Thursday, June 30, 2011

Board Work, II

The most recent edition of U.S. Catholic magazine has a cover article, “The parish that works:  Should your church run like a business?” 

Funny you should ask.  I learned that the answer to this question is a very strong yes years ago, from sitting on boards of directors.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I served on the boards of Jubilee Soup Kitchen (with its 501 (3) (c) corporation entitled Jubilee Association, Inc.) and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Inc., long before I became a pastor.  And a good thing I did.  Because the seminary may teach a man how to be a priest, but it doesn’t teach you how to be a pastor. 

As pastor I not only lead the people in the Sunday Mass and as a spiritual community, I am chief employment officer, personnel director, finance officer, ecumenical and interfaith liaison, and purchaser of everything from the new Roman Missal to ice machines, computers and roof repairs.  I am also charged by diocesan and universal canon law to use wisely and well pastoral and finance councils for the proper stewardship of parish resources.  How do you learn all this?

Well, I was exposed to many sound (and some wrong-headed) business practices through board work.  I participated in brain-storming sessions to craft multi-year strategic plans.  I learned to read and interpret the financial statements, and how to exercise intelligent fiscal oversight.  I became convinced of the absolute need for an agenda and set end time to produce an efficient meeting.  Msgr. McCarren helped me to identify over-functioning behaviors, also known as micro-managing, and the optimal relationship between the board of directors and the executive director.  I’ve served on search committees for executive directors, and on firing committees.  I’ve seen good executive directors and bad ones. 

I am still learning new business practices.  A few days ago the Board of Directors and the Membership of Catholic Charities met for our annual joint meeting.  During our 2½ hours together I scribbled down business concepts we discussed I am familiar with:  friend cultivation; stewardship and planned giving; marketing and branding; time management; strategic plans; fiscal transparency; employee evaluation; vision and value statements; mission focus and effectiveness.  There were also some new phrases I have yet to learn:  benchmarking and best practices; sustainability fund; regulatory compliance; dashboards; KRAs (key responsibility areas); metrics; logic models.

In the U.S. Catholic article, Dr. Charles Zech, a Villanova University professor who’s written books about church finances and governance, is quoted, “The church is not a business, but we do have a stewardship responsibility to use our resources wisely.”  Amen.  I’m glad that my volunteer board work has shown me the wisdom of that comment, and helped to inform my pastoral work. 

Board Work, I

I was first exposed to the work of a board of directors more than thirty years ago as a member of the founding committee of Jubilee Soup Kitchen.  We met every month and were the guiding body of this fledgling effort.  I learned about Robert’s Rules of Orders, motions, the differences between goals and policies, how to read a financial balance sheet, and how power was or wasn’t exercised in an organization.

I was even an officer, being elected vice president alongside the presidency of my friend, Father Jim Garvey.  I held this position at Jubilee for 14 years, when I resigned because I was appointed a pastor and my parish schedule didn’t allow me to make the six-times-a-year meetings.

In 1989 I was appointed to the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, through the intervention of a quasi-mentor of mine, the late Msgr. Jack McCarren.  Little did I know that what started as a one year, then three year term, turned into a life sentence.  I have been associated with the governance of Catholic Charities ever since.  When my term of office was about to expire, Bishop Wuerl appointed me to his senior staff, as head of the secretariat for social concerns.  In this position, I was ex-officio a member of both the Board of Directors and the Membership.  When I left the diocesan office the bishop kept me on as a Member of the corporation, where I remain to this day.

One of my major responsibilities as bishop’s liaison to the social service world of our local church was to serve on a variety of boards.  Over time I’ve served on the board of directors of many organizations, local, state-wide and national.  That's a lot of meetings to attend. 

In church work I believe that boards of directors are a recent innovation.  In decades past the priests (or the bishop alone) owned everything and ran everything.  But changes in ecclesial theology and practical politics have opened boards up to lay persons.  The change in theology came about through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its reassertion of the Body of Christ encompassing all the baptized.  This included the rights and responsibilities of the faithful in advising and assisting pastors in their pastoral duties.  The change in politics came with the need to cultivate greater fundraising and a  wider range of opinions from the community.  Laity were the vehicles to do both. 

