly make all the decisions.

Joseph Harris writes from Seattle.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000