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Posted June 6, 2007

Conference focuses on
best management practices for parishes

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

A consistent theme at a two-day conference of church leaders June 1-2 was the need to institute regular practices of performance management and evaluation in all parish ministries.

Speakers said instituting such practices requires overcoming many levels of church culture that resist performance evaluation, but they also spoke of progress in many areas over the years.

"Almost every organization of any size employs some sort of more or less structured system for regular assessment or evaluation of the performance of its personnel. A conspicuous exception to this trend is the Roman Catholic Church," said Father John P. Beal, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America.

Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, a professor of social scientific study of religion at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., suggested that performance evaluation in the church is spotty at best. "Some individuals during certain phases of their involvement in church ministry are intensely evaluated and other individuals at other times are virtually outside the scope of any meaningful evaluation," she said.

The conference drew more than 50 academic and church leaders to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. It was organized by Charles E. Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.

In a keynote talk Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington said, "For the bishop or pastor, accountability understood as transparency of the exercise of authority does not mean giving up decision-making authority. It does, however, mean that such apostolic authority is exercised in the context of an informed and consulted local church."

He said accountability requires "three distinct but related activities: communication, consultation and collaboration."

"The unique nature and mission of the church ... form the context or framework for any specific mechanisms of accountability," he said.

Sessions during the conference focused on what accountability, evaluation and performance management mean at different levels of parish ministry, from the pastor to the unpaid volunteer.

Sister Schuth, who is noted for her research on U.S. seminaries and is the author of a recent study on priests responsible for multiple parishes, said seminarians undergo intense, regular evaluation from the time they apply until they are ordained.

Yet when she asked more than 900 priests who run multiple parishes if they are required to submit written annual reports on their ministry to their bishop or religious superior, only one-fourth had to do so, she said.

She said she also asked those priests if they had to submit a yearly report on their own well-being -- an issue only indirectly related to ministry but "ultimately certain to have an effect on pastoral performance" -- and only 11.6 percent said they had to do so.

She said the years of intense scrutiny in seminary may have led priests to have an aversion to the process and to view ordination as a "rite of passage" that frees them from it.

"How could the intense evaluation of seminarians be improved or streamlined?" she asked. "How could the uneven evaluation of priestly life and ministry be enhanced and expanded?"

Zeni Fox, chairwoman of pastoral theology at Seton Hall University and a leading author on lay ministry, said research shows parishes tend to operate like a family business, with a "relationally oriented pattern of hiring and working." In one study "almost 82 percent of pastors said they recruited from among people they knew," she said.

She said one notable development in the last 15 years has been the extensive work of several national lay ministry organizations to develop competency-based standards for their constituents, making "the language of standards part of common parlance in these circles."

Father Robert D. Duggan, a visiting professor at the Life Cycle Institute of Catholic University, who for 20 years was pastor of a large, thriving parish in the Washington suburbs, described how he started having all paid staff meet regularly with their supervisor; he himself met regularly with a coach.

All parish meetings, whether staff or volunteer, always end with a few minutes devoted to critiquing the quality of the meeting, he said. The parish formed a Leadership Development Commission that worked with all the committees and ministries to help them develop mission statements, implement goals and objectives, learn how to mentor new leaders and hold one another accountable, he said.

"Evaluation of performance, with a focus on improvement, became part of the DNA of the parish's way of doing business," he said.