Six Reasons Why Some Chanceries Work Better than Others

While every chancery is unique, some clearly function better than others. There are, in fact, six common, key  differentiators (listed below) which separate the highest functioning chanceries from those that are simply well  functioning. I have observed these factors over 20 years of working in chanceries, and visiting them all over the  United States. They are what seem to make a difference between just being good and being great.  


  1. Clear and Explicit Purpose 

The highest functioning chanceries are clear about why they exist. There are four key purposes consistently  articulated in these chanceries: 

▪ To facilitate the bishop in fulfilling his governance role and in maintaining the right relationship with the presbyterate; 

▪ To support parishes in fulfilling the mission of the universal Church; 

▪ To provide leadership in the diocese; 

▪ To carry out those mandatory administrative tasks, as every chancery must, such as updating statistical records, responding to both civil and canon law requirements, and maintaining archives, etc. Bishops and chancery staff members consistently name variations of these four purposes of the chancery. They are  aligned around those purposes in terms of structure, culture, and how they allocate human, financial, and physical  resources. 


  1. The Right People at the Top 

If you ask any bishop, “When was the last time you told the pastors and those who work in parishes what to do, and  they all just did it?” you get a smile, or even a laugh. In reality, chanceries operate far more by influence, than by  edict. Common in the highest functioning chanceries are people whose level of competence and the ability to  authentically influence others is clearly linked to their level of authority. These effective chancery leaders are also  great project managers: they know how to execute a plan, how to get things done. They are very action- and  solution-oriented. They do more than just plan to act or talk about problems. Key leaders in the highest functioning  chanceries share a functioning financial literacy: they can make sense of a balance sheet, a cash flow statement,  and a profit and loss statement; and they know how to actively manage a budget. They understand the financial  position of the diocese, parish, or school; and they know how to adapt operational behavior to changing financial  circumstances. These top chancery leaders can be described in at least four or more of the following categories:  

Capacity builders

Adaptable leaders, who read constantly changing circumstances very well; 

Intentional relators, who can initiate and maintain productive relationships; 

Coaches and mentors

Collaborators/facilitators, whom others trust not to waste their time; 

Connectors, who can create and effectively manage small, very focused task groups with multiple skill sets and differences of opinion; 

Networkers, who can bring people with common interests together and align them for the common good; ▪ Spiritual adults, mature enough that short- and mid-term problems do not threaten their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or his Church; 

Emotionally healthy adults, mature enough that they have little interest in who gets credit for success; 

Content experts, in whatever field they operate. 

Notably, both good and great chanceries have content experts, such as faith formation directors, or school  superintendents, moderators of the curia, or vicars general, who are very well qualified in terms of academic  preparation (holding doctorate or master level degrees). However, that is not sufficient to bring the operation of the  chancery from good to great. The highest functioning chancery has, not only staff members with that level of content  expertise, but, also, those who are well formed in leadership.  


  1. Customer Service Orientation

The highest functioning chanceries have great customer service orientation. This is evident in multiple ways, and  can be measured using surveys and/or focus groups of customers. For example, in many of the best functioning  chanceries, a pastor or his staff can make one call to access all chancery services: in essence, every chancery staff  person who answers the phone acts as a “case manager” who aligns the resources of the chancery to help them. 


This alignment of resources recognizes the fact that most significant issues which come to the chancery are  multifaceted, requiring interrelated disciplines for successful solutions. Highest functioning chancery staffs act in a  “case management” role to create those solutions to complex problems, assembling whomever and whatever it  takes to best serve the issues.  

In such chanceries, the pastor is always regarded as the “primary customer,” regardless of who actually contacts the  chancery. It is interesting that this applies, even when the issue is school-related. The highest  functioning chanceries recognize that the economies of parishes and schools are entwined, so that only by dealing with both  can there be a successful solution.  

There are some common examples of customer orientation across the highest functioning chanceries.  The most common example of this is the rigorous management of data collection. The best customer-oriented  chanceries rigorously manage surveys and data returns across departments to minimize what is asked, to only  collect what is actually used, and to return the data in the form of useful information in a timely manner to those from  whom the data was collected. Pastors often report that this behavior means that they believe the chancery delivers  them value.  

Another example is the cabinet level of the chancery having a means of regularly scanning what is happening in the  diocese, both within parishes, and in the wider community. At least once a quarter, the cabinet-level meeting  agendas include time set aside to name what has changed in the internal and external operating environment of the  diocese.  

A further example is that when complex issues arise for parishes or schools, the chancery rapidly forms a task  group made up of the people of specific competencies to respond quickly to emerging needs.  Lastly, a common example of customer orientation is that chancery staff accurately reflect the mind of their bishop  when they talk to parishes, or the wider community, so that there is no confusion about Catholic identity, Catholic  teaching, or diocesan policy—all of which are clearly matters related to the governance role of the diocesan bishop.  


  1. Integrated Structure and Management by Standards 

In terms of organizational structure, the highest functioning chanceries consistently share four common  characteristics:  

▪ Financial, personnel, donor, and parish databases are relatively integrated: if they are not one database, the separate databases can interface with one another; 

▪ Ministry services are relatively integrated by either a single person or coordinated oversight; 

▪ Management is guided by standards—not personality, or reliance on micromanagement; 

▪ Information flows rapidly up, down, and across. 

Gone are the days of departmental silos, replaced by much more integrated operations. According to a great deal of  research, such organizational systems are much more efficient.  

