By ANDREW NELSON, Staff writer | Published November 22, 2017
CONYERS—Between morning prayers and quiet time before the Eucharist, priests attended a business leaders boot camp, getting a crash course on budgeting, hiring and fundraising at the Toolbox for Pastoral Management program, held Nov. 13-17 at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
Nearly 30 priests from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and other dioceses spent a week at the Conyers monastery without a theology book in sight. They focused instead on mastering business tools and practices.
“They don’t teach us this in seminary. That is crazy. I don’t remember any of this in seminary and I was in seminary for eight years,” said Father Jaime Rivera, parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta.
The Toolbox for Pastoral Management is an initiative of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. A lay nonprofit that knits together expertise from the business world with the needs of the church, Leadership Roundtable has partnered with more than 70 percent of U.S. dioceses to improve management practices. This year’s program is the first that the Atlanta Archdiocese has hosted.
Parish priests are trained in seminary on giving homilies, philosophy and canon law, but not necessarily on crafting a parish budget or dealing with insurance and financial controls.
“Seminaries do a remarkable job of providing the necessary formation for priesthood. But any priest will tell you that there are so many things that seminary does not, cannot prepare one for,” said Msgr. James Schillinger, the archdiocesan director of ongoing formation for priests.
Now priests are given more responsibility sooner to lead instead of having many years of on-the-job training. In the past, men could expect to serve as associate priests for longer periods of time, learning from pastors about financial planning and working with staff.
“Now it is probably closer to 4 or 5 years,” said Msgr. Schillinger, “and there have been instances when that number has been even smaller.”
And the move to pastor for most is a big one, although sharing the same ministry.
“The position calls for a whole new set of skills,” said Msgr. Schillinger, who recalled his own shortcomings leading a parish despite being ordained for 18 years. His first pastorate was at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, for a dozen years.
“It was a wonderful experience, tremendously gratifying. But it also can be exhausting and filled with all sorts of troubling issues,” he said, adding he was surprised to learn how much time was spent on issues that had little to do with preaching from the pulpit.
Father Rivera said he feels fortunate in his 10 years as a priest to have been mentored by pastors who encouraged him to broaden his understanding of parish needs by reading and attending conferences. These practices fill in gaps in training that seminary never provided, he said.
The benefits last long after conferences end. Father Rivera said presenters share willingly their emails and phone numbers, which in turn widen his network of experienced professionals to lean on when he faces unique situations.
The retreat in Conyers mirrored executive leadership programs at many of the nation’s top business schools, like Emory University and the University of Georgia. The effort is to promote replacing trial-and-error management with business standards.
Schillinger said the program almost sold out, an indication church leaders recognize the need for this training. Bishops and recent popes are calling upon priests to ensure training doesn’t end at ordination, he said.
The week of programs covered 11 key areas. The men took courses on building advisory councils, human resources and financial controls, and on other operational issues.
In an afternoon focused on complex pastoring situations, the men learned ways to navigate pitfalls.
Most priests are trained to take on leadership in a church that doesn’t exist in reality—a church that has one priest, one parish and one culture. Half of the Catholic community in the U.S. is Hispanic, and the faith is lived among a diversity of ethnicities and languages, said Mark Mogilka, a national speaker and author with 40 years of experience in the church management.
A successful pastor accepts with humility that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“You will have to learn to be a leader,” said Mogilka.
The church preaches unity, but the complexity of a multicultural parish means different things. A pastor would be wise not to force an artificial unity but acknowledge the differences in how faith is lived and celebrated, he said.
Different groups can gather as one at “bridging opportunities,” said Mogilka. “It’s OK to have a diverse mosaic, a community of communities.”
One participant, Father Jose Kochuparampil, has served at St. Mary, Mother of God Church, in Jackson, for some 18 months as administrator. He was ordained in 1987, but this is his first time as the spiritual leader of a parish.
He hoped the week gives him the tools to craft a vision for the parish. He dreams for the parish to become a “spiritual powerhouse.”
St. Mary, Mother of God is the only Catholic Church in Butts County, so some Catholics can feel like outsiders in the community. Father Kochuparampil wants to turn its members into evangelizers who feel empowered to share the Catholic message with others.
The administrative tools are important to know, but he said he expects to lean on the expertise of the lay staff and parish members to guide the work together.