To close this education gap for future pastors, the St. Louis Archdiocese launched last year its own business and administration program for priests, along with St. Louis University's Emerson Leadership Institute. The archdiocese program, called the ...
Future Catholic priests spend years studying theology in seminary. But what they don’t learn there is how to actually run a parish.
It’s easy to forget that parishes are not just communities of worship. They also have a business component, sometimes with multi-million dollar budgets. The pastor, the parish’s head priest, is essentially the chief executive officer. Alongside the parish finance council, a pastor is in charge of managing parish and school staffs, up to millions of dollars in revenue and expenses, and capital projects.
Priests who become pastors often must take on all these duties with little to no formal business or administration training.
Seminaries “have so much other stuff to cover, that they’re required by the diocese to cover, that they frankly don’t have time to cover this very important topic,” said Charles Zech, a Villanova University economics professor who has long studied Catholic parish finances. “Seminaries think they’re in the business of training priests, but really they’re in the business of training pastors. That’s a big difference.”
To close this education gap for future pastors, the St. Louis Archdiocese launched last year its own business and administration program for priests, along with St. Louis University’s Emerson Leadership Institute.
The archdiocese program, called the Pastoral Leadership Institute, currently trains priests in finance and will eventually expand to include curriculum tracks for human resources, marketing, school management and parish operations. Archdiocese officials and experts believe this is the first such business program for priests in the U.S.
Jerry Amsler, the archdiocese’s director of shared accounting who started the program, worked with SLU Assistant Professor Neil Jansen to write a finance curriculum that is tailored for priests. The class combines five online sessions with three in-person sessions to accommodate priests’ schedules. Homework assignments require priests to study their own parish’s balance sheets and budgets and answer questions such as: Did unrestricted revenues match up with the budgeted revenues for last fiscal year? If not, why?
Priests used to have as long as 15 years before they were assigned to be pastors. Because there are fewer priests now, they may become pastors in as little as three years. That means they must learn more quickly how to run a parish.
Amsler came up with the leadership institute after priests kept asking him questions about how to run a parish or a parish school.
He met priests who didn’t know how to figure out whether they could afford to build a playground, or how many people they should have on their parish finance council. One priest in his most recent finance class confused a financial controller, who is essentially an accountant, with a video game controller.
Before taking the Pastoral Leadership Institute class, the Rev. Scott Jones, associate pastor at Sacred Heart parish in Valley Park, didn’t understand what his parish finance council members were discussing at meetings.
“I am able to understand them now,” Jones said. “Before, I simply had to trust them.”
Villanova Professor Zech said he thought it was critical for both clergy and laity to receive proper business education because churches in the United States are not subject to much required financial oversight.
Parishes and dioceses do not have to report finances to the government, and most dioceses do not regularly audit their parishes’ finances, according to Zech’s research. A lack of education, a lack of oversight and a heavy culture of trust can lead to greater opportunity for theft or overlooked errors, Zech found. More than 85 percent of dioceses he surveyed had experienced parish embezzlement.
“The diocese should be doing ongoing education for both the clergy and the laity not only to prevent embezzlement, but just to prevent people from making honest mistakes,” Zech said.
Amsler said he would present the Pastoral Leadership Institute at the annual Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference in September. The archdiocese currently foots the bill for the program, but Amsler hopes to hire more instructors and market the program across the country.
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