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Fixing Friar Luca’s Problem

A new bottom line for Church vitality

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My friend Mike died a year ago after suffering from cancer for many years. A singer-songwriter and a lifelong lover of classic rock, one of Mike’s bucket-list items was to record an album, even though no one owns or plays albums anymore. Mike had written a collection of songs that tell the Gospel story of salvation, and as a gift to his children, grandchildren, friends and the world he wanted a permanent recording of those songs.

I was blessed to join him as a vocalist, and the song we recorded together was inspired by the parable of the loaves and the fishes in Matthew 15. The song begins in the words of one of the disciples who is commenting: “I thought I heard him say feed them all. / But there’s no way we can feed them all. / We have a few loaves and some fish, and man that is all there is.”

Thinking about a number of the conversations I have had over the years with pastors and pastoral leaders, that same sentiment often comes through. There is a profound sense of the calling to feed them all, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone. There is also a profound awareness of the finite resources available to carry out that mission. And in this post-COVID world, those resources are often more limited. There are many days when we feel like there is no way we can “feed them all.” There are many days when we probably feel like we cannot feed even the remnant few.

I have been part of a lot of gatherings over the past several years to discuss parish vitality. But as I have listened to these conversations, it seemed like most of the questions were more about parish viability than parish vitality. And there is a big difference.

When we talk about parish vitality, many envision a multigenerational parish with parents, grandparents and young people all worshiping together. Many describe full churches celebrating the Eucharist together with the joy of the Gospel visible on peoples’ faces. Many see pastoral care provided not just by the ordained leaders of the Church but by all the baptized, as a true community who love and support one another through life’s challenges. Many envision a Church that “equips the holy ones for ministry,” that sets lay folks up to live their vocations in the world — in their workplaces, families and communities. Many remember and hope to see again a Church that is having a significant impact on society through the Catholics who choose to come to Mass on Sunday.

But many churches and church leaders do not feel they have the time or the resources to create that kind of church. Many are facing declining attendance, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research showed that the median worship attendance for faith congregations in the United States today is just 65 people.

That number may be shocking to most Catholic priests who do not work in rural churches, as the typical Catholic parish would still be considered a mega-church in any other tradition. Most Catholic leaders do not compare our churches to other Christian traditions but rather to what our Church looked like 10 or 20 years ago. And that Church no longer exists. And because many are struggling to keep the lights on, to get people to come back, and to staff all the ministries we used to do, the focus has often become parish viability instead of parish vitality. In many parts of the country, there is tremendous pressure just to balance the books and somehow stay in the black.

Bottom Line

In 1494, Franciscan Friar Luca Pacioli became the father of accounting when he documented the double-entry system of debits and credits used by the merchant families of his day. He introduced the use of journals and ledgers in accounting systems and warned that the accountant must not sleep until the debits are equal to credits. Over 500 years later, many accountants, priests and church leaders still lose sleep when there is not enough income to cover the expenses. The “bottom-line” problem Friar Luca introduced 500 years ago remains today.

The business world has recognized the flaw in a singular focus on the bottom-line of profits. Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s concept that the purpose of business is to increase shareholder wealth became gospel in many business schools, including mine for a time. It is a mindset that contributed significantly to many of the ills in capitalism, including gross wealth inequality and damage to the environment. But only focusing on increasing shareholder wealth is not exactly what Friedman said. He wrote, the business person’s responsibility is to conduct the business following their shareholder’s desires, “which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.”

Triple Bottom Line

It seems many business people forgot about conforming to the rules of society embodied in ethical customs. In response to this reality, John Elkington introduced a new model in 1994. He called on business leaders to focus on the “Triple Bottom Line’’ of people, the planet and profits. Unfortunately, this model has been hijacked by accountants and financial analysts, resulting in a lot of green-washing, where corporations do what they need to to get a good score, but only if it is more profitable, not because it is the right or ethical thing to do. For most business leaders, Friar Luca’s bottom-line is still the most important.

However, Elkington’s original idea still has merit for church leaders. He wanted organizations, “to track and manage economic (not just financial), social and environmental value added — or destroyed.” Priests and pastoral leaders who want to “feed them all” with the few loaves and fishes they have today should reconsider how they steward the people, planet and profits of their parish or diocese. Embracing this mindset will lead to greater parish vitality where more people are fed and go away satisfied.

Stewardship of People

In looking at the resources available for the mission, many Church leaders start and stop at financial capital. When we consider stewardship of the people, we also consider the tremendous human capital in our churches.

In a church context, human capital can be defined as the skills, knowledge and experience possessed by a congregation. Just as Jesus did with the loaves and fishes, priests must learn how to leverage these gifts in the congregation for the mission.

Mark DeYmaz, in his recent book “The Coming Revolution in Church Economics” (Baker Books, $18.99), gives a great example of how human capital is often mismanaged in churches. DeYmaz describes the typical response when an entrepreneurial business owner offers to use their gifts for a parish.