So on almost every board I know today priests (and sometimes the bishop) sit alongside lay men and women (some Catholic, some not), all committed to carrying out the stated mission of the organization.  This is a good thing, for both the organizations and for the church.

Praying the Hours

Just about every Catholic, and most people in the street, knows that Catholic priests (in the Latin Church) promise lifetime celibacy and celibate chastity.  But fewer know that all priests and deacons in the Catholic Church make a lifetime promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  This is the system of praying according to the times of day.  There are three principal times (morning, evening and the office of readings), and three minor “hours” (mid-day, afternoon, and night, also known as Compline). 

When I was ordained a priest my brothers bought me a (then) expensive four volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours.  I still have it, and use it.  But a recent innovation has changed how I pray—a downloaded app for my smart phone.

Last fall at our multi-day priest convocation I heard about an electronic app for my Blackberry which had the complete breviary, or Liturgy of the Hours.  This company charged about $15 a year.  Being the cheappo that I am, I passed.  In January at a continuing ed workshop we priests concluded the day with evening prayer in common.  While we prayed from our books the guy next to me pulled out his iPad and prayed with the rest of us.  Huh???  After prayer he showed me the “Catholic One” app free download.  In April I put it on my new Droid, and have been using it ever since.  I’ve since learned that this is a British product, with a different translation of the psalms.  I learned that when a couple of weeks ago I was praying morning prayer with my seminarian intern, and his translation (from an American book) and my translation (from this Brit app) were words apart.  I’ve subsequently found an “iBreivary” American free app, with the same translations as the books my brothers bought for me three decades ago.

Our bishop has lifted the visibility of the Liturgy of the Hours in our diocese tremendously.  At every meeting he attends, whether with priests alone, diocesan staff, or with laity, he leads the appropriate hour.  He has exposed this prayer by the Church for the Church and the world to thousands of the faithful – and probably to a few priests who would rather ignore it.  It is a good thing that he is doing, praying in public the daily prayer the Church recommends.  Growing number of the Christian faithful are now praying the Liturgy of the Hours along with the priests and deacons.  Now I can even follow him from my Droid.

Ain’t modern conveniences wonderful?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taxation Rant

Am I the only one who is fed up with politicians – federal, state, county or local municipality – who are afraid of raising taxes?  Whose response to every crisis – and we have many of them – is to cut taxes on the rich?  Whose mantra is the unproved assertion that cutting taxes improves the economy?  Who say without proof that the U.S. is overtaxed in comparison with other highly industrialized nations? 

Now before you think I’ve lost my head, I don’t exactly like paying taxes.  But what I do like are some services that my and our taxes pay for:  honest police who guard our communities; roads which allow for easy and safe passage; firefighters and EMS personnel; an army which is competent, not corrupt, and obedient to civilian executive authority; social services to help the needy, such as the unemployed, disabled, and homeless; protection of the environment; and safety in the workplace.  There is no free lunch, and there are no free police, firefighters, EMS, army or social services.

On the federal level there are heated debates about cutting spending as the one and only means to bring down the ballooning debt.  The December 2010 Bowles-Simpson debt commission report called for significant cuts in federal and military spending AND increases in payments for social security, raising the federal gas tax, eliminating tax loopholes and other serious measures. 

Two theological reasons for supporting judicious raising of taxes are persuasive to me.  The first is that taxes are one concrete expression of the common good.  We as citizens live in community together.  This means that certain sacrifices are made so that people can live in peace.  The common good may mean restrictions on my personal freedom (not being permitted to walk down Main Street naked; not allowed to play my music at ear-shattering levels at 4 am).  The common good may mean standards for honesty and truthfulness.  The common good also means that the citizens all contribute to the social infrastructure that allows people to live in peace and harmony.  In this sense, taxes allow for goods (see above) which very, very few of us can afford on our own.

