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.