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.