Catechesis of the Collection Plate 3: "Your Church Is Probably Broke. Really.”Read Now
Part 3 of Catechesis of the Collection Plate, “Your Church Is Probably Broke, Really,” is now posted on the Wednesday Professional Development stream of the Café. For the earlier posts, just slide down the page.
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?
This is the second installment of a four-part posting. Scroll down for the first entry.
The fiscal relationship of a bishop with his diocese flows from his position as successor of the Apostles and protector of the Church’s good name and fidelity to the Church’s mission in his diocese. The specific responsibilities of a bishop are enumerated in Canon law here, and I suggest that before going further in today’s blog, you might want to see how universal Church law delineates the mission and obligation of the bishop. I continue to be amazed at what Canon Law expects of a bishop, and it is amazing that most bishops endure till their required retirement age of 75.
Canon Law [and civil law, for that matter] expect a great deal of a bishop. Commentators have noted since the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that it is impossible for a bishop to personally attend to every duty cited in the Code, and the custom in our country even before Vatican II was the assigning of competent clerical professionals to fulfill these responsibilities in the bishop’s stead, though always in full communion with the bishop’s mission for the diocese. When I was a boy in Buffalo all the major administrative diocesan posts were filled by priests—such as superintendent of schools, CEO, chancellor, director of the Tribunal, etc. For several reasons—particularly the Council’s call for lay involvement and the declining number of priests--these positions are often filled by lay persons and religious sisters and brothers today.
Again, if you scan the canonical list of episcopal responsibility, you can safely deduce that the expenses of a diocese are significant. Last week I neglected to publicize that my own Diocese of Orlando, along with Burlington, Vermont, enjoys a perfect rating among all the 177 American dioceses in terms of public financial disclosure and transparency. To see the present independent audit of my diocese, you can follow the links on this page. An audit lays out where every dime has gone and where every dime is owed, but it cannot as rule tell you whether the expenditure was prudent or whether one’s diocese is sufficiently positioned to absorb another recession such as 2008’s.
Church Law assumes that as the senior pastor of his flock, the bishop will enjoy the full support of the diocesan faithful, i.e. the members of each parish, with his pastors facilitating this cooperation by exhortation from the pulpit and/or other media about the nature of the diocesan good works undertaken. Ideally, there is a consensus between the bishop, the pastors, and the laity on the fiscal priorities of the diocese. However, this hoped for harmonious spirit depends ultimately on the relationship between the bishop and “his men,” i.e., the pastors, and further down the road between the pastor and “his people, which would be us.
Even before I became a pastor myself, I was aware of the “contested space” between chancery and parish. I doubt this is a uniquely Catholic problem, and many of you work in circumstances where you must answer to an executive office across town or hundreds of miles away, or maybe even across the ocean. Orlando is by no means the largest diocese, geographically speaking, in the United States, but when I came here in 1978 there was considerable distance between our major cities, and each of our five deaneries or regions had a distinctive personality of its own. When I say distinctive, I am referring particularly to degrees of separation from local sites and the chancery in downtown Orlando.
Historically, pastors want to exercise their authority with limited interference from “downtown.” This is particularly true in matters of finances, and specifically to the annual “tax” assessed to parishes by the bishop each year. Readers may recognize this tax by another name, “the annual Catholic Charities appeal” or some form of that type. Years ago, our local bishops named this early springtime financial harvest the “Bishop’s Annual Service Enrichment” campaign, which I have always felt is a somewhat more honest title because inclusion of the word “charity” in such campaigns is somewhat misleading to the donors. Monies pledged and collected routinely support the administration of a diocese.
This is not to say that a fair amount of money does not go to good works, but the advertising can disguise the fact that a great deal of money goes toward administrative and office salaries. Our Catholic Charities promotional video, usually shown at Mass on the weekend before the campaign, is filled with clips of children on Catholic school campuses in full uniform. The expectation of a donor, I would think, is that poorer children of limited means receive tuition assistance in our Catholic schools through the campaign, but this is not so. “Catholic Charities” supports the office of schools, whose paid staff of chancery administrators is not small by any means.
Pastors are keenly aware of such things and have complained about their annual assessments since Noah and the Flood. Each parish receives an assessment unique to their circumstances. For years I would sit with my pastor friends as we tried to decode the formula. The amount of the assessment is the “goal” of the Catholic Charities” campaign. This past spring my home parish’s goal was about $900,000; I doubt that there are more than four or five parishes in my diocese close to that range. My pastor has a reserve to cover a shortfall, but this would not be the case for most parishes in my diocese, and the annual campaign is truly a challenge for many of our parishes.
In reading about dioceses that have recently gone bankrupt, I have seen reports that some bishops assess parishes about 20%, and even 30%, of their annual offertory intake. These might be dioceses with hefty expenses resulting from clerical abuse, and I often wonder if parishioners in those locales are aware of that. [Hence the need for annual diocesan audit publication.] In any event, the authority of the bishop to assess parishes for the diocesan mission is always a tender spot with pastors, most of whom in my experience would like the availability of funds on hand to meet capital expenses or other parish concerns.
The quality of the relationship between bishops and their priests is probably the best determinant of how little or how much antagonism manifests itself in matters of money. My impression is that my own bishop, John Noonan, goes to great lengths to minister to his priests and reduce local stresses. On the other hand, if you want an example of how badly a bishop can manage his clergy, check out the three-part series in Crux Catholic news service on the Diocese of Memphis, where Pope Francis removed a bishop after only two years of his term a few weeks ago. Like all relationships, much depends on the sanity and good sense of all parties involved.
This concludes the second post in the series on the catechetics of the collection plate. I had intended this stream to go three posts, but I am adding a fourth, because I believe it is important to illustrate why and how dioceses and parishes need much more money than they receive now. The final post will be some considerations on stewardship and targeting your giving according to your conscience.