It's the Catholic Church, Not Corporation


Approaching the Church with a business-school mindset ignores that the priesthood is a calling and not a career, says BW reader Thomas Szyszkiewicz

Catholic bishops are having a hard time finding candidates who can manage as well as they preach, but they're also finding it hard to find ones who can preach, period. The preaching is primary, and management way down on their list of priorities. After all, Jesus didn't say, "Go out to all the world and manage well."

That's not to say the Catholic Church should ignore sound business practices. Contrary to common perception—and some of the readers who responded to Douglas MacMillan's "A Business Plan for the Catholic Church" (BusinessWeek.com, 9/30/08)—the Church has had human resource and finance "departments" for her entire 20 centuries of existence.

If you think of Peter as the first "shop floor manager" and Judas Iscariot as the CFO for Jesus and the Apostles, then Judas showed no loyalty to his CEO and betrayed the whole enterprise during the high point of the world's most famous company retreat. The Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul's letters record numerous instances of collections, the buying and selling of houses, and other monetary transactions by the first Christians. Monasteries became and remained places of production and commerce, as witnessed by the enormous success of the Cistercian monastery in Sparta, Wis., that started LaserMonks.

So the Church is not inexperienced when it comes to financial and management issues. Indeed, some people wrongly think it's just the opposite: that the Church's reason for existence is to have money and its attendant power.

Centuries of "Who Moved My Cheese?"

It's worth noting, then, when someone like former Freddie Mac (FRE) board member Geoffrey Boisi wants to bring modern-day management techniques to a Church that has been coping with "who moved my cheese?" for 2,000 years. True, changes within the Church since the Second Vatican Council necessitate a new look at some issues. With the decline in the number of clergy and the increase in laity to pick up the slack, the Church has new HR realities to consider. Bishops must be concerned with insurance policies, adequate pay for lay employees and their families, hiring and firing, and every other personnel issue imaginable.

There is no doubt that Mr. Boisi and the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management (NLRCM), which he started, mean well. Indeed, the group's executive director, Kerry Robinson, says they love the Church. However, what isn't clear is what their understanding of "the Church" is.

In Catholic theology, the Church is distinguished by four marks: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Within this structure, bishops are the successors of the Apostles, that group of 12 men whom Jesus gathered around himself. He gave this rather motley crew of fishermen, tax collectors, twins, and zealots his own authority to go and tell the world a specific message—that God created the world and we mucked it up, but he had come to redeem us from a mess of our own making and bring us to eternal life with him. Jesus invested the Apostles, the Church's first bishops, with the exclusive authority to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.

Entrusting the Trustees

It's this last area where the NLRCM seeks to help. Governing gets into the nitty-gritty of everyday Church life and not every bishop is like Bishop John LeVoir of New Ulm, Minn., who was a CPA before entering the seminary. So it's reasonable that the group would want to help bishops in this task.

However, despite NLRCM's claims to the contrary, there are indications that helping is not all that some at the roundtable have in mind. For instance, in a 2004 meeting that was a precursor to the roundtable, Jesuit Father Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College and an NLRCM board member, suggested that dioceses follow the examples of Catholic universities and hospitals that have lay boards of trustees to run them.

This seems to suggest a return of the parish-based lay trustee movement that ran for nearly the entire 19th century and led to some nasty confrontations between the laity and bishops, and even to schism. Only Father Monan seems to want it on a diocesan, and not merely a parish, level. Is this what NLRCM wants?

Sensitive Personnel Decisions

Lay control over a diocese would raise touchy personnel issues, especially when it comes to priests. Can executives from Korn/Ferry International (KFY) really advise a bishop on what good priestly character is? And if a bishop decided to ordain a priest against the advice of the consultants, what would NLRCM advise the consultants do?

As Pope Benedict recently pointed out, the Church "is not a human association of ideas and common interests, but a call made by God." And therein lies the essential difference between the Church and the companies run by NLRCM's board members. Adobe Systems (ADBE) is a good company, but God didn't start it, and the Church, which God did start, can't be treated like it. The Church can learn from Adobe and others, and they can teach good lessons.

But at a certain point, the essential difference will come into play and the bishop will have to exercise his authority—authority not merely invested in him by a board, but given to him by God as a successor of the Apostles for the stewardship of his diocese. And God will hold the bishop to account for the proper exercise of that authority, not a board. NLRCM would do well to keep that in mind.


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