Meryl Cerana is a life-long Catholic. While she has a background in both business and teaching, she’s worked in ministry for the last 14 years. Where did the pastoral associate turn when looking for skills to better manage the Mary Mother of Mercy Parish in Glassboro, N.J?
The Villanova School of Business.
“My business background helped, but church administration is different than secular business, so I needed some specialized training,” Cerana tells Poets&Quants. She enrolled in VSB’s Master of Science in Church Management, the only such degree program offered by a business school. It aims to help church organizations manage resources in a way that better supports their missions.
“I learned something in every class that I could use the very next day in my job at the parish,” Cerana says. “I think what the program did best, though, was educate us on what questions to ask in many situations, and how to formulate new questions in new situations. Once you have the question, you can focus a search for the answer.”
TEACHING BUSINESS PRINCIPLES WITH A MISSION
VSB’S Master of Science in Church Management is the primary academic program of the school’s Center for Church Management, believed to be the only such center within a business school, says Matthew Manion, the center’s faculty director as well as VSB professor of management and operations. He’s also a 2011 graduate of the course himself.
Inspired by the business school’s MBA program, the online master’s degree centers the foundational elements of a business curriculum within the context of church leadership in the Christian tradition. Other schools may offer church management as an add-on specialization to an MBA, but Villanova’s version is fully integrated, Manion says. For example, the opening course is Leadership Ethics and Catholic Social Thought, a class that teaches skills for business leadership through a faith-based lens.
“I think what is unique is that it helps people become bilingual in speaking church and speaking business,” Manion tells P&Q.
The online, 30-credit degree is delivered through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Students come from all over. In a recent virtual session, Manion had both a priest in Rwanda logged in alongside a parish business manager from North Pole, Alaska. Because Villanova is a university with an Augustian Catholic tradition, 75 to 80% of students in the program are Catholic, Manion says, but it accepts students from any tradition.
‘A RECOGNITION THAT WE HAD TO DO BETTER’
The Center for Church Management was established in 2004 under the direction of professor Chuck Zech. The idea had been proposed a couple of different times, but after the Boston sex abuse scandal, “there was a recognition that we had to do better and as an institution of higher learning–and particularly as a business school–to contribute to not only the Catholic Church but what churches in general need,” Manion says.
“Many church leaders are trained for the ministerial aspects of their roles, but like doctors, lawyers, and other specialists, they get no training on how to run a business.”
How could a business school help the Catholic Church respond to the growing worldwide crisis? How could sound business principles prevent a culture that sought to cover up bad acts rather than confront them?
“I think an increase in transparency and accountability in general. Sunlight cures a lot of things, and I think there was not a lot of sunlight. It created a culture of secrecy which allowed bad things to continue,” Manion says.
Churches that don’t manage their organizational resources and confront their failures turn people away from their message. On the other hand, those that do it well amplify it out in the world. For example, the VSB center encourages churches and leaders to undergo financial audits. Not to catch anything below board, necessarily, but to safeguard the mission. A sound budget can show how the church is using resources to, say, feed the poor, provide education, and service the community.
“I think by equipping lay leaders and ordained leaders with this language of how to do it, the fear of accountability and transparency goes down,” Manion says. “St. Augustine said, ‘Safeguard order and order will safeguard you.’ I think that’s our mantra for church leaders. You want to have this stuff done well, because it will make sure that the important work you’re doing can continue.”
CHURCHES AS ORGANIZATIONS
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of students who enroll in the master’s program: One, professionals coming from successful business careers who now are looking for ways to give back and commit further to their faith or church community. And, two, church leaders and administrators looking for skills to better manage church resources.
Instructors stress that the church is not a business. It is a mission. You can’t go in and tell a pastor he needs to think of his congregants as customers. A church is, however, an organization. It has human resources, finances, strategy, and communications that must be managed in order to carry out that mission.
“We have a responsibility to steward the resources of that organization well,” Manion says. “When those things are done poorly, they can block or inhibit the transmission of the gospel.”
Fr. Augustine Deji Dada, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Elmsford, N.Y., graduated from the program in 2020. With seven years experience in church administration, he had an idea of what a church could accomplish through strategic planning and relationship building, but he was frankly surprised at the rigor of the program.
“I must confess I was surprised at the thoroughness of the program at first. I went in thinking it would be a piece of cake because I am a priest, I have administrative experience and a degree in theology,” Dada tells P&Q. “I appreciate that within the course of the program there was an enrichment from various backgrounds and experiences as well as case studies to impress management lessons and theological values.”
Dada recommends the course to anyone committed to seeing “a revitalized, competent Church.”
“In the wake of the several moral and financial challenges, it is important, in the spirit of faith and loyalty to the truth, to maintain the identity of the Church in our stewardship, while moving from mission to performance,” he says.
“The MSCM helps bring forth these gifts, talents and resources. We are at a point now where the stakes are very high regarding our identity, in a world that has become very volatile culture-wise and is driven by data and technology. Moving forward will require management competence that is holistic and strategic.”