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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Business leaders say they can solve church management woes


Catholic corporate leaders want a piece of the church reform business. The moguls and magnates say the church must adopt “modern management techniques” if it is to thrive at a time of declining vocations, decreasing Mass attendance, and the financial aftershocks of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“I see an organization [the church] in trouble,” said Richard Syron, chairman and CEO of Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giant, speaking at the March 14 news conference where the newly formed National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management was launched. Syron knows trouble. He took the reins of Freddie Mac in January 2004, following revelations of accounting fraud at the firm. Previously, the corporate turnaround specialist headed up and reformed the Thermo Electron Corporation and the American Stock Exchange.

“It’s only when organizations are in trouble that you motivate change,” Syron said. And the “level of discontent” among the laity presents a chance to implement new ways of doing business, but leaders must act quickly to address problems or that “discontent will transform into apathy.”

The high-powered private sector founders of the Washington-based Roundtable eschew ideological and theological agendas. Instead, say its founders, the Roundtable will focus on a relatively narrow set of concerns -- “excellence and best practices in church finances, management practices and human resources” -- that don’t brush up against doctrinal or canonical issues. Among the anticipated and possible projects: assistance to major universities as they contemplate establishing advanced degree programs in church management, identifying and promoting “best practices” for diocesan and parish administrators, conducting research into church management issues, and providing direct consulting services to dioceses.

The need is obvious, according the Geoffrey Boisi, the New York investment banker who began laying the groundwork for the new organization in July 2003 when he sponsored the first of two meetings of leading Catholics and members of the hierarchy (NCR, Aug. 1, 2003).

With 1 million employees nationwide and combined budgets of $100 billion, the U.S. church “is comparable in size and scope to the nation’s largest corporations,” said Boisi, the JPMorgan Chase vice president. While acknowledging that the “church is not a business,” Boisi said the institution has “things to learn from the business world,” not least in the areas of financial disclosure, budgeting and personnel development.

The Roundtable’s first order of business was the release of a 79-page “Report on the Church in America.” That study, and its 48 recommendations for parishes, dioceses and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, grew out of a two-day meeting on church management held last summer at the Wharton School of Business. Attendees at the meeting included a dozen bishops, and a wide range of Catholic academics, writers and business leaders.

Among the recommendations directed at the bishops’ conference:

  • The National Advisory Council -- a largely lay board advising the bishops’ conference with little current influence on the bishops’ agenda or programs -- should have the power to initiate and react to proposals before the conference, and should get a permanent staff.
  • Dioceses should be urged to adopt the ethics and accountability code for nonprofits published by the Standards for Excellence Institute. Those standards should serve as a “performance benchmark for pastoral and finance councils as well as other church-affiliated entities.”
  • Dioceses should undergo a review similar to that of accredited universities every five years.
  • The selection of bishops -- “while recognizing the Holy See’s role” -- should “include a clear definition of qualifications (including managerial capabilities), face-to-face interviews, and well-informed nominations and recommendations from clergy and laity.”

Further, the report recommends that the bishops’ conference assist dioceses in developing “reader friendly” budgets and strategic plans, as well as “examine fundraising processes at all levels.”

One bishop, Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Ind., voiced enthusiasm for the project. He spoke of an increasing “culture of collaboration” within the church and the need for lay involvement. “Even if we had a plethora of clergy and religious, this would be required of the Catholic faithful” who are called to “transform the world,” Melczek told the press.

Savannah, Ga., Bishop Kevin Boland, however, struck a slightly discordant note, using Wal-Mart as an example of “values of corporate America that are negative,” while cautioning that the church should not be “looked upon … as a corporation.” Boland, who said he has already implemented in his diocese many of the administrative measures called for by the Roundtable, praised the bishops’ management of the clergy sex abuse crisis. History, he said, “will give credit to the church” for the way it has dealt with the situation.

Establishing good relationships with bishops is clearly a priority of Boisi.

“There’s an education process that has to take place on both sides,” said Boisi, who was to meet March 15 in Washington with members of the bishops’ conference administrative board.

Initially, the Roundtable will be housed in the Washington offices of FADICA, the association of Catholic philanthropies. Ana Vilamil Kelly, a former staff member of the bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth, is the group’s executive director.

FADICA president Frank Butler, retired Bechtel Group vice chairman Frederick Gluck, and Jesuit Fr. Donald Monan, formerly president of Boston College, will lead the membership committee charged with recruiting more than 200 national leaders from business, professional associations and foundations, universities, health care systems and parishes and dioceses.

Later this year, the Roundtable will distribute a set of six DVDs and workbooks to every U.S. parish and diocese. The goal is to begin discussion of church management issues around the country.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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