The other concept from Catholic social thought is subsidiarity.  Most of the time when a  newspaper editorial board or citizen or that rare politician suggests raising taxes, they are smeared by “You just want big government!”  Or “You are afraid to make cuts in spending!”  According to the U.S. bishop’s pastoral “Economic Justice for All” from 1988:

The primary norm for determining the scope and limits of governmental intervention is the "principle of subsidiarity." This principle states that, in order to protect basic justice, government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative. Rather it should help them contribute more effectively to social well-being and supplement their activity when the demands of justice exceed their capacities. This does not mean, however, that the government that governs least, governs best. Rather it defines good government intervention as that which truly "helps" other social groups contribute to the common good by directing, urging, restraining, and regulating economic activity as "the occasion requires and necessity demands".   

Social security, health care for all, military protection from enemies without and safety for citizens within, care for the most destitute when private charity fails, protection of human life—these are just some of the basic and necessary functions of government.  Admittedly it is difficult to judge just when there is enough “government intervention” and when there is too much.  But government is necessary for our social welfare—and the primary means of paying for government is taxation.  By almost every measure, U.S. citizens pay a lower amount of total taxes than any other industrialized country.  It seems that we are getting what we (don't) pay for—in debt, in reduced human services, and in decline in our quality of life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marcellus Shale

Marcellus Shale is much in the news in Pennsylvania.  This is the huge natural gas formation one mile or more beneath the earth’s surface, over a large portion of Northeast and Appalachian states.   Big big money is being paid out to land owners for the right to dig, payments for placing drilling rigs and royalties for gas recovered.  There is much controversy about the environmental impacts:  to the underground water table, for road degradation (particularly in rural counties) and regarding whether the Commonwealth should tax the gas pumped out.

Many small groups of environmentalist activists have joined forces to raise a variety of timid protests.  Researchers haven’t had enough time to make judgments on the long term effects of our ecology.  State health officials seem to have stuck their head in the sand (pun intended).  A few of our fellow citizens are getting very rich very quickly.

But as far as I can see, the Catholic Church is silent about the morality of Marcellus Shale drilling and fracking.  Why?

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Among the many things I love about being a priest are the varied, diverse and sometimes downright motley places I find myself.

Each summer our parish takes our altar servers out on an outing, to thank them for their service to the church throughout the year.  For the past three years we went to PNC Park and watched a Pirate game, from the safe haven of the “all-you-can-eat” section behind the Clemente wall in right field.  I’m surprised the Pirates management allowed us back, after two of my teen-age servers ate nine hamburgers, three hotdogs, four ice creams and a few cups of soda—before the game began!

Anyway, I wanted to do something different this summer (just when the Pirates are on the verge of achieving respectability), so I suggested we go see a Washington Wild Things minor league baseball game, at their cozy Consol Energy Park next to I-70.  A parishioner arranged for us to get box seats at a reduced rate.  Then he texted me, “I have a gig for you:  throw out the first pitch.”  My first thought was, me???!!!  I wasn’t even a starter in Little League.  My second was, dang, that means I’ll have to wear my clerical clothes to the game.  Then it hit me, I have to prepare my arm for this big pitching moment.

I talked with Jake, a server who loves baseball, and asked him to bring me a glove and baseball to help me warm up.  Monday afternoon saw me throwing pitch-and-catch with Jake in our Madonna Church parking lot.  Wow, it has been a long time since I threw a baseball!  But fear of looking very stupid in front of several hundred strangers can be a great motivator.  So Jake humored me for thirty minutes while I warmed up and gradually got the feel of what it meant to throw a baseball to another human being 60 feet away without bouncing it in the dirt. 

And so tonight, before the national anthem, I was announced to a bored crowd of 700 (and our 12 cheering servers and four adult chaperones), walked out to the mound wearing Jake’s glove, pounded it a few times, and threw a strike to Kevin behind home plate.

