Review by Mark F. Fischer
Father Paul F. Peri, a veteran priest of the Archdiocese of Portland and professor at Mount Angel Seminary, has published a modest book that intends to “fly at twenty thousand feet” over the subject of parish administration in a way that is decidedly “nontechnical” (p. 2). He writes “especially for seminarians,” and that distinguishes the book from anything currently on the market.
The book’s title invites comparison with The Parish Management Handbook, edited in 2003 by Charles E. Zech, whose encouragement Peri acknowledges. Both are “handbooks,” an Old English word that can mean both a compendium and a source of concise information. Peri’s book, brief and in a small format, definitely belongs to the latter category. Zech’s book by contrast is a compendium, written by eight different authors in 217 pages.
Shepherd of Parish Relationships
Peri does not treat the theology of parish administration (as does Zech’s book), but it is rich in practical insight for the pastor who aspires to be “the shepherd of parish relationships” (67). The phrase expresses Peri’s conviction that administration is not a merely secular task. The key to being the shepherd of parish relationships is personal maturity. For Peri, the mature priest-pastor must be able to act prudently and to seek help when it is needed (69). An experienced pastor, Peri views administration as a worthy vocation and claims that pastors will typically devote one-half of their time to it (8).
Peri’s book has no chapter dedicated entirely to pastoral and finance councils, but it treats parish consultation in a number of places, starting in Chapter One. There Peri rightly characterizes the pastoral council in terms of “pastoral planning” (15), which he describes in very schematic terms. Chapter One also describes the parish finance council as an “advisor” to the pastor, who is the “steward for the parish mission.” Who defines the mission? The pastoral council has “described” it “for the community” (16), said Peri, indicating what for him is a council duty.
In Chapter Two, Peri advises the pastor to consult his councils and staff members thoroughly (23). In Chapter Four, he states that the pastor should “train” the finance council so that, by its review and scrutiny of the budget, “unpleasant financial scandals will not happen” (42). He encourages pastors to avail themselves of the expertise available through chancery officials, who “will give their best estimates of how health insurance, property insurance, and other costs are trending” (44). Peri does not analyze pastoral and finance councils in detail, but certainly encourages pastors to make use of them.
Chapter Three (“Personnel”) offers practical advice aimed specifically at the pastor. He should tell his employees (Peri advises) that he will not hear their confessions. What if “the bookkeeper confesses that she or he has been secretly taking funds from the parish”? (27). The wise pastor must distinguish between his duties as shepherd of souls and as steward of parish resources.
Peri’s Catholic Parish Administration urges pastor-administrators to clarify employee expectations and review performance regularly (33). To learn how to do this, however, one would have to consult an overview of human resource management, such as the one provided in Zech’s Parish Management Handbook. There one can find model job descriptions, a recruitment process for selecting new employees, advice on the management of employee compensation, and an overview of performance evaluations. “Flying at twenty thousand feet,” Peri’s book does not offer these details, but endorses sound administrative practices.
Chapter Four (“Finances”) begins with an anecdote about how a thief was able to break into the safe of a suburban Portland parish and make off with the Sunday collection. The chapter focuses on the practice of financial control, and Peri believes that the pastor should co-sign every parish check. He wants the parish budget to be developed by means of a thorough consultation, and states that parishioners “have a right” to be kept informed about parish finances (45). There is no detailed explanation of how they are to be informed, but Peri clearly asserts the principle.
After examining the parish budget, Peri turns to the individual finances of the priest. He urges individual priests to begin saving early for their retirement. They can apply to parish administration the lessons they learn from planning for their own future. We do not find, in Peri’s chapter on finances, a large-scale introduction to “Developing Stewards in a Parish Setting,” such as the one we find in Zech. Instead, Peri offers a down-to-earth description of how to budget, starting with the estimation of parish income and proceeding to its allocation.
Catholic Parish Administration surprises the reader with chapters on “Property” and on “Insurance and Risk Management” – two chapters that have no counterparts in Zech’s book or in any other guide to Catholic Church management that I know. Property and insurance are usually treated in management handbooks under the heading of civil law. Peri does not tackle that vast subject, but exposes the concerns of a pastor who may be offered property as a donation or for sale, and who wants to lower insurance costs and limit risks to the parish.
In short, Peri’s book has a modest aim. As a handbook for seminarians, it conveys the seriousness of administration for men who aspire to the calling of pastor, but leaves the details of management theory to other textbooks. The particularity of his book is its emphasis on relationships. The pastor is engaged in relationships – ecclesial relationships with his bishop and fellow priests; professional relationships with the parish’s employees, vendors, and consultants; and pastoral relationships with his parishioners for whom he is priest and leader. “Church work,” writes Peri, “is about building and sustaining relationships” (10). That insight makes this book eloquent and unique.