I enjoy attending Mass on the road in such places as Juneau, Alaska; Chicora, PA; Roanoke Rapids, NC; or Saliverry, Peru, and even the early parish Mass at St. Peters in Rome. Wherever possible I take a bulletin home to digest the life of the parishes and, where available, to check the finances and see if any given parish has the means to sustain itself. Most of the weekly financial reports disturb me, not because I suspect embezzlement, but because I have a pretty good idea of what things cost from twenty years of pastoring, and costs have only increased since I left pastoring in 1993. Income and budgeting is not keeping pace.
Some parishes do not release a collection tally from the previous week. Others release the weekly collection as a regular thing in their bulletin, while a few publish both the week’s collection and the corresponding amount expected based on the annual budget drawn up by the pastor and his financial board at the beginning of the fiscal year. The latter is probably the preferred method, though sometimes the annual projections themselves are misleading. Consider your home budget: if your year-end bank statement tells you that you met all your bills with nothing left over, then you are losing ground because all your expenses will be higher next year, there is nothing to add to your savings, and all your material goods are depreciating. If the idea of “staying afloat” is the benchmark of a parish’s financial planning, that parish has set out on the inexorable road to default.
Which brings us to our first myth: the diocese is an eternal financial safety net. I might have agreed 30 years ago, when my bishop bailed me out with a $130,000 loan/grant to meet surmounting capital improvements impossible to delay, but as of this week 15 dioceses and 3 religious orders have declared bankruptcy in the United States since 2004. My lifelong experience has convinced me that the average Catholic does not appreciate how many dioceses sit at the edge of the financial cliff.
Myth two: a diocese can never cut a parish loose from the corporate umbrella. In some circumstances dioceses are disengaging from the principle of corporate sole and setting up parishes as independent corporations. This tactic reduces corporate loss to the diocese where more abuse settlements are looming on the horizon. The Diocese of Tucson’s website addresses the practical implications of each parish with its own corporate board which makes fascinating reading. I am cynical toward the idea and I suspect that this strategy will not stand up in court indefinitely. For one thing, such an arrangement makes a parish totally liable for every elderly person who slips and injures themselves in the parish parking lot, and one wonders how parishioners in Tucson are responding to these new responsibilities.
Myth three states that closing a church saves money. We are familiar with the fact that many churches, particularly the old, majestic ones, have been closed or are closing, particularly in cities with longstanding Catholic populations which have now moved to suburbia. One might think that such closures reduce drag on the diocesan budget, or even add to the coffers if a buyer can be found. But closing a church is very expensive. If you watch “The Property Brothers” on TV you have heard contractor Jonathan Scott approach the renovation of an older house—say, pre-1970—with considerable caution because “you never know what you’re going to find behind the walls of these old houses.” Consider the risks and expenses hidden in a church built in 1904, as my childhood place of worship was. In 1986 I looked up the Baptist minister who obtained my childhood church, and he told me he purchased the church, rectory, and convent for the paltry sum of $40,000.
Dioceses cannot walk away from churches the way homeowners can abandon a home and toss the keys to the bank, since these church properties were paid for long ago. But dioceses are still responsible for upkeep and particularly liability of buildings in poor shape and often in blighted areas, or far out in the country. Given that when churches close, and parishioners are consolidated into a “regional” cluster of parishes under one pastor, that pastor and his new congregation is usually responsible for the costs incurred from the empty church in his cluster, particularly the insurance and security costs. Can a parish church be sold to a third-party for non-church purposes? Canon law makes provision for this: with permission from the Vatican, a church can be decommissioned, so to speak, and sold for “profane but not blasphemous purposes,” a rather curious phrasing. So, a developer can purchase a church on the block, bring it to code, and turn it into an appealing residential complex. This has happened, but not very often because of the costs, conditions, and locations of the church structures.
I might add here that no matter how old or young your parish church is, it needs capital improvements. In Florida the roofs and the AC systems of all structures—including my house, unfortunately—have a fifteen-year run. Walk around the property and look at flooring, furnishings, computers, walls that need paint and parking lots that need repaving, security systems of all sorts that need updating.
We’ve talked about law suits and property cost factors of the past two decades, so let’s turn to another key parish expense, personnel. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw large numbers of religious women [sisters] working in our Catholic schools, parishes, and hospitals. There are many reasons for this spike in vocations among women religious, one of them being that a woman of limited means could enter professional life and receive a college education. Catholic parishes profited greatly by the availability of religious providing professional services for the cost of housing [convents] and small stipends--$25/month in my home parish. By the 1960’s, however, women could seek these same Christian opportunities to serve outside the convent, as teachers, directors of religious education, medical personnel, college professors, etc. at better wages with greater personal autonomy.
I doubt that 5% of American Catholics understand the relationship between the recent history of religious women and the cost of staffing a local parish and school. It is a simple proportional math: the labor of American women religious was ridiculously cheap until recently and made possible schooling and other ministry at a high caliber of professional excellence. Religious orders footed the college bills. Catholics did not appreciate the bargain, and the cost of personnel today is now coming around to market value, though still with a long way to go. There is a spiritual sidebar to the financial picture: parishes cannot afford professionals and find themselves conducting religious education programs, for example, with volunteers and those with “in-house certifications,” which do not measure up to even a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. Carrying this sad story further, very few promising college students even consider a career in religious education or faith formation due to low salaries and the simple fact that churches cannot afford just compensation.
There is no standard salary range across the United States for the various positions in parochial life established by the USCCB. Even priest salaries are a local matter determined by the bishop. There is considerable Church teaching and documentation on the justice of a living wage. Consider, then, what would be a reasonable salary for a fulltime church minister, a faith formation director, who is a father or a mother with several children, who paid his or her own way through Boston College, the University of Dayton, Catholic University, St. Bonaventure University, or another theology school with national accreditation. You need to factor in the “bennies” of good health care and a decent retirement, maternity/paternity leave, and something that few administers think of, continuing education to maintain personal standards of excellence. Were I a pastor today, I would have to be thinking $50,000 to even $100,000 as a full compensation package.
We are running things on the cheap, which severely impacts the excellence of liturgy, faith/religious education, and staff morale, where there are staffs. As one mother put it, “my kid couldn’t name the members of the Holy Trinity if you spotted him the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In all probability, his volunteer teacher might not have known the names of the sacred threesome, either. Money is the mother’s milk of politics, as they still say; money is also the mother’s milk of healthy ministry.
Next post: when to give and when not to give. What kind of information do you need to exercise effective stewardship?