Somewhere, I think heaven, my dad, a Little League manager for 18 years, is smiling broadly.  Photos to come.  What strange place will God lead me next?!

Summertime, and the livin' ain't easy

I know that everyone complains about how the older you are the faster time seems to slide by.  But is anyone complaining how summer as a slower paced season has all but disappeared?  My “dance card” of appointments and meetings has been full throughout June, and July is filling up fast.  August disappears as vacation time for students and teachers alike by the feast of the Assumption on the 15th.  

I can remember a time when summer meant fewer meetings, leisurely time to read, afternoons you could take off to visit the Three Rivers Arts Festival (when I worked downtown) or just play hooky.   Now the only thing about the summer is wistfully asking myself why I’m putting on my suit coat again in the humidity and driving to another meeting, when I wish I could go out and relax in t-shirt, shorts and Crocs. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bad and Good E Street News

This morning it was all over the internet that Clarence Clemons, the brassy and brilliant saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1971, had a stroke.  At age 69 “the Big Man” was still very active, even having done a duet with (of all people) Lady Gaga for her most recent album.   As a sign of his singular importance to the band, at every concert Bruce would introduce him last, teasing the crowd with “Do I have to say his name?  Do I have to pronounce his name?!!!”  while the fanatics from the seats shouted “Clarence Clarence CLARENCE!!!”  Secretary of the Brotherhood indeed.

This evening there was word of improvement in Clemons’s condition.  As a sign of his and Springsteen’s impact on culture, I even saw bloggers on mention him and his illness.  “How can we do politics when the Big Man is ill?”   This particular blog was live during the first big Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire.  In a non-sequitur one of the reporters teased the online audience and asked, “What would be an appropriate Bruce Springsteen song for each of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination?”

Without delay, reporter Chris Cillizza shot back with these zingers:

Newt Gingrich:  “Wreck on the Highway”
Mitt Romney:  “Born to Run”
Tim Pawlenty:  “Raise Your Hand”
Rich Santorum:  “Countin’ on a Miracle”
Michelle Bachmann:  “No Surrender”
Herman Cain:  “Surprise, Surprise”
Ron Paul:  “”Independence Day”

And another blogger added, a better song for Mitt Romney is “Brilliant Disguise” (“Is that you baby/or just a brilliant disguise?”). 

A Springsteen song for President Barack Hussein Obama?  “Born in the USA

Building Frustration

When I came to Sharpsburg four years ago I used to go to the McDonalds on Route 8 in Shaler, at the corner of Pennview Street, only two miles from my rectory.  One day I drove up there to get a quick lunch—and the building was gone!  Stomped as if a giant had stepped on it.  Within six weeks another new McDonalds restaurant was erected, with a bigger indoor playground for kids, new asphalt parking lot, and two drive-thru kiosks.  I marveled that within two months the corporation had torn down its former building (probably not 15 years old) and built a new one.

Now think about the church.  We would never do this.  When a parish is erected, it will seek a temporary location to hold Sunday Mass.  I’ve heard stories of parishes having Masses in gyms, schools, bars, the back of station wagons, even Protestant churches—until the parish can gather the necessary funds to build a suitable and worthy church.  The intention is that the new church building is built for decades, maybe even a century or two.  We are nothing like McDonalds!

At the same time a new church building is built, the parish has to pay for its ongoing, ordinary expenses.  These include utilities and insurance on its buildings, a place for the priest to live, his salary and benefits, and the salary and benefits of any paid staff.  There are also costs for the liturgy, an office, and perhaps the location of religious education for children and adults as well as any hall for social and fundraising purposes.  A bishop’s presumption is that a parish has enough people to pay all its bills, current and mortgage, and put aside a small amount for a rainy day. 

When the church is full of people, standing room only at Masses, and there are five times more baptisms than funerals, this presumption of fiscal balance—paying all bills—is easily accomplished.  But what happens when people move away, the mill or factory which provided jobs for parishioners closes or moves overseas, and the annual number of funerals is ten times the number of baptisms (as it is for Saint Juan Diego Parish)?  The parish has a hard time paying its bills.  You just can’t stomp (close and tear down) a church building like a McDonalds.  

