A New Emphasis for the Ministry: Management Skills

By Katie Zezima
The New York Times
December 15, 2007

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — For the last four years, Wendy Samuels has worked in a remote village in Jamaica for Mustard Seed Communities, a Roman Catholic nonprofit group that helps disabled children.

The work is both rewarding and heartbreaking. But some of the most difficult moments came as she managed well-meaning staff members who did not always do their jobs properly.

"If someone is not performing their job, how do you deal with it when there is still so much to be done?" Ms. Samuels said. "I kept wondering, How do you manage persons in a third-world country who work for a charitable organization?"

The quest for an answer led Ms. Samuels to Boston College, a Jesuit institution here, where she is one of seven students in a new graduate program intended to teach management principles to leaders of churches and religious nonprofit agencies.

The program was born out of the idea that the Roman Catholic Church needs employees who can both minister to the faithful and ensure that organizations and churches are managed well.

"This is not about turning the church into a business, or making sure it's managed like any other institution in corporate America," said Thomas H. Groome, a theology professor at Boston College who founded the program. "It's about employing good business practices that enhance the mission of the church."

Professor Groome, who is also director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at the college, added, "We want to train people to manage with sensitivity and a commitment to the values of our faith community."

The program offers a master's degree in business administration combined with a master's in pastoral ministry. Students can also obtain the pastoral ministry degree with a concentration in church management.

Jeffrey L. Ringuest, associate dean of graduate management programs at the college, said, "If you think of the size of some religious organizations and their total value, they cry out, I think, for professional management skills." Professor Ringuest said the program would "help charities and churches advance their mission without having them be worried about their finances and ensure the organization is running smoothly."

Similar programs exist at St. Mary's University of Minnesota and the University of Notre Dame. Villanova University, which has a center for church management, will start an online program with a one-week residential requirement next year. St. Mary's classes are online as well, with a required two-week summer session on campus.

The programs, which all started in the last few years, are intended to help students deal with some of the unique problems church managers face.

"A lot of those folks have degrees in social work, theology, education, and they're not prepared for the managerial situation that they're in," said Chuck Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova. "So, often, a pastor might ask someone to help out with the books, and that person may not be fully aware they're doing the books for a nonprofit and they didn't pay Social Security tax. It's not malfeasance; these folks aren't adequately prepared."

Priests have long been responsible for making sure the parish's books are balanced and personnel issues are dealt with. They are often assisted by office managers who do not always have business training.

Kerry A. Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a nonprofit organization formed in 2005, said, "Many priests and women religious are not trained in management or finance or human resources development, and seminaries rarely offer this type of curriculum."

The organization grew out of a conference of lay business leaders concerned about the finances and management of the Catholic Church in the wake of the 2003 sexual abuse crisis involving clergy members.

"The clergy abuse scandal brought forth a recognition that, hey, they're paying out money under the table to settle some of these lawsuits," Professor Zech said. "These issues that people didn't know were going on were brought before the light of day. All of a sudden there was an awareness by folks that there was very little accountability."

Ms. Robinson said she believed the push toward increased accountability also had to do with more lay Catholics, some of whom may be veterans of the business world, taking on leadership positions in the church.

"This is really making sure that people who are in positions of leadership and teams that are leading dioceses or parishes have the full complement of training, education and formation," she said.

The programs appeal to people like Jon Jakoblich, 25, who moved here from Minnesota with his wife and son to complete the master's degree program. Mr. Jakoblich was the director of a high school ministry and felt that the church he worked for did not run its programs efficiently and was slow to embrace technology.

"I saw a need for good management on the parish level and diocesan level," he said. "There were a lot of inefficiencies, a lot of things that would be considered a problem if you ran a business."

Mr. Jakoblich said the church needs more midlevel managers to help make things run smoothly, and that he hoped to receive the spiritual and business foundation he needs to work for a parish or diocesan organization.Joe Reganato is the only student in the church management program who is also in the full-time M.B.A. program. A theology major in college, Mr. Reganato worked for four years as a high school youth minister, and hopes to work in a leadership role at a Roman Catholic social service agency.

"Some people have said, 'Theology and business don't fit together,' but really they do," said Mr. Reganato, 26. "It just seemed like such a practical, natural skill to have that will further enhance how I serve the church."

Greg Sobolewski, director of the Institute of Pastoral Ministries at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, said such programs would take time to catch on.

"There's going to be a generation or two of discovery before we're going to have a significant institutionalization of the role of pastoral administrators," Professor Sobolewski said. "But I think a lot of us can take comfort that 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, lay people have a significant place in the church."


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