Mastering the Business of Church

Some universities now offer MBAs for church workers and officials who may struggle with management responsibilities they haven't been prepared for

When he was in seminary school studying to be a priest, the Reverend John Burger never thought he'd have to deal with the day-to-day bookkeeping and budgeting for a church. But over the past few years, he has gradually taken on a greater leadership role in the Columban Fathers, a missionary society of Catholic priests.

In his new role as general councillor at the society's headquarters in Dublin, he will assume more fiscal responsibility than ever before, reviewing the budgets of missionaries all over the world and tracking donated funds. It's a job he feels unprepared for, he admits: "I'm kind of nervous about it, to tell you the truth, because I don't have any training in this kind of stuff.… I studied philosophy, theology, pastoral counseling, and those kinds of things, rather than statistics or accounting."

Professional Skills for Pastors

Burger's insecurity about his business skills led him to apply to the Villanova School of Business, which will begin offering a master's of science degree in church management in June. The two-year program, which is offered online and requires a one-week campus residency, should help Burger master basic business and management skills.

The program, which costs $23,460, is open to parish business managers, diocesan and religious-order managers, and managers of church-related social service ministries. Admission is based on a number of criteria, including experience, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Classes will cover topics normally taught in business school, such as accounting, development and planning, and human resources management.

But unlike most MBA or master's programs in nonprofit management, all of the coursework will involve case studies that look at business exclusively through the lens of a religious organization, notes Charles Zech, director of Villanova's Center for the Study of Church Management. "Students in MBA classes sit there learning about finance on Wall Street, but that doesn't help church workers much," he says. "We've designed the program [such] that every course has to target folks in a faith-based context."

Catholic Schools Lead the Charge

A handful of colleges and universities—many with Catholic affiliations—are starting to offer master's degrees in church management or, in some instances, a dual MBA and master's in church management: Duquesne University in Pittsburgh began offering a master's degree in community leadership with a concentration in parish management this past fall, and St. Mary's University in Minnesota offers a similar program, with a two-week residency and mostly online classes. The University of Notre Dame offers a master's degree in nonprofit administration for church workers and employees of other faith-based organizations. A Boston College program offers a choice between an MBA in conjunction with a master's in pastoral ministry or a pastoral ministry degree with a concentration in church management.

The new programs are a response to the religious community's realization that many of the volunteers who step up to assume management roles lack the skills required to run an organization, says Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a Catholic nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "It is a growing phenomenon across the country," she says. "Catholic colleges and universities, especially those with business schools, are taking very seriously this need facing Catholic churches in the U.S."

Villanova's Zech points out that while large companies routinely recruit business-school graduates, many managers in religious organizations don't have backgrounds in business. Indeed, many parish business managers were church workers who rose through the ranks and haven't studied business. In other instances, retirees with business experience are brought in to administer church finances, but problems can arise if "they are accustomed to doing things the way they're done in the business world," Zech says.

The worst-case scenario, he says, is when a pastor is forced to manage a church's financial operations because no one else is available to do it. As Zech puts it: "No one became a pastor because they wanted to run a small business, which is what a congregation or parish is."

Clergy Scandals Unbalance Church Books

While any religious group can benefit from better financial management, the issue is resonating strongly within the Catholic church as it faces the financial repercussions of recent sex abuse scandals involving clergy. Fraudulent financial reporting, such as the 2006 case in which a pastor in Darien, Conn., was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing $1.3 million from the church he led, is another reason for the recent urgency. According to a 2006 study by Villanova researchers, 85% of U.S. dioceses had detected embezzlement over the previous five years.

As a result, parishioners are demanding more financial transparency and institutional financial controls, which can be challenging in organizations where the same person who tallies donations from the collection basket and deposits them in the bank, for example, may also be the person who balances the checkbook, Zech says.

Duquesne's Administrative Focus

Duquesne's online curriculum helps church workers balance the many daily demands they face, including budget management, human resources, parish marketing and fund-raising, school administration, construction project management, and social outreach projects, says Dorothy Bassett, dean of Duquesne's School of Leadership & Professional Advancement. It also emphasizes the difference between civil law and canon law, the internal ecclesiastical law that governs the Roman Catholic Church, and how that difference plays out in scenarios involving church assets.

"One of the reasons we started the program…is the responsibility placed on these folks is just so incredible," says Bassett. "What you find now is more and more churches have laypeople handling everything but the actual church service. It is everything from soup to nuts and then some…."

Bassett says the program, which signed up a handful of students when it began offering classes in the fall, is slowly attracting the interest of church workers. The cost is $23,544, and applicants should have a bachelor's degree and either currently hold an administrative position at a church or parish or plan to pursue such a position. Non-Catholics are eligible to apply, though none have so far, reports Bassett. "If I had someone come in…from a synagogue or mosque or Hindu temple, I'd probably sit down…and work with them [to select] courses appropriate for them in terms of their day-to-day administration."

Fiscal Responsibility for a Higher Purpose

Concern over the complexity of financial issues led Marcia Wilske, the parish social ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities of Idaho, to apply to Villanova's program. She first learned about it from an ad in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine. Her interest was piqued because, after she becomes chancellor for the diocese in July, she'll work closely with the director of human resources and chief financial officer, providing supervision and overseeing salaries and budgets.

Wilske, who has previously worked as a director of religious education and a youth minister, has no formal business training and wants to feel comfortable in her new role. "There is that sense of responsibility that the money given goes to support the work of the church," she explains. "How do you maintain that responsibility and transparency so it's a fiscally sound operation?"

Directors of these programs hope the religious community's interest will spur more schools to offer such degrees and ultimately raise the standards of church management. Although only a few schools offer these programs now, Gregory Sobolweski, the director of Saint Mary's Institute in Pastoral Ministries, believes it's a step in the right direction: "The fact that the church [is asking] questions about how can we be good administrators [is] a fresh take on faith."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE