Toolbox 1Paul A. Holmes, editor, A Pastor’s Toolbox: Management Skills for Parish Leadership (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), ISBN 978-0-8146-3808-8, 179 pp., $19.95.

Reviewed by Mark F. Fischer

In the spring semester of 2015, Father Rodel Balagtas and I taught a course at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo entitled “Effective Pastoral Leadership.”  As a class text we adopted A Pastor’s Toolbox.  This enabled me to compare the book with similar texts that we have employed in previous versions of the course.  These include The Parish Management Handbook, edited in 2003 by Charles E. Zech, and A Concise Guide to Catholic Church Management, compiled in 2010 by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society.  I had contributed to the 2003 Handbook, and so was interested to see how it stacked up to the later publications.

Toolbox Topics and Authors

The first area of comparison is the number of topics covered by each of the books.  The 2014 Toolbox has fifteen chapters by fourteen different authors.  The chapters are brief (about ten pages each) and there are more of them than the nine chapters in the 2003 Handbook and the twelve chapters of the 2010 Guide.  The Toolbox covers a lot of ground.

Another plus for the Toolbox is the inclusion of six priest-authors.  We read impressive testimonies to pastoral success (in the chapters by Fathers Robert Stagg and Jack Wall), overviews of human resources management (by Father David Boettner) and of the priest’s managerial role (by Father Paul Holmes), and reflections on diocesan resources (Msgr. Franklyn Casale) and priestly well-being (Father Paul Manning).  By comparison, the 2003 Handbook had one priest author (writing on parish information systems) and the 2010 Guide had none.  This is an advantage for the Toolbox, because the insight of the priest-pastor differs from that of the lay employee.

Even more interesting is a comparison of the matter of the three books’ topics.  All three include chapters on leadership, human resources, and stewardship.  Two of the three books include chapters on the theology of management, on pastoral councils, on planning, and on civil law.  Of these seven subjects, the Toolbox includes a chapter on all but one, reflecting the book’s comprehensive nature.

There is no chapter, however, devoted to civil law.  Perhaps the editor felt that basic law was covered in the Toolbox’s chapters on risk management and on internal financial controls.   But neither of these two subjects is found in the 2003 Handbook or the 2010 Guide, and the Toolbox leaves many basic categories of law unmentioned.  The absence of a general treatment of legal principles in the Toolbox is a striking omission.

The majority of contributors to the Toolbox are lay Catholics, including a parish business manager (Maria Mendoza), an accountant (John McGovern) a professor of economics (Charles E. Zech), a pastoral associate (Dennis Corcoran), and a college president (Arturo Chávez).  Their chapters reflect professional perspectives on organizing the parish business office, managing legal and financial risks, applying internal controls to the handling of parish funds, organizing councils, and appreciating parish diversity.  Each of these chapters but one (the chapter on parish councils) is unique to the Toolbox, and are missing from the 2003 Handbook and the 2010 Guide.

The Toolbox and the Roundtable

The Toolbox was originally designed as a resource for a program entitled “Toolbox for Pastoral Management.”  The program was created in 2009 for priests and parish employees and is jointly sponsored by Seton Hall University in New Jersey and the National Leadership Roundtable for Church Management.  Four of the contributors to the volume are staff members of the Roundtable.  They are Michael Brough (who wrote a chapter on standards for excellence), Thomas J. Healey (who wrote the Preface), Jim Lundholm-Eades (who wrote chapters on the pastor’s first six months and on pastoral planning), and Kerry A. Robinson (who wrote on fundraising).

Brough’s chapter on standards for excellence articulates a basic principle of the National Leadership Roundtable.  He (and indeed all of the Toolbox authors, with one possible exception), want to bring “objectivity” to the process of managing a parish:

If you can establish benchmarks and be able to say, “Here is what a well-run parish looks like, here is what effective stewardship looks like, and here is what good human resources management looks like,” then you have some powerful standards by which to judge the performance of your parish and its people. (p. 113).

This kind of management by objectives approach strengthens the Toolbox.  The possible exception is Arturo Chávez’s plea for a conversion to intercultural sensitivity in his chapter on “Unity in Diversity.”  Chávez implicitly denies that a “standard” is a “culturally specific way” of managing the parish.  Standards, he implies, are transcultural, and do not require cultural uniformity.  But Chávez’s chapter passes over the tension between the standards for excellence approach and cultural diversity.

Pastoring and Management

The National Leadership Roundtable’s website describes it as “an organization of laity, religious and clergy working together to promote excellence and best practices in the management, finances, and human resource development of the Catholic Church in the U.S. through the greater incorporation of the expertise of the laity.”

The key phrase is “the greater incorporation of the expertise of the laity.”  Again and again the authors emphasize that the good priest-pastor trusts his lay associates:

  • Father Robert Stagg says that the pastor, if he is to maintain perspective and balance, needs to have competent people as his colleagues, “people to whom you can delegate responsibilities” (23).
  • Jim Lundholm-Eades says that the pastor need not “manage” program, procedures, and tasks (the job of the parish staff) but rather should “govern” as the one who articulates the parish’s mission (36).
  • Father Jack Wall advises pastors to “find a strong business partner” (as he found in his parish a “management genius”).  Such partners can free pastors to be leaders rather than managers (96-97).

At the same time, however, the authors warn their audience of new pastors that they have the responsibility of oversight.  The bishop did not entrust the parish to the business manager or to the pastoral council, but to a priest.  So the Toolbox authors repeatedly say that the buck stops with the pastor:

  • Maria Mendoza reminds pastors of “the importance of reviewing monthly financial reports or statements that detail your revenues and expenses, receipts and disbursements, cash flow, and other indicators of how the parish is doing financially” (46).
  • Charles Zech complains that Catholics are “too trusting” (73).  Although “only 3 percent of dioceses audited their parishes annually” (74), every new pastor should request that the diocese perform an internal audit of his parish books.
  • Michael Brough concedes that pastors need not be experts in finance, human resources, or administration, but they “do need to know enough these complex areas to make sure that they’re being efficiently managed” (113).

Missing is an explanation of how the new pastor will balance trust and wariness.  Yes, he must rely on his lay associates, delegate responsibility, and learn how to pastorally “govern” (if not to “manage”).  At the same time, however, the new pastor has to be able to read financial charts, know how to ask for professional help, and avoid naivety.  This is a difficult balance, especially given the U.S. bishops’ reluctance to demand a required course on parish administration in the Program of Priestly Formation.

But at least the publication of the Toolbox will advance the conversation.  Along with the 2003 Handbook and the 2010 Guide (not to forget Father Paul Peri’s 2012 Catholic Parish Administration: A Handbook), the Toolbox is moving us closer to consensus about what a basic seminary course on parish administration ought to include.  For comments on the individual chapters in the Toolbox, click on the links below.

Table of Contents

Preface, by Thomas J. Healey.

Introduction, by Paul A. Holmes.

  1. A Theology of Management: Why We Do What We Do, by Paul A. Holmes.
  2. Pastoral Leadership, by Robert Stagg.
  3. A Six-Month Game Plan, by Jim Lundholm-Eades.
  4. Getting Started: The Parish Business Office, by Maria Mendoza.
  5. Developing a Comprehensive Human Resources Program, by David Boettner.
  6. Risk Management, by John McGovern.
  7. Best Practices in Parish Internal Financial Controls, by Charles E. Zech.
  8. Fundraising as Christian Stewardship, by Kerry A. Robinson.
  9. Pastoring and Administering a Mission-Driven Church, by Jack Wall.
  10. Building Councils, by Dennis Corcoran.
  11. Standards for Excellence, by Michael Brough.
  12. Parish Planning, by Jim Lundholm-Eades.
  13. Unity in Diversity, by Arturo Chávez.
  14. The Pastor and the Diocese, by Franklyn Casale.
  15. In Pursuit of Priestly Well-Being, by Paul S. Manning.


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