I posted last week that two critical components of financial stewardship are transparency and lay involvement. Catholic parish donors are, in many instances, college educated, or entrepreneurs, or highly successful in their business lives, or manage their own portfolios for retirement. They routinely examine professional financial data and enjoy enough competence to make sense of a parish financial report of greater detail than the simple 5-piece pie that many parishes provide annually. In fact, Canon Law itself dictates that at least a representation of practicing Catholics with vision and financial acumen need to be consulted on parish fiscal policy through the existence of the parish finance council, an ecclesiastical mandate.
The absence of lay review of Church operations can hide very serious operational problems, at the least, all the way up to crime itself. To borrow the now-famous phrase from the film “All the President’s Men,” reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are advised by their White House source to “follow the money.” In the 1930’s the infamous Al Capone of “Untouchables” fame went to prison not for murder and extortion, but for income tax evasion. We know today that the scope of the clerical child abuse problem became better understood when large private payouts to victims and church attorneys could no longer be hidden in the bowels of private diocesan operational budgets.
A more commonplace scenario in many parts of the country is the closing of parishes and schools. One is more likely to trip over the consequences of poor transparency in matters involving local church operations. In these cases, I have to say that laity can be just as culpable as superiors where money is concerned. Church authorities can hide bad news, but lay vigilance is often trumped by reasons of the heart, i.e., my parish can never close. Such an unfortunate perfect storm occurred in my home town a few years ago when the local Catholic girls’ high school suddenly announced in the month of February that it was closing its doors in June after graduation. I devoted several days of blog posts on the Café to this happening, as I had a chance to do some research; no institution just “crashes” and I wondered how the closing came as such a shock to students and parents.
On those posts I quoted directly from the blog response sections of the major Buffalo television stations, the Buffalo News, and the school and diocesan websites. The outpouring of vitriol was exceeded only by a massive vacuum of general understanding of the school’s finances and a remarkable absence of long-range fiscal planning on all sides.
As the local Buffalo media outlets reported, and the sponsoring religious community’s official statement confirmed, the warning signs of financial Armageddon were in the books; it is not clear to me how much of the data was made public to school parents and/or the school’s advisory board(s) along the way—none, if social media is to be believed. The school closed in June of 2016, but the religious community which founded the school a century earlier began to reimburse the operations around 2003, and by 2016 the order had poured $7.5 million into a school of 160 students and 45 paid staff. In 2013 the school attempted a capital campaign but in the words of the Buffalo News and the sponsoring order the results were “disappointing.” In scouring the internet, I found minutes of the school’s advisory board meeting about a year before the closing. The minutes note general satisfaction with the results of the school’s annual fund raiser, a meat sale, which netted about $4500.
Given heavy fiscal dependence upon a religious community whose median age in 2016 was 80 and had one remaining sister on the staff, the failure of a recent capital campaign, a disturbingly small student body despite multiple feeder schools, very modest regular external support, and the absence of any diocesan mechanism such as an endowment for student tuition, was there not one lay member of the school board or parent in the general student body who connected the dots and ran to the “break glass in emergency only” button? To read the hundreds of negative reactions in public media from parents, alumni, and those who hate the Diocese of Buffalo as a tenet of their religion, the word “disconnect” kept playing over and over in my head. This is particularly true now as I reread some of the news coverage, in which the religious community reports in its public announcement that the school’s future had been a matter of debate among trustees for quite some time. [Curiously, the idea of merging with another Catholic high school of 500 students just up the road (literally, 2.2 miles), a boys’ school run by another branch of Franciscans, was never entertained, at least publicly.]
As I say, I don’t know how much of the school’s financial difficulties were effectively communicated at large in the last decades of its existence. Transparency is a two-way street: data regarding church finances must be available for parishioners and school parents to understand legitimate needs and respond accordingly, but a certain measure of vigilance is necessary on the part of all involved Catholics to pick up trends and conditions that assist parishes and schools in avoiding major potholes and in many cases getting the jump on worthwhile ventures. Can a Catholic school today, for example, thrive into the next generation without multilingual and multicultural adaptation?
