We are doing a disservice to our seminarians when we fail to teach them about the practical aspects of running a parish.
The “Program for Priestly Formation” is currently the document which guides seminary rectors, administrators, and faculty in constructing their curricula. Of the four pillars spoken of—human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation— by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in the document, only the fourth pillar, pastoral formation, examines the need to educate seminarians in the practical administrative skills required to run a parish:
The pastoral formation program should provide opportunities for seminarians to acquire the basic administrative skills necessary for effective pastoral leadership, recognizing that programs of continuing education and ongoing formation will be necessary to equip newly ordained priests to assume future responsibilities as pastors. Additional leadership skills include an ability to manage the physical and financial resources of the parish, including educating parishioners about the gospel value of stewardship, and an ability to organize parochial life effectively to achieve the goals of the new evangelization. 1
Two things are notable about this paragraph from the PPF: first, continuing education after seminary study seems to get the bulk of the treatment; and second, the requirements for practical instruction in the administration of a parish take up, solely, one paragraph.
We do a laudable job at the seminary level in instructing our young men in the four pillars, and contribute copious amounts of time, talent, and treasure (to quote my current rector) in insuring that our men leave the seminary prepared for the challenges that they will face in their first parish assignment. Yet, in my discussions with other seminary administrators, one area seems to be given perhaps less emphasis than it should, namely, the practical tools needed to administer a parish—running the gamut from the basics of small business accounting, to the less easily teachable skills of managing small teams.
In a very unscientific examination of my archdiocese’s directory of parishes, a recently ordained priest can expect to encounter a first parish assignment at a church with anywhere from 1500 to 10000 registered families. Granted, the recently ordained will invariably not be put in charge of some of the largest parishes (and in Texas our large parishes are large indeed). However, they will be exposed to budgets, anywhere in the range of several hundred thousand up to several million dollars. In many cases, a recently ordained priest may indeed be put in charge of a smaller parish, where he may find himself serving alone, without the benefit of an experienced priest, who can “show him the ropes” of parish accounting and administration. For someone who has had little experience in the financial and personnel management necessary to run even a small parish, this can prove to be a daunting task. The most spiritually, pastorally, and intellectually formed young man may find himself at sea when confronted with the demons of payroll accounting for a parish school, or when put in charge of a capital campaign to expand the physical plant of the church. In the most extreme cases, a recently ordained priest might feel so uncomfortable with accounting procedures, and staff management, that he completely cedes that responsibility to others—essentially letting someone else be responsible for the financial stewardship and management of his parish, a dire outcome indeed.
In order to meet this lacuna in our curriculum, my seminary has begun the process of instituting a mandatory, two-hour, semester-long course, entitled: “Parish Administration and Management.” As I believe that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to seminary curricula, what I put forth below are a few guidelines that I believe may be helpful for other seminaries to consider as they plan their own programs—programs, which I believe, give our recently ordained young men at least a start at the background information they will need to thrive in their first parish assignment.
I. Draw Upon Your (Outside) Experts
Few seminaries will have the academic faculty with the experience required to teach what is essentially an introductory course on small business administration. Those in charge of setting up the course must, therefore, be creative in drawing upon outside sources for instructors to teach the class. In some cases, where the seminary is either in close proximity to a university or, as is the case with mine, where the seminary is connected through agreements to a larger university, 2 it may be possible to obtain instructors from the school of business or the departments of accounting, business or finance at the undergraduate level. Other seminaries, which do not have the benefit of the above agreements, will have to draw upon experienced pastors, or parish administrators, who would have to be hired on as adjunct faculty.
As you can imagine, acquiring someone with the needed experience in running a parish to teach at a seminary is a tall order. If someone is good at running a parish (and everyone knows who these priests are in every diocese), odds are they are too busy successfully running a parish to teach a semester-long class at a seminary. However, we have found that- with a little investigation, the recently retired priests of our archdiocese- with the requisite experience, are more than willing (and more importantly have the time) to assist in teaching such a class. Similarly, lay members of the business community, who have retired from full-time employment, relish the opportunity to teach young seminarians the knowledge they have gained through decades of experience.
As you look for outside experts, keep in mind that two areas of expertise are needed, namely administration and management. Know that these two skills are different, and each is pivotal to a successful program. One can be a stellar administrator but a poor manager. There are those who can run a parish like a Swiss clock, but who are continually replacing personnel, owing to a somewhat abrasive management style. Similarly, there might be those who are experts at managing the varied personnel at a parish, but who do not have the expertise, or financial acumen needed, to be an administrator. For this reason, our program’s structure treats each area equally, with roughly half of the course content centering upon budgets and accounting, and the latter half, centering around management of personnel.
Don’t be afraid to reach beyond the confines of parishes into the world of business. You will probably find that the best course will be the one which draws upon various levels of business experience, from various sectors, both from within the parish system, as well as outside from the world of small business. A good manager is a good manager, whether ordained or lay, and can pass on to your seminarians invaluable skills. Thus, the best course of action in your diocese may be to have numerous instructors, or guest lecturers, for the course, each drawing upon their respective fields of expertise.
