The Vital Need for a Pastoral Administration Course at the Seminary Level

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.

  1. USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, Fifth Edition, Washington, D.C., 2001, par. 239, p. 81.
  2. The School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary is part of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr. About Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr.

Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr., earned his PhD in New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Loyola University in Chicago after receiving a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago. He is currently the associate dean and assistant professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of St. Thomas School of Theology, Houston, Texas. He is the author of Hymn Fragments Embedded in the New Testament and "The God Transformed," in From Judaism to Christianity: Tradition and Transition - A Festschrift for Thomas Tobin, SJ.


  1. Brian Van Hove SJ Brian Van Hove SJ says:

    Dr. DiPaolo, Jr. is stating the obvious. I have never understood why we do
    so badly what the Protestant mainline churches do so well. Now if we can
    only get the authorities to act decisively. Remember the adage that “the proof
    for the divine institution of The Church is the inability of the clergy to destroy it.”

    • Avatar Bill Barto says:

      I think it is a mistake, Father Brian, to say that Protestant mainline churches do parish administration and management uniformly well. I am an attorney and have served as a lay leader in several Episcopalian and Anglican parishes and the experience has been hair-raising. Many congregations have hired lay administrators to perform these duties, and those who do not often rely on lay volunteers to “mind the books,” even in larger communities. And the results are nowhere near consistent (or audit-ready). Protestant clergy are also challenged in regard to leadership and management practices, especially since so much is riding on their ability to market the congregation and increase membership numbers or revenue, producing a stress (and emphases) very similar to that I have seen in entrepeneurs and business leaders. Not necessarily a model to be emulated!

      • Brian Van Hove SJ Brian Van Hove SJ says:

        Your word “uniformly” may be the key word. But to my knowledge competent Methodist and Lutheran pastors had courses in the seminary on institutional administration and institutional finances. I know of no Catholic seminaries who offered such practical education. Ministers were also warned about “socializing” with their own congregants. In cases of liability the minister will always lose because she or he has a “legal bond” with their own congregant. In other words, socialize with Communists or Catholics or Jews, but not with your own Lutherans. Too often Catholic clergy make friends with their parishioners and then get burned. I can cite cases for you.
        Once I tried to talk a seminary rector into adding a course on “parish finances” to the curriculum. I was given a polite cold shoulder. The rector claimed they were busy enough. So then the newly-ordained go out into the field and they are helpless and hapless when it comes to administration and finances. An unhappy situation. I can’t believe the Protestants are worse—different, perhaps, but not worse.

  2. I can’t agree enough. Since volunteering in our parish rectory I’ve seen first hand how over worked and unrealistic the demands are on parish priests. They are usually either great administrators or pastors but often not both. These men need to know how to hire, train, supervise and fire staff. They need to understand about volunteers and supervision and recognition. They need skills in conflict resolution, communication, supervision and accountability etc. They need to realize that the standards are very different in the professional world and the Church needs to get on board with some of those sound best practices. Often priests become the ‘chief’ of their kingdoms or bullied by parish groups. They are the bottom line and the buck stops with them when dealing with their bishop and everyone involved needs to know and respect that fact.
    Parish priests ‘set the tone’ for all involved in the parish and they have to role model the behaviors they preach about. I have much more respect for these men and the sacrifices they make for the rest of us. They need more education and support from their bishops and parishoners. God Bless them!!

    • “These men need to know how to hire, train, supervise and fire staff. They need to understand about volunteers and supervision and recognition. They need skills in conflict resolution, communication, supervision and accountability etc. They need to realize that the standards are very different in the professional world and the Church needs to get on board with some of those sound best practices.”

      Truer words were never spoken. I have been a parish volunteer for years and am now employed as a CRE. My background and degrees are in Business. Our parish has been suffering for years due to unfortunate decisions made by previous pastors who allowed barely qualified relatives to be hired and to be managed by each other! Our last pastor realized that big problems that have existed because of these circumstances but when I suggested that he could do something about it, he looked at me incredulously and said, “You have to work with what you’ve got!” I pointed out that, being the CEO of his parish, he could certainly fire and replace people if he felt it was necessary. He moved on and left the problems to our current pastor who currently is evaluating the situation.

  3. John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 6 Jan 2001: “First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness.”

    If our holiness – our sanctification in Christ – were the focal point, the explicit purpose, the understood intention and the stated reason for every pastoral initiative, our parishes would be (I dare to say) transformed. Instead, many pastoral initiatives have as reason and purpose something much more “down to earth” – money. I have heard too many impassioned defenses of the status quo assert, “The church IS a business!” And so we have this, that and the other fund raiser consume embarrassing quantities of parish time and talent, to bring in the crucial goal of monetary treasure.

    In the Scripture is a guideline that ought to help us keep our priorities straight:
    Acts 6:2 So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
    3 Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task,
    4 whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

    Is it right for those who ought to be devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” – Bishops and Priests – to train to better administer the details of the table? It is not a good thing that so many of our parishes have become multi-million dollar enterprises with Pastor-CEOs at the helm. Maybe we need to look at things from a different perspective.