My last administrative assignment while in the ministry was a parish with considerable financial challenge and a school operating at about 50% capacity. The two strands of local “popular wisdom” had it that the school was weighing down the parish and that the diocese wasn’t doing enough to help. I am always wary of uninformed advice, so I decided to pay for hard data: I hired a consulting firm from Minnesota to consult by phone with every registered parishioner on several critical points, specifically the issue of the school.
What I learned, among other things, was that from several measures, the school at that time was carrying the parish in many ways. I recall that one of the questions invited the respondent to indicate how much of the Sunday offering should be devoted to school support. I was truly amazed that many parishioners indicated 80-90%, a measure of good feeling about the school ministry, its tradition in the parish, and its administration. This information gelled with our demographic, specifically that there was a long tradition of families in the parish who attended the school and wanted it to survive. I left the parish after only four years, but the principal remained, and with a strong board and supportive pastor successfully implemented the school’s strengths and broadened its appeal to bring it to capacity. I am happy to say that nearly thirty years later the school continues to operate.
Pastors of my generation tried to present the lowest announced tuition possible so as not to frighten off prospective student families. One of the Minnesota consultants at the time asked a very simple question: does your parish know the actual cost per student? “You don’t have to charge that figure,” he added, “but you might be surprised at the number of parents who are willing to pay the difference between announced tuition and actual cost for their own children. Just tell everybody the truth.”
That was a very pleasant surprise, too.
It has taken a few years, but the Catechist Café has begun to receive fascinating correspondences. Such letters are always welcomed, even the “controversial ones,” because the courage of one letter writer usually represents a number of individuals with the same question. [Johnny Carson used to say that as a rule of thumb he estimated that every letter he received represented 25 viewers of “The Tonight Show.”]
I am responding here to one letter which contains a mother lode of questions related to parish finances. [The letter can be read in its entirety as a response to the next post down on this stream.] At the conclusion of my last Wednesday post, I said that I would offer some advice on tithing, stewardship, and church offering, and many of the points below will provide at least some partial tools.
I need to note here that (1) I have known the writer, Mike, long before I began the blogging Café business, when I was an instructor for the diocese’s Catholic school teachers, religious education personnel, and parish staff members and visited about 30 parishes for weekend workshops. Mike was a voracious student in those courses and moved on to complete the respectable on-line University of Dayton catechetical certification. (2) Mike and I belong to the same parish.
Mike’s first question is “I wonder what our home parish pays to have our Sisters here that serve the parish.” He is referring to a community of three sisters who live in a house on our parish plant. They were invited into the parish by our pastor about five years ago. According to our directory, one is associated with the parish school and another is a pastoral assistant. [A third is “in residence” working at another location.] The mother community was founded in 1990 and appears to be based in Miami, Florida.
I recall when they arrived and there was considerable interest and enthusiasm about having “nuns” in the parish, although their precise professional qualifications and responsibilities in the parish were never quite spelled out. I believe the pastor’s intentions in bringing them in was the witness value for our young women, perhaps attracting vocations to the religious life. There is something to be said for that. However, the young women such as those who graduate from our academy amaze me with their career plans, attending Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Florida, to name a few. Many appear oriented to serving the poor and rebuilding failing systems. Many have become doctors, attorneys, scientists and the like, and I have sometimes wondered if the more conservative, subservient model of our parish sisters resonates with the energized Z-Generation. I don’t know.
I needed to set some background because the answer to Mike’s question is deceptively simple: it costs a lot to maintain a community of sisters. My wife Margaret, a retired Catholic school principal, told me that in her day the hiring of a religious sister was more expensive than a first-year full time Catholic school teacher, per the diocesan compensation directives. I could not find the compensation numbers for sisters on the Orlando Diocese website.