Entrepreneurs have the gift of being able to see opportunities that others may not, and the gift of being able to take on considerable risk to realize that opportunity, often with significant financial success. Yet when entrepreneurs step forward to serve the Church, we assign them to serve as ushers, lectors or on a council. All of those are needed roles for the parish, but that response is like using the fish to fan yourself on a hot day instead of eating it to provide sustenance.

Instead of assigning them as lectors, we should ask entrepreneurial business owners what the opportunities are for sharing the good news of Jesus in our community that we are missing. We should ask them where we are being too cautious and where Jesus might be calling us to risk a little more for him. We should ask them how we can leverage what we own to generate more revenue for the mission.

This is just one example, but when we steward the human capital in our church, we find ways for all to use their skills, knowledge and experience for the mission. We multiply what we have and create more value from the people in our church.

Stewardship of the Planet

It’s no secret that fewer young people are involved in the life of the Church. It is also no secret that it was a young person who had the food to feed the thousands in Jesus’ miracle. Perhaps there are young people in our communities who, if properly engaged, could invite their peers to join them in the Faith and get us closer to feeding them all.

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While the ultimate goal is always a relationship with Jesus Christ, the first step is usually an encounter with a member of the Church. An underutilized door opener could be the Church’s stewardship of the planet. Millennials and Gen Z list care for the planet as one of their top priorities. Church teaching is aligned with their priority, and we need to make this connection clear.

For many years now, there have been significant tax incentives for corporations to go green. As a result, most companies replaced their windows and light fixtures and took other steps to measure and reduce their carbon footprint. Since churches and schools do not pay taxes, the incentives did not work for most Catholic organizations. Given the capital expense in making these changes, many church buildings are still energy inefficient and have not made the shift to sustainability.

This is where a few young people can help. They could research how a church could measure its carbon footprint and its impact on the environment. They could recommend changes that would have the greatest impact and could work with church leaders to implement those changes. They could also create a meaningful scorecard that would appeal to their friends and show how their church is doing its part to save the planet. By stewarding the resources on its physical plant differently, the church could leverage more human capital, create environmental value and hopefully attract more young people.

Stewardship of Profits

While there is still much progress to be made, financial transparency and accountability in the Church has improved dramatically in the past 10 years. Most parishes now publish an annual report of revenue and expenses, and many more have finance councils that are operating as envisioned in canon law and not simply as a rubber stamp. However, there are still big opportunities in this area.

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The first opportunity is to improve financial reports so they can be read by nonfinancial people. As a business school professor, I love to see a detailed chart of accounts, balance sheets and statements of revenues and expenses. I also know that for my wife, who is a nurse, (and for many clergy) these documents are simply pages of unintelligible numbers that do not mean anything.

The Center for Church Management is working on new parish and diocesan reports that make it easier for nonfinancial people to understand how a parish is allocating its resources for mission. For example, instead of having overhead and facilities as the two biggest line items, we propose allocating those items based on core ministry functions, so parishioners can see how much is being spent on discipleship, outreach, education, liturgy, etc. This should help change the conversation from a discussion of how to cover expenses to a conversation about the investments a parish is making in the mission of Jesus Christ. This should shift the focus from parish viability back to parish vitality. And by communicating the impact of the mission on the larger community, a church would move beyond simply staying in the black and could show the true difference it makes.

The Real Bottom Line

Shifting from Friar Luca’s bottom-line mentality and employing a triple-bottom-line approach can help any church in fulfilling her mission. As we think about stewarding people, the planet and profits, we should create more economic, social and environmental value from the resources in our faith communities.

The real key to feeding them all is to focus most on the real bottom line of increasing prophets in the world. Priests and pastoral leaders who are reading this can never reach everyone, nor should you. But you can reach a few, and if you can get a few to embrace Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” and his command to “go and make disciples,” you will experience spiritual multiplication and will be amazed at how many are fed and go away satisfied.

MATT MANION is a professor of practice, management and operations at the Villanova School of Business.

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Tips for Successful Stewardship

Father Michael White, in a “Best Practices” column in the February 2020 issue of The Priest, offered tips on how he prepares for stewardship weekends at his parish, Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland.

1. Exercise discipline throughout the year. Stewardship Weekend is the only weekend of the year that we ask our parishioners to evaluate their giving to the parish and commit to a plan for the year ahead.

2. Prepare your congregation ahead of time. We preach the four “p’s” of giving — that is, it should be planned, a priority in their budget, measured as a percentage of their income and progressive over time. Planning is a key part of giving.

3. Only ask for money. When we first started celebrating Stewardship Weekend, we would also invite people to think about gifts of “time and talent.” In other words, volunteering in ministry. It turned out to be a mistake. Many more people were willing to make a commitment to the broad idea of service than to a specific financial commitment. Typically, their service commitment often went unfilled, too. On the other hand, we’ve found that if we can get people to give, it’s easy to get them to serve. They want to serve where they have a financial investment.

4. Make it fun. We try to make Stewardship Weekend a celebration. We always include humor in the homily, because when you get people smiling, they relax. At the end of Mass, we usually include some kind of fun element like a video. Food can also help people relax, so we also like to have some treats or snacks to give away after Mass.

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