This past weekend I was privileged to preside at two lovely weddings of active Catholics in St. Mary Church.  Many visitors who had never seen the building kept saying, “It’s beautiful!  It’s so big!”  For a while my smart-aleckness would get the better of me and so I’d crack, “Sell it to you for a dollar!”   But I learned I was just expressing my frustration that I was not able to take care of the building as I wished I could.  And I wasn't making any friends!  Now I just smile and agree that the church is beautiful, while hoping they don’t see the water leaks on the ceiling.

Saint Juan Diego Parish is privileged to have the buildings we do.  But I sure wish that decades ago some pastor, or some church committeemen, had asked, “What will happen to our buildings when the people die off, and few young people stay?  Maybe we should start an endowment for the future?” 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The New Evangelization

Two weeks ago I welcomed seminarians Levi and John into our parish and into my (previously bachelor-pad) rectory for the summer.   It’s a healthy challenge to me because my ideals about hospitality are now confronting the reality of living in a house of three, not me-myself-I.  It’s also given me a chance to learn new ideas and emphases for ministry and the priesthood being taught in seminaries today.  Like most of you it’s easy to fall into a rut when you carry out the same job or vocation for a lengthy period of time.

So when Levi and I sat down to talk last week about the goals for his summer internship, he was enthusiastic to pursue initiatives of “the new evangelization.”  What is the new evangelization?  Basically it’s reaching out to already-baptized Catholics who have grown distant from the church and cold in the practice of the Catholic faith. 

According to the Vatican, this outreach is different from the missionary impulse that comes from Jesus the Lord himself (“Go teach all nations”) directed at those who have never heard his name.  (Think the Apostles Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Francis Xavier sailing to faraway China, or Blessed Junipero Serra or Blessed Francis Seelos centuries ago in North America.  )  The new evangelization is also different from the regular attempts to deepen the understanding of the faith for those who are regularly attending Mass and putting into action Christian charity and justice in their homes, workplaces and communities.  (Think adult education, parish missions, retreats and pro-life committees.) 

So the new evangelization says to every parishioner and priest, a “business as usual” attitude in the church is not good enough.  We the church have to find new ways of reaching out and sharing the message of God’s love for all people through Christ his Son.

But it’s not just about increasing the number of people attending Mass on Sunday.  In the writings of Pope John Paul II the new evangelization also embraces the challenge of transforming culture itself.  From the violence of war, handgun murder and abortion to strategies of peace-building and hospitality.  From the all-consuming capitalist drive for more, more, more, to what Pope Benedict XVI called “the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift” in his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”   From individualism to more awareness and practice of the common good. 

Putting such high-falutin’ (yet very rich) ideas into practice is hard.  Our seminarian Levi came up with two modest events for this summer:  a Festival of Praise and a parish talent show.  The Festival of Praise is sort of a song-filled Catholic charismatic prayer meeting in the context of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.  The parish talent show is geared to be a fun opportunity for our own parishioners of all ages to let us see their many talents.    He’s hard at work with parish volunteers to reach beyond “the usual suspects” and reach out to potential new (and newly returning) Catholics.  I’m looking forward to see how it all works.   I don’t think these events will change the culture of Sharpsburg.  But we all need some new in our lives. 


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Passion of the Boss

Three months ago I bought a new car.  After taking test drives in five different makes, I went back to my default, Honda.  This is the fifth Honda I’ve owned.

I thought I had researched the car well, but I was pleasantly surprised that it came with a three-month trial subscription to XM satellite radio.  And I was downright delirious to find on channel 20 “E Street Radio.”  Bruce Springsteen’s music 24/7/365.   Fan-dang-tastic!  My first thought was, where do I sign for a lifetime subscription?  My second was, will parishioners laugh at me if I start sleeping in my car to listen to the Boss all night?  My third, why did I take me so long to find this treasure?

