Laypeople are creating a blueprint for the church’s success

In the Pews
Any successful corporate leader will tell you that an organization needs to have sound business practices if it hopes to reach its goals. And while the Catholic Church may not be your average business, good management of people, programs, and resources is essential for achieving its mission of spreading the gospel.
That’s where Kerry Robinson comes in. As executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, she brings together the best talent from the business world and ministerial leadership to develop best practices for the church. This includes transparency measures, rigorous financial reporting, and good human resource standards.
Robinson has a lifelong passion for church ministry. Her great-grandparents founded the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, a family philanthropic organization, and Robinson has worked to bolster the roles of women and young adults in church life. She also believes that the church must tap into the talents of its lay members in order to flourish.
“We’re collectively the largest global humanitarian network in the world,” Robinson says of the church. “If we can strengthen the management of that network, there is no social ill we collectively can’t address. That gives me constant encouragement, hope, and deep respect for the Catholic Church.”
What is the National Leadership Roundtable?
The Leadership Roundtable harnesses the collective expertise of its members in management, finance, technology, communications, and executive recruiting to help solve the complex challenges facing the church today. Everyone who comprises the Leadership Roundtable has two things in common: They care deeply about the church and they have extraordinary levels of leadership expertise. Half of these leaders come from the world of the church itself, while half work in the secular world as CEOs, college presidents, or directors of secular nongovernmental organizations.
We do not wade into any doctrinal matters. Rather we are laser-focused on the temporal affairs of the church: the management of people, facilities, finances, communications, and technology.
How did the Leadership Roundtable get started?
It is safe to say that the sexual abuse crisis played a catalytic role in our formation. Our founder, Geoff Boisi, is a big believer in being part of the solution, and he felt a moral obligation to contribute what he could to help the church heal from the abuse crisis. His discernment of how he could be of most help to the church was to use his skills and connections to identify leaders with management experience who could offer contemporary best practices and managerial solutions for the church.
We don’t attend to the sexual abuse crisis per se, but rather to those underlying structures and practices that could be strengthened in order to prevent such a crisis from happening again. We’ve been in existence for 10 years now, and we have worked in nearly two thirds of U.S. dioceses over that time.
Why does the church need this kind of an organization?
The church has a divine mission; it is not like McDonald’s, Home Depot, or Apple. But it is comprised of people, facilities, and finances, and they deserve to be managed with the highest level of care, ethics, and accountability—precisely because the mission of the church is so much more important than the return for shareholders of Coca-Cola, for example.
We provide the opportunity for problem solving, the implementation of best practices, and a social entrepreneurial vigor, which has been extremely exciting. We’re thrilled that over the past 10 years we have earned the respect and trust of the bishops in the United States. That has been a great source of encouragement and hope for us.
We created this network precisely because we want it to contribute more than just dollars to the church. We wanted to contribute something priceless: high levels of expertise, experience, and perspective. We knew the onus was on us to prove to bishops, cardinals, provincials, and directors of Catholic nonprofits that we are who we say we are. That only happens by building a relationship over time.
We’re very happy about the slate of programs and services we have created, particularly to respond to specific challenges that keep church leaders up at night, whether they’re in the area of finance or real estate, ethics and accountability, or creating a culture of excellence in a parish. We want to help church leaders develop processes and procedures that are contemporary and serve the parish in the best manner possible.
What’s a specific example of a situation in which the Leadership Roundtable helped the church?
We formed the Leadership Roundtable on July 11, 2005. A month later, on August 29, Hurricane Katrina hit, and the church in the Gulf was really compromised.
We never presented ourselves as a disaster relief organization. But after Katrina the U.S. bishops were looking at rebuilding the church in the Gulf and they came to us. As they rebuilt the parochial school system in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, they wanted us to help them develop sound best practices for the schools. Even before Katrina, the schools faced many challenges. The archbishop was often blindsided at the end of the fiscal year by the fact that several schools were operating at a deficit. There were no uniform operational standards.
Once Katrina happened there was a lot of structural damage to schools and questions about which ones to keep open. We were able to bring together people with high levels of experience to work with our staff and the archbishop.
I think a testament to those who operated Catholic schools in New Orleans at the time—which was really striking to me—was that the Catholic schools in New Orleans reopened a full year before the public school system. In a beautiful and very authentic pastoral example, those schools doubled up to have two school days in one. This way, they could open their doors not just to all previously enrolled students of Catholic schools but to every child.
The professionalism with which we conducted our analysis and our report was so striking that it contributed to the Archdiocese of New Orleans receiving additional financial support to further rebuild their Catholic schools. That was a concrete early victory that was dramatic and unpredictable, because obviously no one would have wanted this natural disaster to happen.
How do you teach better strategies for parish management?
We had been working on both easy solutions for the church like writing templates for job descriptions and also on big, intense interventions like helping the parochial school system in New Orleans. Eventually a pastor said to us, “I want to make sure that all of the activity that happens at my parish involving people, finances, committees, and time management is exactly what we should be doing. Since I was never trained in any of these, I don’t even have the vocabulary to name what I’m speaking about. How can I assess whether our current systems are in fact the most conducive to transparency and accountability?”
