Finance workshop gets down to business for future and current parish leaders

Parishioners take up a collection during Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville, Ind., in 2012. (CNS/Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Baltimore — Just off a suburban thoroughfare in the outskirts of Baltimore sits the oldest Catholic seminary in the United States: St. Mary's Seminary & University, founded 1791.

In late July 2014, an economics professor by the name of Charles Zech visited the historic divinity school to teach a seminar on a subject that most U.S. seminaries still, to this very day, do not touch: financial management.

Church finance, to be exact.

"No one I know who wants to become a priest says they want to run a business," said Zech, who directs the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at the Villanova School of Business, "but that's what a parish often is."

Zech's July 28-31 workshop focused on financial issues at the parish level and drew 18 participants from East Coast states. Some were seminarians. Others were parochial vicars. Many were already serving in pastoral roles. Nearly all appeared to be under the age of 50 -- most in their 30s or early 40s.

For his part, Zech -- 67 years old with a cool demeanor and a casual style -- played the role of financial coach, providing a crash course on the basics of business management.

He quizzed: "True or false. While no church is entirely satisfied with the amount that their members contribute, Catholics contribute to their parish at about the same rate as Protestants."

"False," the class responded. (According to Zech's data, Catholics rank third to last.)

He talked money: "There are some parishes in this country where the same person, one person, counts the collection, the same person deposits the collection, the same person writes all the checks. That's a temptation, along every one of those steps. So what you want to do is have segmentation. Break them up."

Zech taught material that from a religious point of view could seem cold and calculating, but as one young parochial vicar from the diocese of Greensburg, Pa., said, "You have to be prepared for all things -- if the administration suffers, the spiritual side will suffer."

Seminaries "don't even teach you how to do a tax form," quipped attendee John Picinic, a Queens, N.Y.-born pastor based in Sewell, N.J.

Zech has been teaching and writing about church management for a decade. In addition to instructing summer sessions and one-day workshops, he offers two online programs, a nine-month webinar certificate and two-year flagship masters. His Center for Church Management and Business Ethics is one of only two such programs in the United States today. The other comes by way of Boston College.

"We have a nice cross section of students," Zech said. About a quarter of his students are Protestant, "and that's real important because we may differ in theology, but when it comes to these temporal issues, we're all in the same boat. We all deal with volunteers, we all deal with civil law, we all deal with planning."

Any Muslims or Jews?

"Nothing other than Christians so far. ... A church's situation is different from a synagogue's. I can't imagine working out something like that."

A quarter of Zech's students are clergy, Catholic and Protestant; and then there are the "daily Mass attendees who have been thrust into managerial roles." That's who Zech's really after.

"One of our goals is to educate the laity. We're glad to have clergy, but our real goal is to relieve them of the burden of temporal work."

The effort to do so, of course, comes at a time when church attendance and numbers of priests are historically down.

"People don't see church as being relevant in their lives," said Marilyn Blanchette, a stewardship and development specialist who spoke at the seminar. "And the Catholic church has really been the last to the rodeo in terms of addressing that."

Blanchette believes part of the solution to drawing parishioners back may involve "letting go" once they arrive.

"When you engage a lot of people, it gets messy, but you have to be okay with some of that to allow for the greater good," she said. "I think that is a style that the upcoming leadership in the church will probably adapt to better than many of our current pastors. Just talking to these guys today, you can just tell -- it's so great to see them -- they're of a different generation."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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