Image

Practical Virtue: Finance and Administration in the Spirit of Church Organizations

Is it possible to begin the work week saying, “Thank God, it's Monday”?

A number of books with some variation of that title claim to demonstrate how we can integrate our faith into our professional lives. But even we whose lives are spent serving the church or church-related apostolates often approach the week ahead with less than enthusiasm. We face the same traffic, the same daily routine, the same brown-bag lunch as employees in the corporate world.

And many of us—especially those who toil in the hidden realm of operational and support services—can feel as removed from the human impact of our organizations as any government bureaucrat. Even when we remind ourselves that we're “working for the Lord,” it's often hard to see how faith translates into practical, day-to-day function.

But it is precisely the faith dimension that makes what we do so distinctive. It gives us a religiously inspired desire to serve. Next we have to put this desire into practice somewhere in the mundane reality of how we actually spend our time and energy. It can be difficult to connect the two. Yet making that link is absolutely essential, both for the success of ministry and for the spiritual fulfillment of those called to Christian service.

Crunching God's Numbers

My particular area of involvement is finance and administration. I am responsible for the operation and fiscal soundness of a private philanthropic group—The Ave Maria Foundation—that underwrites a variety of causes. We are self-identified as a Catholic apostolate. And though we have no institutional affiliation with the Catholic Church, we cooperate with the bishops of those dioceses in which the organizations we support are located.

Our resources come from one donor, our chairman,

Thomas Monaghan, an entrepreneur known around the world as founder of the Domino's Pizza chain and one-time owner of a major league baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. I had worked for Tom Monaghan in his pizza days, serving as corporate treasurer for Domino's and then moving over into the nonprofit world (or as it's often called, the “independent sector”) after the sale of the company.

My time at Domino's Pizza and these developmental years with the Foundation have given me the opportunity to make numerous comparisons between for-profit enterprises and nonprofit groups. I have concluded that, while many of the operational processes are the same, the contrasts in motive and attitude among the people in each setting make for marked differences in atmosphere.

This is true even in the financial and administrative areas. It might seem like crunching numbers and handling personnel concerns in a church organization would be the same as in a corporate setting. Certainly business, when conducted honestly, serves human need as authentically as any charity, and I believe the profits derived from such service are a legitimate reward for honest effort.

But there is something special about knowing that your daily activities play a role—no matter how indirect—in educating or assisting or uplifting your fellow human beings as an expression of altruism. This is an important part of what makes people want to work for church organizations, and it is incumbent upon the leadership of those apostolates to both encourage and satisfy such longings.

Cultivating Practical Virtue

That takes effort, because the different motives of workers in the nonprofit versus business world has a corollary in different sets of expectations. Desire for job satisfaction may be a given in all work settings. But satisfaction doesn't mean precisely the same thing where people see themselves as toiling in the Lord's vineyard and sacrificing to do so.

For instance, I have found that employees of church organizations tend to have higher expectations of what might be called “practical virtue.” That is the assumption that fellow workers, and especially their organizations' leaders, will be competent and will approach both work and human relationships with a well developed sense of personal integrity. No doubt, such qualities are valued by corporate employees. But to workers in the field of Christian service these are seen more clearly as moral imperatives, because they reflect on the character of an organization that represents itself as operating in the name of God.

Such religious consciousness cuts both ways. It can also make church workers more responsive to the expectations of others. This reciprocal aspect is not perfect, of course, since what we demand of those around us generally exceeds what we are willing to give of ourselves. Nonetheless, “practical virtue” can be infectious. When these expectations are cultivated assiduously, doing one's job well becomes more than just ordinary diligence or living up to a generalized moral requirement—something to which anyone who works for any company or organization is obligated. In the unique context of ministry, excellence becomes a statement of grace. One does one's best because that's what God expects.

I have had many occasions to impress upon members of my finance and administration staff that what we do is neither abstract nor mechanical. Rather, our work is of crucial and immediate significance to the mission, operation, and future of The Ave Maria Foundation. Moreover, that significance is eternal, because the Foundation's mission, operation, and future are directed toward something beyond human objectives.

Making Communication Easy

The critical element in all of this is communication. After a series of scandals in both the corporate and nonprofits worlds, “transparency” is the watchword today. And while all organizations have proprietary data and prudence may sometimes dictate that arrangements be in place before information is widely shared, the nature of religious ministry puts a high premium on openness. Candor is especially important in dealing with employees. It's wise to minimize secrets and stay ahead of the rumor mill, which, with the combined attributes of speed and inaccuracy, can disrupt the peace of any organization.

Direct personal communication—both within departments and one-on-one—should be an integral part of your operating procedures on a daily basis. Attentiveness, accessibility, and easy give-and-take with workers are essential to managing effectively and staying on mission.

Direct personal communication makes possible the feedback and recognition employees need. It's consistent with the feeling of “specialness” that sets church organizations apart, reinforcing the idea that ministry is more than just a way to earn a living. It helps to dispel feelings of isolation and meaninglessness that can creep into anyone's life from time to time, no matter how bright his outlook or how firm his faith. It forges bonds of personal loyalty. And it reminds people of their individual worth when routine threatens to become a grind, or when cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging overwhelm them with the feeling that they're on call twenty-four hours a day.