It was an excellent question. We wanted to respond to that. We wanted to provide a blueprint of best practices that every pastor, pastoral team, and parishioner could implement and use to hold themselves accountable, which hopefully would spare them incredible headaches down the line.
Rather than create a blueprint from scratch, we first scanned the horizon to see if there was anything in other faith traditions, the secular world, or already existing in the Catholic Church. As a church, we’re not always good at sharing our best practices with each other.
What we found was that some years prior to all of this there had been scandals in the nonprofit sector in Maryland. A group of concerned citizens got together and said, “We’ve got to come up with a blueprint for charities in Maryland so that this malfeasance and corruption never happens again.” They created 55 standards, which were called “Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code.”
When we read that through the lens of the Catholic Church, especially given that we were just coming off of this profoundly sorrowful and wrenching experience of the sexual abuse crisis, we thought, “This is our blueprint.”
What we needed to do first was to see if the group in Maryland would enter into a licensing agreement with us so that we could adopt their very thoughtful content. Then we brought canon lawyers in to translate these 55 standards into explicitly Catholic language and to ensure that everything we were advocating was faithful to canon law.
In that process we realized the Catholic Church is organized a little bit differently than your average secular nonprofit. We have dioceses with their own particular governance structure. We have parishes, which differ from the diocese, and we have Catholic nonprofits, which are more like the secular nonprofits in Maryland.
We ended up creating three codes: one for the diocese, one for the parish, and one for the Catholic nonprofit. Those are translated into Spanish. They provide exactly the blueprint at the heart of the pastor’s question. If a parish, diocese, or any Catholic agency commits to implementing and adhering to these 55 standards, you can’t completely eradicate risk, but you can protect your parish or nonprofit in the best way possible.
What do those standards include?
Most of them are common sense. Any parish that has gone through this would start with a checklist and say, “Yes, we do this and we do this.” Most places are compliant with a lot of the standards.
The value is that it trains your eye on those areas you’ve never even considered were best practices, such as avoiding a conflict of interest, or setting ethical standards for fund-raising and being accountable to donors by using their donations explicitly for the purpose they were intended. The standards train you to focus on these practices, and then we provide all kinds of resources for parishes to implement and to work on.
Those who have gone through this process report a rejuvenation of vitality and confidence. Parishioners then become much more generous with their donations when they’re certain that there is a high level of excellence across the board.
Does this kind of work make a difference to parishioners?
It makes a huge difference. Honestly, the work of the National Leadership Roundtable has had a surprising but incredibly important byproduct, and that is evangelization.
I cannot tell you how often we have had men and women, CEOs or senior level leaders, who say they are involved in their parish but have never properly been recognized for what they do best, let alone invited to contribute their talents for the sake of the parish or the diocese or the wider church.
A good example is Chuck Geschke. He is the founder of Adobe. He was head of an international multibillion-dollar company. If you’ve ever sent an email with a PDF attachment, you have Chuck to thank for that. He revolutionized the way we, as a globe, communicate with one another. Not since the Gutenberg Bible has that happened.
Here is a man who is profoundly knowledgeable about technology and communications. Never once had he been asked to contribute that expertise to strengthen the church, until he was encouraged to do so through the network of the Leadership Roundtable, which is really a matchmaker of talent with need. He was always a very active Catholic, but once that happened, Chuck became much more invested in the life of the church.
Other Catholics have said they’re almost at the point where they’re just going to church out of habit. They’re giving only so much of themselves, their energy, their time, and their money because they feel invisible. Sometimes laypeople believe they are only seen as pocketbooks or wallets and there’s a perfunctory nature to giving.
But when you’re recognized for what you really are excellent at and invited to lend that expertise to strengthen the church, you become much more invested in this positive outcome, and often your financial contribution reflects that.
How important is it for the church to make use of the talents of lay Catholics?
It’s absolutely essential to the health and vitality of the church today. How would the church in the United States function without its lay members? It’s inconceivable. However, not every diocese fully uses the quality of lay expertise available to them. It’s very varied across the country.
We’re conscious of that. We know that the 80 mission dioceses don’t necessarily have the resources the Archdiocese of Chicago has, both in terms of money and in terms of talent to fill some of these lay functions.
We’re also conscious of the best managerial practices that help leaders recruit the best talent for these jobs. Often, and I think this is just human nature, you see people being hired who are not the best candidate for the job but maybe require less compensation or are familiar to the pastor.
We are trying to usher in a complete change of culture that says the church deserves the most talented people to lend their particular skills to the job. We can do a better job of identifying, recruiting, forming, training, compensating, and evaluating these men and women.
Is that a hard sell to priests and bishops?
All of this was hard in the beginning. Because it was new, it was threatening. The Catholic Church was reeling from the sex abuse crisis. There was distrust across the board, but it is less and less hard to make this case now.
