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Pastor as CEO • Course gives priests key business principles to lead parishes

It had been quite a few years since Father Timothy Foy studied business: 17, to be exact.

"Fundamentals In Accounting, at St. Louis University in 2000," he said. "It had been a long time."

As an aerospace engineer — he later worked for Boeing — he focused his energy elsewhere. Then, after entering Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, his focus clearly wasn't on accounting. Who goes to seminary to learn about business?

"That isn't the general inspiration," he quipped.

So, Father Foy signed on when the archdiocese, through a partnership between the archdiocesan office of Parish Administrative Services and the business school at SLU, offered priests a class in business — Understanding & Applying Finance — through the archdiocesan Pastoral Institute of Leadership. For eight weeks, Father Foy and 11 brother priests studied specifics related to their parishes finances, in three classroom sessions, and general business principles, in five online sessions.

Most of the student priests came from the ranks of associate pastors on the road to becoming pastors in the next few years, though a few such as Father Foy already lead parishes. Father Foy and Father David Skillman are parochial administrators at St. John the Baptist "Gildehaus" in Villa Ridge St Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood, respectively. Father Mitch Doyen, the pastor at Assumption Parish in O'Fallon, also took the class as a refresher; he has moved back into parish ministry after seven years as president at St. Mary's High School.

In the course, they learned accounting terminology, accounting for nonprofits, financial statement analysis, budgeting and more. Father Foy and his compatriots universally praised the course for dealing specifically with numbers associated with their parishes, giving them real-world experience "rather than just seeing general accounting principles," he said.

"Getting a little bit of background about how the bookkeeping works in a parish and how you plan budgets ... was beneficial for us; it was put together very well," said Father Skillman, whose associate, Father Raymond Buehler, also took the class.

When the course began in mid-January, Father Foy was just starting his assignment at Gildehaus, sitting in for the first time at meetings dealing with parish and school finances.

"I'm still growing in my knowledge of all these things, but (the class) was a helpful overview ... to get basic principles," he said. "For instance, budgets are not supposed to be a one-person project; it's an iterative process between different groups of what they're planning."

Having a background in finance and business helps a pastor or administrator stay connected with a parish.

"If a priest has no interest in the financial aspects of the parish, if he's not living at all with the realities of looking at the budget, he's going to be disconnected from what people are going through and what the parish is doing," he said. "While you're not supposed to be spending all day looking at Quick Books, it is an important thing."

Especially in this day and age. With fewer priests to serve in parishes, priests are becoming pastors five or six years after ordination, rather than 12 years or more back in the day. Then, once they become pastors, they have fewer, if any, associates to share the busy calendar of daily and Sunday Masses, confessions, baptisms, sacramental emergencies — the main focus of pastoral ministry.

"This is an opportunity not to make them experts but to give them a nice little foundation so they can be involved in their parishes," said Jerry Amsler, the director of shared accounting. Amsler developed the course as a result of being "out and about, working with pastors who asked for guidance and help. A lot of people were raising their hands."

Initially, Amsler figured a priest-business program would already exist somewhere, and he'd build a program around that for the archdiocese. However, such a program didn't exist, so he sought help from SLU and business professor Neil Jansen helped develop the program. Feedback from the first group of student priests was universally positive.

"They say, 'I feel I'm in the conversation now at the parish instead of around the conversation,'" Amsler said. "That's really powerful." 

Pastoral Institute of Leadership

In partnership with St. Louis University, the archdiocesan Shared Accounting Office is offering an eight-week business class from priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The course, "Understanding & Applying Finances," is geared toward associate pastors, priests a few years out of seminary and in the pastor pipeline, but it also serves as a refresher for priests already serving as pastors. The class deals with financial statements, budgeting, decision-making and more. The first eight-week class concluded in spring, but two more will be offered later this year. Classes in other areas, such human resources, marketing, managing a school site and operations, as well as a capstone project introduction to a parish, are planned but not yet finalized. For more information, priests should call Jerry Amsler in the Shared Accounting Office at (314) 792-7111 or email at [email protected] 

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