In a very real sense, direct personal communication becomes a sort of ministry in itself. But it doesn't necessarily happen spontaneously. It's one thing to tell your people, “My door is always open,” and quite another to be available when they need your input. What's required is a practical system that makes information-sharing easy, that encourages the flow in both directions, and that will work regardless of the demands on individual schedules.

At The Ave Maria Foundation we've adopted a program originally designed for Domino's Pizza in which each

employee files a brief, written, end-of-day report to his or her direct supervisor. In that report (which we refer to as a “daily”) the worker provides a quick recap of the day's activities, and notes any situations to which attention is needed. The manager reads and responds to the report by the next day, so issues and requests don't linger unattended. Everyone files a daily, all the way up the line (Tom Monaghan gets mine). Faxes, e-mail, and PDAs make the system convenient—and functional, even when people are on the road. In addition, we have weekly departmental meetings, and divisional managers (or as we call them, members of the “executive team”) gather each week for a luncheon meeting with the chairman.

The most innovative aspect of our system, and what makes it especially personal, is a monthly “JP&R” (job planning and review) session, in which everyone meets privately with his or her supervisor. Lasting from 30 to 90 minutes, as necessary, these are opportunities to share concerns directly, oriented to problem-solving and encouragement. JP&Rs are structured in a way intended to avoid the feeling of being called to the principal's office, and those who conduct them are trained accordingly. The basic format of the JP&R (involving analysis of goals, progress made in meeting them, and resources needed to overcome any remaining obstacles) can also be applied to measuring progress at an organizational level.

It would be dishonest not to admit that this system can seem burdensome on occasion. Managers with large staffs can find themselves facing more information than they're prepared to cope with. And workers can feel “on the spot” when the day's accomplishments don't fit neatly into summarizable chunks that match the reporting schedule. But overall, it keeps things organized, it limits the cracks through which details can fall all too easily, and it helps people to feel that they're in touch, they're supported, they're part of something.

The Management Vision

Well now, if everyone is marching along together and feeling good about it, what exactly is so unique about the way they march? Or to put the question more directly: Is there a vision of management—particularly in the area of finance and administration—specific to church organizations? If so, what does it involve? My approach rests on three broad principles.

First, ethics are indispensable. Groups that bear the identity of Christ's church do Christ's work, and so we should expect them to be held to a higher standard of human and fiscal accountability. Consequently, ethical behavior must be a priority, both as an institutional policy and as a personal moral commitment throughout all levels of the organization. This is essential, and its truth has been proven time and again. Over and over we've seen how ministries that neglect or compromise this principle collapse in disgrace, giving scandal to the entire Christian community.

Second, God is here and now. Our daily work is not something we do so that we may serve the Lord later. The functions we perform in our jobs, no matter how mundane they may seem, are in themselves ways to serve. If the organization is operating ethically, then diligence in meeting its needs or innovation in refining its processes move it closer to fulfilling its purposes. Thus, workday details have a definite moral, even spiritual, dimension. There is no separation between building up the Kingdom and balancing the books.

Third, there is only one goal. Like St. Paul “running the race,” a ministry has to focus continually on a single, over-arching mission. That mission should be defined with some precision (preferably in terms more specific than “bringing the Gospel to the nations”). Everyone involved must understand it. Consistent effort must be applied to avoiding projects that deflect energy and resources away from it. And since organizations operate in time, functioning from day to day and pursuing various intermediate objectives, some mechanism must be put in place to measure progress and assess the ministry's ongoing ability to stay faithful to its ultimate goal.

Enjoying a Rare Privilege

Managing a church organization requires special care and sensitivity. It isn't always easy to know what's right or to do the right thing, but it is essential to create arrangements that make the best possible use of the fiscal and human resources available, and that exploit the practical virtue that ministry encourages. In that way the money, time, and work dedicated to accomplishing your mission can bring you closer to your ultimate goal. As stated in Proverbs 11:14, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I would turn that around to say: Organizational success depends on wise administration.

But such effort is the price one pays for the rare privilege of working in a unique setting where values are shared and supported, and where expressions of belief are unconstrained by religious self-consciousness. It is a blessing (and a particular advantage) that those very qualities of church organizations contribute to administrative success. This atmosphere of spiritual unity encourages prayer, and prayer is the key to translating faith into human benefit.

At The Ave Maria Foundation, Mass is celebrated four times a day in our own chapel. We also have opportunities to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, participate in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and go to confession. Also, we typically begin our meetings with a prayer. And, there is ample encouragement of private devotions, including the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I, myself, begin each morning by dedicating my day to the Lord at morning Mass, and I try to set aside the fifteen minutes it takes me to drive home each night for reflection on the day just completed.

All of these practices help to clear away the fog of daily worries, opening the mind for insight and inspiration. They also encourage a spirit of thankfulness for the opportunity to do the Lord's work—which is the spirit that makes us eager to do it any day of the week.

So I believe it is possible to integrate your faith into your professional life. If, like me, you are blessed to work in a church organization, you truly can say, “Thank God, it's Monday.”