II. Be Rigorous
What your course cannot be is only a weekly meeting, with interesting speakers about interesting topics. Having a respected pastor come in and talk about his past successes in administering a large physical plant with a school, or having a retired captain of industry come in and discuss leadership styles, is valuable only so far as it can be evaluated. Your course on parish administration and management must be structured in such a way so that the information that is being passed to your seminarians can be tested, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
It does no good to spend valuable instruction time on the various means of keeping track of your weekend donations, if you do not then give a very practical assessment of the receipts of a typical parish on a given weekend, and make your students input that data into the requisite forms or database. Similarly, if you have spent a few classes on staff management, and conflict resolution in small teams, take the time to run your students through some live scenarios to see how they do. Have your students actually have to fire a person (in a scenario, of course), and assess how he did. This can be done much in the same way homilies are sometimes assessed at the seminary level, i.e., discuss with the various audience members the strengths and weaknesses of the way in which the firing was done. Whether it is a scenario-based training on personnel management, or the accounting associated with a weekend fundraiser, it is imperative that you grade these exercises. It will be up to you as to the weight you give the qualitative and quantitative assessments. However, make sure that these assessments weigh heavily in the calculation of the course grade.
If I may, I would like to briefly interject a short, but hopefully helpful, anecdote concerning the benefit of these assessments. I have often found that a good number of what I would consider my average students in the theological sphere (I also teach Sacred Scripture and Homiletics), often excel when it comes to the more quantitative aspects of parish administration. This course can serve as a way to isolate (and to a small extent develop) these hidden talents among our seminarians. It can be a very concrete way of discerning which of our men has the administrative touch, an item of discernment we are quick to pass on to the vicar for clergy, as he makes his parish assignments upon ordination. On the other side of the spectrum, it can also be a way to discern which men do not have the business acumen to run a parish which, although not the happiest of news, is still vital information to have before making parish assignments. Some men, indeed, might need to be taken under the wing of an experienced pastor for a while.
III. Be General
One of the initial temptations when setting up a course on parish management and administration is to rush to instruct your seminarians on the current accounting software and practices of your diocese. It is very, very tempting to contact your chancery, ask for the handbook on parish management that they all put out, and let that be your textbook. Letting current management practices be your sole guideline in setting up the class should be avoided for several reasons. First, unless you are a very small seminary, whose priests are guaranteed to serve in only the diocese in which they are being instructed, you are doing your men a disservice by giving them instruction which will be inapplicable the day after their ordination, when they get shipped off half way across the country to their home diocese (and local diocesan practices). Secondly, business practices, and the various software programs associated with these practices, change seemingly on a yearly basis. Tethering your class to a particular software package, or database program, will prevent your students from having as many tools in their administrative tool box as they will need.
Feel free to draw upon the various practices of all the dioceses, which contribute men to your seminary, and even several that do not. The goal is not to give your seminarians specific knowledge on the minutiae of reporting requirements for their chancery, but to give them the general tools they need to be comfortable with whatever practices they encounter at their first parish. The specifics of each diocese will vary; however, the general fields of investigation (accounting, budgets, personnel, reporting, etc.) will not. 3
IV. Be Willing to Change Your Program
Few seminary rectors or administrators like additional assessments. In the case of a course on parish administration and management, however, they are vital. It is essential that the person in charge of the oversight of this class reach out to the recently ordained priests, one year after ordination, to determine what was helpful about the class, what was not, and what needs to be changed.
Too often, as rectors and seminary administrators, we ordain our seminarians and, short of the odd report from a local parish, hear nothing of how they have done in their first assignment. Consequently, we get very little feedback as to the practical applications of all that we have taught at the seminary level. Nowhere is the particular feedback loop of assessments more valuable than in the very practical skills we endeavor to teach in parish management and administration. It is a constant balance, in each course, between accounting and budgetary matters (the quantitative items discussed above) and matters of personnel, and the management of the various personalities that every priest must deal with at the parish level (the qualitative items discussed earlier). 4 Also, when you assess your men after their first year at a parish, make sure to discuss their performance with their pastor, parish administrator, the parish business office, or anyone else who may be able to contribute information. You will invariably find that you will have to adjust your program, perhaps emphasizing the accounting aspect a bit more one year, and personnel management more during the next year. The key is to be flexible.
The first year of priesthood is a period of tremendous transition. One leaves the relatively calm waters of seminary life behind, and is thrust headlong into parish life. We owe it to our men to prepare them as adequately for their encounters with a balance sheet, as we do for their encounters with the people of God in the life of the parish.
- USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, Fifth Edition, Washington, D.C., 2001, par. 239, p. 81. ↩
- The School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary is part of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. ↩
- The Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, about as far away from Houston as one can get, has a parish accounting manual which has proven to be quite helpful in this regard. ↩
- In a typical sixteen week semester, our men will receive eight weeks on financial accounting for small business, budget reporting, fundraising, and the reading of financial reports. The second half of the semester deals with personnel issues, such as management, payrolls/withholding, healthcare and the art of delegating. ↩