Best-Practicing Catholics: Can the 'Roundtable' Fix Church Management?

Article excerpt

A purchasing agent for the Archdiocese of New York is convicted in a $2-million kickback scheme. A priest supports his opulent lifestyle by pilfering $1.3 million. Another squirrels away over $1 million from weekly collections to buy a horse farm.

The Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University estimates that more than half of the dioceses in the United States have suffered embezzlement on a significant scale. And just as the church's sexual-abuse scandal gave rise to groups like Voice of the Faithful, the mishandling of financial and human resources has spurred reform. One important initiative is the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. Brainchild of Geoffrey Boisi, a Wall Street investment manager with a distinguished record in Catholic philanthropy, the D.C.-based group has been working since 2004 to address the church's structural problems, including the decline in monetary giving to Catholic ministries. Its mission is to help assure the institutional future of the church in the United States.

The Roundtable has a full-time staff of four and an annual budget of just under $1.5 million. Kerry Robinson, former development director at Yale's Catholic center, guides the operation. Start-up money has come from half a dozen Catholic foundations, and board members range from Charles Geschke, chairman of software giant Adobe Systems, to J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard's Kennedy School and Boston Catholic Charities, and Kathleen McChesney, first executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. The group's economic resources and managerial know-how provide leverage as it confronts the battered infrastructure of American Catholicism. More and more parishes have to share their priests with other parishes, and the ties of younger generations to institutional Catholicism are weakening. Diocesan bankruptcies and parish closings, the shuttering of schools, cutbacks and layoffs in social services, the disappearance of religious orders and the withering of religious literacy--these are no longer distant doomsday scenarios, but pressing realities.

To counter them, the Roundtable is reenvisioning the managerial architecture of U.S. Catholicism. The closest precedent comes from the late 1960s, when Catholic colleges and universities, along with many secondary schools and hospitals, started incorporating, separating themselves from the religious orders that founded them. To cope with the academic expansion promoted by the GI Bill and subsequent Great Society measures, Catholic higher education brought managerially savvy, well-connected laypeople into college and university governance. At about the same time, federal courts ruled that institutions of higher education that were "pervasively religious" would not qualify for public funding. As priests and nuns began to leave the consecrated life, shrinking the supply of clerical candidates for academic leadership, the growth of lay-dominated boards accelerated. The upshot was a quiet revolution in the way Catholic institutions in education and health services operated.

Today, most parishes and dioceses are moving toward a sea change of their own, and the Roundtable has encouraged them to adapt some of the experiments used in higher education and health care, even as it points to budgetary and personnel lessons drawn from business. All this reflects a larger trend in which social movements evolve "from mobilization to management"--the grass-roots convulsions of earlier decades giving way to donors and nonprofits who cast themselves as philanthropic entrepreneurs. The approach rarely sets the blood racing, yet it has significant implications for the services that the church delivers and for the way decisions ate made. What's more, for reasons traceable to differences in church-state relations, private donors play a more important role in American than in European Catholicism. This is especially the case for primary and secondary schools. …