Building Ethical Financial Management in the Church

During the 2020 Catholic Partnership Summit, Catholic leaders gave voice to a crisis facing the Church that had not yet reached the daily headlines: a financial crisis.

As Chris Lowney, vice chair of CommonSpirit Health advised leaders during the 2020 Summit, the Church needs to arrive at “a culture where people’s first instinct when something goes wrong is not to cover it up, not to ignore it, not to deny it…[but to] love the institution enough to sit down and tackle the problem.”

Little did anyone gathered in February 2020 know that during the next few weeks, communities across the U.S. would impose shutdowns in an effort to control a global pandemic, and that the crisis they detailed was about to get even worse. A deepening crisis In a study conducted by Villanova’s Center for Church Management, parishes lost 7% of collections during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic shutdown, and those losses were indiscriminate, affecting parishes

of all sizes in rural, suburban, and urban communities across the U.S., even those with a school. The study found that if the pandemic continued to have such an impact and parishes and dioceses did not act to make changes, the U.S. Church risked losing as much as 24% of collections by the end of fiscal year 2021 — as much as $1.6 billion.

It was clear that the Church could not wait to address its financial crisis — leaders had to love their Church enough to sit down and tackle the problem.


Answering the call to action

In early 2021, Leadership Roundtable leveraged our relationships across the U.S. to gather together in a virtual convening more than 20 Catholic financial leaders to address the crisis head-on. We asked leaders what needed to be done to establish a system of ethical financial stewardship, what resources were needed to manage Church finances effectively with transparency and accountability, and what opportunities they saw to establish a strong financial foundation moving forward.

The convening facilitated a much-needed dialogue among experts in Church finance — leaders from national Catholic organizations, philanthropy, dioceses, and higher education who had never before gathered together to address the crisis they all faced. They identified areas of both challenge and opportunity faced by the Church with regard to its finances.

Five central themes emerged from the convening, as the leaders agreed the Church had the opportunity to:

  1. Formalize a joint effort of national organizations to address the crisis
  2. Establish best practices and financial benchmarks
  3. Advance co-responsibility and accountability through finance councils and lay staff
  4. Train leaders in best practices
  5. Create financial stability and access to capital.


Building a Coalition

Energized by the momentum and commitment of their fellow financial leaders, those gathered in March formed the Coalition for Ethical Financial Management in the Church and committed their organizations to supporting, promoting, and implementing the recommendations of the Coalition. Leadership Roundtable led the formation of the Coalition and committed to facilitating its work.

Since April, the Coalition has met regularly and established working groups among its members to tackle the central issues identified during the March meeting and bring forth actionable recommendations.


Taking action

After months working to create recommendations for action, Leadership Roundtable welcomed Coalition members to the 2021 Catholic Partnership Summit to share with the wider Church work being done to address the financial crisis, and to bring others into the conversations surrounding action.

Matthew Manion, Director of the Center or Church Management at Villanova University and member of the Coalition shared with attendees that while his study found a sharp decline in collections for many parishes during the pandemic, parishes that were transparent with parishioners, which pivoted to offer mass and ways to give online, and demonstrated what Pope Francis calls the “missionary impulse,” flourished.

“Proper stewardship of our financial resources in ways that are accountable, transparent, and co-responsible are a lot like the good seed in the Parable of the Sower. When we do it right, it produces fruit for the mission of the Church,” Manion said.

Summit participants found the discussion to be among the most fruitful of the 2021 Summit and felt that the synodal journey ahead for the Church — a time of listening and discernment for all Catholics — provided fertile soil to grow in all capacities.


Next Steps

The Coalition on Ethical Financial Management in the Church continues to meet and its working groups are developing resources for Church leaders to implement its recommendations. Those resources include standards, best practices, benchmarks, framework for an online resource portal, and a network of diocesan finance council chairs.


This piece was originally published in Leadership Roundtable’s 2021 Annual Impact Report.

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