Silver Lining for Struggling Dioceses

By Thomas J. Healey
Boston Globe
November 28, 2007

WHEN THE Catholic Archdiocese of Boston advanced the cause of financial transparency last year by releasing volumes of once-tightly kept information, it was an extraordinary step for the entire US Catholic Church. At the same time it was facing up to its own mounting fiscal problems brought on by the sexual abuse crisis, the archdiocese was sending a signal to the rest of the church that a new era is dawning in terms of responsible financial stewardship and accountability.

It's a message the Church can ill afford to ignore. Beset with rising costs, dwindling reserves, and insufficient income, dioceses around the country are being forced to shut down schools and parishes, dismiss loyal staff members, and cut back on the evangelical work of the Church. In some cases, they've been reduced to once-unthinkable insolvency.

If there's a silver lining in all this, it's that financial distress is opening the door to uncommon opportunities for those dioceses and parishes willing to improve management of their temporal affairs. This means embracing the principles of not just financial transparency, but of effective long-range planning, enlightened fund-raising, personnel empowerment, and diocesan-wide economies of scale.

No better example exists than the Financial Transparency Project of the Archdiocese of Boston, singled out last year by the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management for its inaugural Best Practices Award.

Determined to put an end to the secrecy of the past, the archdiocese made an unprecedented commitment to openness, including the release of comprehensive financial statements and sexual abuse settlement information, and a look inside the organization of the archdiocese. The Financial Transparency Project delivered on that commitment, and its groundbreaking work can be seen online ( in the form of a full disclosure report on the financial condition of the Archdiocese of Boston. One of the tools used for this objective review is a management discussion and analysis, the same reporting vehicle used in 10K reports for public companies.

In addition to Boston, the Diocese of Tyler in east Texas has actively embraced best-in-class practices. Nearly to the point where it could no longer afford health insurance benefits for its lay employees, the diocese formed a select committee to explore creating a common health plan for all 15 dioceses across the state. The panel discovered that economies of scale could be used to great advantage by building a single Catholic benefits group. Indeed, savings to all 15 dioceses - if they opted to participate - and their 11,000 employees would amount to around $6 million from the approximately $43 million spent annually for health insurance. Crucial to making this scheme work was getting the buy-in from many of the dioceses. While the latter proved impossible to achieve given the many "turf issues" within individual dioceses, the committee was able to at least get their attention. Consequently, a benefits package was created by four of the dioceses and put out for bid, with Mutual of Omaha being selected as vendor for the new Catholic Employee Benefits Group, which covers 1,100 lives, including dependents. Other dioceses have expressed an interest in joining the program once their current policies expire.

Economies of scale are also central to an innovative new organization that is identifying collaborative solutions to challenges faced by the Catholic schools served by six archdioceses and dioceses in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. In the area of finance, the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium is developing plans for centralized purchasing of such essentials as textbooks, transportation, waste disposal, and energy. The goal is to capitalize on the collective buying power of the Consortium and its member dioceses. Similarly, the organization plans to launch an interdiocesan Leadership Institute to provide professional and leadership development to current and future Catholic school leaders, including lay principals, administrators, teachers, pastors, and seminarians. The Leadership Institute is viewed by its founders as a model that could eventually be transferred to other reform-minded diocesan school systems.

Best-in-class examples like these, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. A new managerial mindset is starting to take hold around the country as parish and diocesan leaders recognize that excellence in temporal affairs can lead to a church that's better equipped to fulfill its spiritual mission.


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