The highest functioning chanceries have adopted standards of management expressed in policies that are regularly  practiced and evaluated. It is interesting that many chanceries have “reinvented the wheel” with regard to  management standards. The Catholic Standards for Excellence, offered by the National Leadership Roundtable on  Church Management, is a great example of standards that can be adopted without reinventing the wheel. The good  news about adopting these, or similar standards, is that doing so does not require doing anything extra: it is simply  doing what you have to do anyway, but doing it better, and more effectively. In addition, there is a version of  the Catholic Standards for Excellence for both dioceses and parishes, providing consistency in management  standards across the diocese. It is very low cost, as well as effective, and diocesan and/or parish local leaders can  be trained to implement these standards themselves, rather than using high-priced consultants. Many of the key  differentiators between great versus good chanceries are explicitly expressed within these Catholic Standards for  Excellence


  1. Culture of Truth, Respect, and Action 

In the highest functioning chanceries, the culture allows the staff to tell the truth, as they see it, to those above them:  a difference of opinion can be expressed with charity and respect. Often, a problematic interaction is seen in  meetings, in that reports replace robust interaction between the staff members and the leadership—a common  means for avoiding discussing uncomfortable truths.  

In these same highest functioning chanceries, the staff regard parishes as already smart and capable of fulfilling  their mission. Their relationship with parish leaders is collegial, a far cry from the “Them and Us” mentality seen in  some dioceses. In other words, the notion of the diocese as the local church and of communio extending to every  parish and the chancery, is well established. When the best chancery leaders talk about how a “Them and Us”  mentality was overcome, they mention a history of what amounts to a catechesis of the clergy and laity over three to  five years that has been focused on four areas:  

▪ The link between communio and mission, so well explained by Pope Saint John Paul II (Redemptoris Missio); 

▪ “Local Church” as the diocese, not just the individual parish; 

▪ The universal mission of the Church; 

▪ Right relationship between the roles of the laity and the ordained. 

Chancery staff members use their expertise in a context of preference for connecting best practice parishes with  good practice parishes. This primary cultural mindset strengthens the experience of communio between parishes, and is often effective.  

The highest functioning chanceries only do for the parishes what the parishes cannot do for themselves. They  regularly ask what they can stop doing, because the parishes can do it for themselves. They say a rigorous “no”  when asked to do those things which are properly and realistically within the capacity of the parishes to do for  themselves.  

It seems so basic, but also true, that in the highest functioning chanceries, meetings always have agendas, and  result in action steps. When there are action steps, they have time frames, coherent sequence, and personal  accountability (actual names) attached to them. Further, the agendas of most meetings involving senior chancery  staff members involve short-, mid-, and long-term vision items. This means that most meetings include this multi-time framework. It means that lead chancery staff members have the strategic vision for the diocese in mind in all  that they do.  

A key cultural value of the highest functioning chanceries is delivering real substance to parishioners in diocesan  communications on how to live a Catholic life. It is almost never in a defensive mode. Communications are oriented  toward creating a positive “Catholic narrative” within the wider community. When serious crisis communications are  needed, they are outsourced to highly competent specialists.  


  1. Talent Is Managed for the Long-Term Needs of the Diocese

The highest functioning chanceries effectively manage talent. They invest in key employees, succession planning, a  clear career path for employees, and attractive compensation. Key chancery officials regularly engage in leadership  development programs which focus on competencies. These chanceries maintain performance management  systems which focus on performance measurement and execution, not just effort. 


Next Steps: Becoming a Great Chancery  

There is no attempt here to describe everything about how chanceries function. These six characteristics are simply  what I have observed about the very best run and highest functioning chanceries I have seen across the United  States. Others may observe through different lenses and see other common characteristics.  So how does a good chancery become a great chancery? I would suggest five steps, the first of which is external to  the chancery itself.  

  1. Begin the catechesis as suggested above: This is the context within which the chancery must operate, and without that, nothing else matters. 
  2. Clarify and communicate to those within, and beyond, the chancery why the chancery exists, using the purposes outlined above as the beginning of a conversation. 
  3. Ensure that the right people are at the senior leadership table, using the categories outlined above. 
  4. Begin integrating the structure, particularly that which directly serves parishes, so that the orientation toward great customer service can be operationalized. 
  5. Start measuring the functions of the chancery against some established standards, one example of which is outlined above. 

I suggest that implementing these steps will begin to raise the level of functioning of any chancery, even those that  are already good at what they do. The combination of these steps means moving forward in terms of organizational  structure, how resources are used, and cultural transformation—all of which are needed for institutionalized high  function.  

I have seen chanceries which are not ready to move toward becoming great chanceries. The most common problem  I have observed among these chanceries is not related to the six differentiators outlined here, which are concerned  with making the chancery work smarter. The problems I see in these chanceries are more about the health of the  organization—not organizational intelligence. In his book, The Advantage (Jossey-Bass, 2012), Patrick Lencioni  writes that organizations must be not only smart, but healthy, as well. He explains the difference between the two,  and then provides useful tools for moving forward.  

What I envision for chanceries, that hope to become great, is an honest assessment of themselves, and then  building a single, simple roadmap which includes up to four concurrent areas of focus, establishing time frames, and  assigning personal accountability for all the steps along the way. Everything that needs to be done, does not need to  be done at once. I have noted that simply choosing up to four focus areas (using the five steps outlined above as a  guide) and putting the rest into a parking lot where they can wait—but not be forgotten—is very helpful. For those  who choose to move forward, trying to do everything can feel overwhelming—because it is overwhelming. However,  making some choices and parking the rest until the time is right makes it manageable. The important thing is to  make a commitment, make a roadmap, and take those first key steps. Have faith!  


Originally published on Homiletic & Pastoral Review’s website 

OCTOBER 29, 2014 BY Jim Lundholm-Eades

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