As you might guess, I’ve a big Springsteen fan.  I’ve seen him in concert five times in Pittsburgh, once in Cleveland.  (I had a ticket to his concert in Buffalo a year ago, but was held back by 18” of snow on the I-90 snowbelt.)   I mention his lyrics in sermons, bulletin columns and – sorry Mom and Dad – even in the homilies I gave at my parents’ funerals.   One column I did for our diocesan newspaper summers ago motivated the editor to place a photo of Bruce on the front page. 

Listening to E Street Radio has widened my knowledge of the 300+ songs he’s written.  I’m still encountering songs he wrote I never heard of.  It’s also neat to hear different versions of the same song—studio, live with the E Street Band, and acoustic live.    

The thing I love about Springsteen most is the passion in his music-making.  Every concert, every song, every lyric, is delivered with utter conviction, even if he, and you, knows that it’s the 2000th time he’s done it in public.  Passion might be top-of-the-lungs screeching in “Born to Run” or “Streets of Fire.”  It means broken-hearted intensity in ballads such as “Back in Your Arms” or “Racing in the Street.”  It’s also having-a-grand-ole-joyful-time in “Glory Days” and most of the Seeger Sessions classic American folk tunes he recorded in 2006.  Would it surprise you that my will states I want Springsteen’s live recordings of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and “This Little Light of Mine” played at my funeral Mass?

Just about every time I hear a Springsteen song, my conscience reminds me, do I put the same passion into my ministry, my prayer, my life, as this artist does into his life’s work?  As he sings in “Racing in the Street”:

Some guys they just give up living/And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up/And go racin’ in the street.

As I’ve heard the Boss so many times ask us at concerts:  “IS THERE ANYONE ALIVE OUT THERE?!!!”

5 L's, 3 M's

Today is Ascension Thursday, a holyday of obligation in six of the 33 ecclesiastical providences of the U.S.  (What that means is Catholics who live in Wheeling, West Virginia, or Youngstown, Ohio, don’t have to go to Mass today.  Step over the state line into Pennsylvania, or fly into Omaha, Nebraska, and they do.)

For me it means celebrating four Masses in less than 24 hours.  I am sure that there are many priests who preside at more liturgies, on holydays and Sundays, than this.  No complaints from me.  What the holy day also means is that around the Masses I work on the five L’s.  What, you haven’t heard about the five L’s?  Lights, leaks, locks, loot and lawns.  Some pastors add more L’s:  lawyers, litigation and loonies.

For example, yesterday afternoon I spent two hours writing a memo to a company engaged by our diocese to review annually the value of each parish’s buildings.  The report I received was totally screwed up – listing four parishes in Sharpsburg instead of one; attributing four buildings to our ownership which we sold a year ago – and it took four detailed ages for me to explain our situation, and another two pages for our bookkeeper to list the $65,000 worth of repairs we did to 11 buildings over the past 12 months.  (This was a slow year.  The previous fiscal year our parish did over $400,000 in necessary, over-due repairs to our churches.)  I admit, it is hard for non-churchy people to understand our odd lingo:  suppressed parishes; one parish with three church buildings, two rectories and one cemetery, each with different names; priest as trust administrator.  So I take the time to explain it all as clearly as possible.

This morning our local computer consultant recommended we get new computer “towers,” noting that three of the four in our parish office are ancient, over seven years old. (No wonder my computer is slower than a politician admitting his mistakes.)  In another hour an electrician we called is coming to examine burned out light sockets in the guest bathroom in my house, and give me a price for replacement.   Next week we scheduled roof repairs for St. Mary Church (how much, if any, will insurance cover?).  We also have to get the A/C guy to come out and look as a balky unit in St. John Cantius Church which is only eight months old. 

What I wish, and I suspect most every pastor wishes, is to spend the bulk of time not on the five L’s but on the three M’s:  mission, ministry and members.