Catholic Leadership Institute offers training for parish leaders

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by Peter Feuerherd

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Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"

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The buzz went around a small-town parish in the Pacific Northwest early this year.

The young pastor wanted to go back to school, with the recommendation of the Seattle archdiocese, to learn how to be a better leader. The cost: $12,000.

The money would go to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which runs training programs for clergy and parish staff and leaders. According to its website, 91 dioceses have participated in its programs along with 2,329 priests and 13,740 parish and diocesan staff. Last year, Catholic Leadership Institute pulled in $6.9 million in revenue and spent $5.6 million in seminars and training. 

Its bishop advisory panel reads like a who's who of the U.S. hierarchy. Included are Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and Archbishops Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Gregory Michael Aymond of New Orleans. Catholic Leadership Institute, founded 21 years ago by businessman Timothy Flanagan, bills itself as "the only Christ-centered, Catholic formational leadership training organization in the U.S." Flanagan began the organization after attending a corporate retreat in New Mexico, inspired to take what he learned about business to parishes. 

Is it worth the investment?

Current president Matthew Manion told NCR, from the group's Wayne, Pa., headquarters in the Philadelphia suburbs that Catholic Leadership Institute "helps the church more effectively grow its mission."

That includes workshops for pastors, diocesan leaders, and, for the New Orleans archdiocese most recently, assisting the process of an archdiocesan synod.

The centerpiece of the Catholic Leadership Institute program is the training program for pastors, called Good Leaders, Good Shepherds. A typical session is for 22 days over a year and a half. There are six three-day go-away sessions included.

Focus is on leadership skills, much like those used by corporate America, but reshaped for Catholic parish life.

Fr. Gary Kastl, pastor of St. Anne Church in the growing Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow, Okla., says the training made him a better pastor.

He feels better equipped to handle the demands of a growing 830-family parish. The Catholic Leadership Institute training inspired him, with parish leadership, to develop a pastoral plan.

"It gave me the ability to have a vision of where we wanted to go," Kastl said.

Added were programs in hospitality to greet and transition newcomers as parishioners. In a town where newcomers are frequent, due to its setting as a residence for corporate transfers, the parish makes a point of welcoming. Newcomers are quickly offered a chance to get involved in parish ministries.

Other facets of the plan, involving faith formation and evangelization, focuses on cradle-to-grave faith nurturing. The parish is also planning a $2.6 million building project.

"A parish is a complex organism," noted Kastl. As in most churches, about 20 percent of parishioners become involved. The goal is to edge that number up, and renew those committed volunteers.

Catholic Leadership Institute training, said Kastl, focuses on nurturing laypeople, who are the parish's permanent participants, with the opportunity to assert leadership. "At the end of the day, I will move on," said the pastor, noting that his tenure as pastor at St. Anne's will be term-limited, a routine part of life in most dioceses.

Such training is necessary, according to the 35-year-old pastor, because the on-the-job training process as an associate for new priests has been truncated and seminary education cannot offer the preparation for the administrative challenges pastors face leading what are in effect medium-sized businesses. Because of the lack of clergy in most dioceses, newly-ordained priests are becoming pastors within three years of ordination, a process that previously could take a decade or more.

Catholic Leadership Institute training is less focused on budgetary issues, and more on what Kastl describes as "the science and art of leadership." Much emphasis is placed on developing leadership within the parish, and on emphasizing the importance of preaching to reach those parishioners who have demands on their time on Sunday mornings.

"There is no program out there that is the be all and the end all," said Kastl. But Catholic Leadership Institute "offers practical and concrete tools. I would recommend it hands down."

The proof, in a small-town parish in the Seattle archdiocese and across the country, is in the results. And enough dioceses believe Catholic Leadership Institute is doing the job to keep coming back for more training and leadership support, making the price tag and time spent well worth the effort, at least according to a significant chunk of church leaders across the country.

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

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