However, I did find a detailed numerical pay scale for sisters for a similar sized diocese, Fresno, California. The Fresno scale includes a three-tiered salary structure based upon the responsibilities of the job holder, though no one working in any parish position is eligible for the premiere third tier of compensation in Fresno. Religious communities, in reduced numbers today, are in better command of healthy salaries and I would be surprised if communities looking for new placements didn’t gravitate toward dioceses with higher compensation rates, or dicker with pastors directly for compensation—or, for that matter, avoid dioceses where bishops have historically treated women religious poorly, which fortunately is not an issue in Orlando.
There is nothing crass about this. Consider again that working-aged sisters support their elderly and ill confreres by their salaries and, what is less appreciated, they make possible the work of other sisters in their communities among the poor, where compensation would be at best minimal. Sister Carol Keehan, director of a network of Catholic health services, is paid $8.5 million annually, commensurate to a non-religious compensation for the same work. Sister Keehan’s salary is no doubt a major support to her community’s care of its aged members.
I would say this: communities of religious that hope to survive will need to consider ways to generate income through professional services inside the Church or even outside, as need be. My parish, with its $5+ million annual budget, can probably afford to carry a small community of modest ministerial skills, but very few other parishes in my diocese could do so.
Mike went on to comment about the absence of weekly offertory reports in our bulletin. My experience—and this is just my opinion—is that parishes who post such data really need to do it, i.e. they are living week to week. The posting is the weekly reminder of urgency, in my view. However, the weekly number tells nothing of the real financial health of a parish, because there is no context to it. If you visit a parish on vacation and you see that last Sunday’s offering was $4500, how do you know if that is good or bad? There is no context to know. If a visitor to our parish took a bulletin last week and read that our fall festival took in $57,000 or thereabouts for local charity, he would have no way of knowing that in the heyday of festivals $100,000 profit was not unusual or that our last several fall festivals have been bedeviled by hurricanes.
I think the more pressing question from Mike is the annual financial report. My parish’s website posts a broad summary here. What we receive is a summary of an in-depth audit performed by an outside company, so a more detailed account exists but it is not a public document. [To go back to an earlier question, I suspect the costs related to the convent are detailed in the full audit.] To the question of whether our annual reports are accurate, I can definitively tell you that both Margaret and I will testify to the outstanding work of our parish manager, who has held the post for thirty years or more. In fact, it was our business manager who worked long and hard to convince our previous pastor of happy memory to do a public financial statement. True story: in the early 1980’s, when I was a young neighboring pastor breaking in, our previous pastor advised me “never tell them what you have.” Otherwise, he reasoned, they’ll pull back on giving.
That said, my criticism of our present reporting is the lack of specificity, the difficulty in locating information that would give me a better picture of the health of the parish. As someone now in his 70’s, this kind of information is helpful to me in making estate plans and possible restricted bequests. For example, what is the current state of our school’s endowment? How much tuition assistance was rendered last year? (Sweet spots for me.) What is the cost of our liturgical music program? Given that our available numbers indicate a surplus in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, what are the total reserves of the parish? Are there plans to use these reserves for construction without detailed parish review, as has happened unfortunately in the past?
Canon Law mandates that every parish must have a lay parish finance board. Nowhere in our public parish profile are the names/phone numbers/emails of the finance board available. In fact, the existence of a parish finance council does not appear on any public medium of our parish, though I know informally that we have one. This omission seems to derail the spirit and intent of Canon Law. (A finance board is not the same as a “parish council;” the former is mandated by universal Church Law.)
At the end of his post Mike acknowledges that even after completing our diocesan catechists’ certification program and the highly respected Dayton University on-line certification, he feels a certain inadequacy, a lack of training, for the adult education program he currently he teaches. Catechists are addressing populations where most are college educated; in my parish there is a high number of successful business people who rightfully bring the same expectations of competence to Church-based programs. Many catechists, I am sure, perceive this and wish that they possessed a fuller professional immersion at a Catholic college or university.
Call me a dreamer, but we need to make this happen in the American Church, to restructure financial priorities and encourage new donors to support our funding of college education of prospective theologians for meaningful employment at the parish levels. It may be too late for our present generations of catechists, but it would encourage them to know that the cavalry is on the horizon and their efforts will be enhanced. I would include a reform of this nature in my will.