We knew right from the beginning that there were many examples of best church management practices already in place. But nobody knew about them except those people benefiting from them. Now we have a best practice award program where we identify those examples of excellence that already exist in the church and we celebrate them, elevate them, and argue they are worthy of wider dissemination.
Our primary goal is to positively influence the culture so there is less resistance to best managerial practices and more acceptance that this is an asset, like dollars are an asset. Collectively those assets can really strengthen the church. They can remove obstacles that tend to trip up church leaders, and they can promote vibrancy, restoration of trust, confidence, and mission effectiveness.
What other changes does the church need to make in recruiting lay leaders?
We need to reach out more to young adults. Young people today are the best educated generation that has ever come before the U.S. Catholic Church. But we lament the fact that so many are leaving the church, even after they have a positive experience of church at the university or college level.
They may have a positive experience because they are at a great Catholic college or university. Or they may be at a secular university, which is where 90 percent of Catholic college students are, and they may have a positive experience of church because of a great Newman Center or a vibrant campus ministry.
What anguishes me is to see these talented, generous, energetic, faith-filled, joyful young adults have that positive experience, then graduate and move to a city to get their first job. They face all the demands that come in your early 20s but go to the local parish and don’t see anyone their age and don’t find anything in the homilies that speaks to them. They just feel isolated. Again and again we see this.
Some young adults continue to search for a parish that has some vitality or one where they have peers, but many just leave the church. I have had wonderful, smart people say to me, “Don’t worry about this, Kerry. It is just their age. We know we’re going to lose them for a time, but we’ll get them back when they marry, have children, or experience a devastating life crisis.”
This is a bad strategy. And it’s no longer even true, because it’s becoming less and less the case that two Catholics marry each other. There are a lot of interreligious and ecumenical marriages. Even when there are two Catholics who get married, they’re not necessarily coming back to get married in the church. The Leadership Roundtable didn’t think we could afford to wait on this.
We partnered with Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University, arguably the best dynamic, innovative, vibrant, and well endowed Catholic campus ministry center in the world. The Leadership Roundtable and Saint Thomas More worked hard to make Catholic life at Yale vibrant and relevant.
The Leadership Roundtable and Saint Thomas More partnered to create a young adult formation program called ESTEEM (Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission). We work with campus ministers in colleges and universities across the country to engage the best and brightest Catholic college students before they graduate.
We created a curriculum that the campus ministers administer. It provides young men and women a crash course in Catholic social teaching and church structure—all manner of important elements that would equip a young adult to play a leadership role in the church. When they graduate, the idea is that young adults in this national network have been through this curriculum and are ready for meaningful leadership in the church.
Let’s say someone went to Stanford and they were an accounting major. They have also gone through our program and love the church. This would be a perfect example of a young person who should serve on a diocesan finance council.
Our idea is that we can populate all of the parishes, dioceses, and Catholic nonprofits with one or two young adults in leadership across the board. That is visually different. If you go to a parish and see someone your age, in their 20s, in a leadership position, that communicates volumes.
How does this benefit parishes?
Young adults can bring a different perspective to any deliberation and decision making. They could say during budget planning, “There’s no money in here for anything that is going to relate to men and women in their 20s.” Or, “Here is a glaring hole in our pastoral programs and offerings.” Or, “Here is a good idea that I learned from my college roommate that has been implemented at his parish in Virginia.” Diversity around the decision-making table really matters.
It is always beneficial because we can’t help being myopic, even when we don’t want to be. You only know what you know. We only change the way we are accustomed to thinking by having relationships with people who are different than we are, men and women, younger people and older people. That really leads to a better outcome.
What if parishes resist trusting young people in these roles?
The worst thing we can do would be to equip all of these talented young adults, who are so ready to serve in a meaningful way, and place them in stultifying, risk-averse, unwelcoming settings. That would just be terrible. Our job is to find where there is natural resonance for these ideas, for this new life, and for this vitality. The only way you can really find that is in the hard work of relationship building and in trust building.
One of the things we are most proud of is that everyone who has ever worked with the Leadership Roundtable in any capacity has found us credible, trustworthy, faithful, supportive, and helpful. It’s only been a positive example. Soon that develops a momentum of its own.
Would expanding roles for women in lay leadership help the church recruit more young adult leaders?
This question is something that I hear people talking about across the whole country. There’s incredible solidarity in this young generation.
When it comes to equality of men and women, I think that young people today have seen their mothers and fathers hold meaningful leadership positions in their secular lives. They see a greater partnership in marriage, and it doesn’t make sense to them that in the church there should be a discrepancy. Something about that strikes young adults as hypocritical or inauthentic or lacking integrity.
Even if it’s just their perception, that has to be addressed. We’re responsible for how people perceive us as a faith community. This is the perception, and perception matters.
This is why I’d regard attending to young adults, and preferentially to women, as an urgent challenge facing us as a church. If we really care about our future as a vital, vibrant, relevant, mission-effective church, this is something we must address.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 10, page 28–32).
Image: Flickr cc via Brian W. Tobin