    We all need and we all are called to a “new evangelization” – and for that to ever begin in earnest, we all personally need to turn to Christ. Card. Dolan pointed this out to his brother Bishops at the recent Fall General Assembly: “We cannot engage culture unless we let Him first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with Him; we cannot challenge unless we first let Him challenge us.”

    Quoting the closing message at the past Synod on the New Evangelization, Card. Dolan continued:
    “We, however, should never think that the new evangelization does not concern us as Bishops personally. In these days voices among the Bishops were raised to recall that the Church must first of all heed the Word before she can evangelize the world. The invitation to evangelize becomes a call to conversion.”
    “We Bishops firmly believe that we must convert ourselves first to the power of Jesus Christ who alone can make all things new, above all our poor existence. With humility we must recognize that the poverty and weaknesses of Jesus’ disciples, especially us, his ministers, weigh on the credibility of the mission.”

    There is a weakness and a poverty among Jesus’ disciples, including clergy and certainly including the laity. And it is not a better business model that is lacking. We need a spiritual renewal from the “top down,” and soon.

    • AMEN Thomas Richard – this challenge is exactly why the first Deacons were appointed. We don’t need better administrators; we need better pastors. Lean on Deacons and on qualified lay persons to assist in a very real way with parish and diocesan administration. This will require training pastors to understand their role and how to maintain spiritual headship while allowing qualified administrators more than a token voice in the “business” of the parish, but that, too, is a matter of better spiritual formation, and consistent with the goal of a spiritual renewal.

  4. Avatar H. G. West says:

    AMEN, AMEN, AMEN. I have been preaching this same message for over twenty years. It was a topic I brought to my seminary superiors several times including at my exit interview. I knew men in my class who knew zero about basic accounting methods — one did not know how to make a flight reservation. The course should be courseS — Parish Administration I, II and III. The grace of Orders does not instill business sense or interpersonal skills.
    Now how about courses in Basic Plumbing, Construction Management, and Communications?

  5. I would like to add my voice to the chorus advocating parish administration as part of seminary curricula. I was fortunate; I had earned my bachelors’ degree in business administration before entering theologate back in the early 80s. Few had that training. I ended up taking a different path, but none of my classmates had that same level of training.

  6. Thank you, Dr. DiPaolo, for your article on the need for teaching parish administration in our seminaries. Mount Angel Seminary has had a 3-credit, semester course on various aspects of parish administration for some years now. I happily teach the course and begin with the important, fundamental notion that being a pastor is all about sets of “relationships” The course is not designed to make accountants or HR managers out of the fourth year theology students but to introduce them to some of the basic concepts in parish finances, personnel, technology, insurance, property management and the like. Also, if they know the “red flags” in these areas, they know when to ask for help. I can tell you that the students are motivated and the level of participation is alway high. For texts, I use “A Concise Guide to Catholic Church Management” from Ave Maria Press and my own text, “Catholic Parish Administration: A Handbook” from Paulist Press.

  7. Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    I considered some of these things when I was associate dean of the Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall. Msgr. Bill Harms had designed a great church administration course, but it was primarily serving priests already ordained, i.e., priests were learning how to do things RIGHT after they first learned perhaps how to do them WRONG. Yes, this needs to be a component of the seminary curriculum. However, remember that the road to hell is also paved with good intentions: most seminary curricula are already overloaded, one needs to consider what should be modified so that this can be fit in. Perhaps considering such a course as a prerequisite for consideration to be appointed as a pastor would help. Also, look to your permanent deacon talent….many of these men are business or legal professionals who are also then aware of the canonical issues involved, and they would be great teachers for these courses. Finally, the fact that management training is often consigned to “continuing education” by the PPF is a problem because, unlike lawyers or doctors where continuing education is a prerequisite to continuing in good standing in one’s profession, continuing education does not/cannot play such a role among priests and–therefore, rightly or wrongly–sacerdotal culture has not generally encouraged continuing education, particularly in the diocesan presbyterate.

  8. Holiness in a pastor is essential but is not enough to being an effective pastor. Church law makes it very clear that the management of the parish is, ultimately, the responsibility of the pastor. If he is to “lean on” deacons or volunteers for the grunt work, he nevertheless is responsible for what they do and he cannot merely trust to holiness to assure that things are done rightly. He must have some grounding in good management practice so that he can direct affairs and people to serve the Church. When I was teaching management and had to bring my students up to speed on business law, I didn’t aim at making them lawyers; that would have been futile and foolish. But they had to understand the structure and place of the law in business, they had to learn some of the most basic elements of law — such as the essential constituents of a contract, and they had to know when something really was a legal matter and when they had to get professional legal help. Just so with a pastor, who is not going to be made into a professional business manager, but has to know what administration and supervision are, their place in a parish, some of the most basic principles of those disciplines, and to know when they need professional help in such matters. These do not come from holiness but from training. Let it begin.


  1. […] The Need for a Pastoral Admin. Course at Seminary Level – Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo Jr […]

  2. […] 16, 2012 By Deacon Greg KandraSome wise insight from Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr. in the Homiletics and Pastoral Review: In my discussions with other seminary administrators, one area seems to be given perhaps less […]