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November 22, 2009

Program lets parishes learn from one another

By Michelle Martin


About two years ago, Bishop Francis Kane was looking at one of the parishes in his vicariate and wondering what the reason was behind its financial difficulties.

St. Matthias, which has a unique partnership with Transfiguration Parish, both in the Lincoln Square area was having hard time staying in the black. But Bishop Kane, the episcopal vicar for Vicariate II, which includes areas of the North Side and suburbs in northern Cook County, didn’t know whether the problem was too little revenue, too many expenses, something else entirely or some combination of factors.

“I was saying, I think they can do better than they’re doing,” he said.

Enter Betsy Bohlen, a senior knowledge expert at McKinsey and Company, which provides similar kinds of financial productivity analysis to large corporations.

Bohlen, who had worked on parish- and archdiocese-related projects as a volunteer in the past, agreed to work with a group of volunteers to look at what factors make a parish financially stable.

What they did was group the archdiocese’s 357 parishes by size, income level and other demographic factors. What they found, Bohlen said, was that some parishes that serve similar populations had widely divergent financial results.

“Some of them were really in trouble, and some were doing OK,” said Bohlen. “Now, what we mean by doing OK is just breaking even.”

By grouping the parishes, the volunteers could see how similar parishes, which were able to sustain themselves financially, did it, and they could get parishioners involved in making changes in their own parish.

At St. Matthias/Transfiguration, nearly 40 people came together to try to find ways to increase regular collections and cut expenses.

Bishop Kane said some kinds of information seem to apply to all parishes. For example, those that spend more than 40 percent of their regular collections on personnel are nearly all running deficits. Parishes that spend more than 20 percent to 25 percent of their collections to subsidize a school have difficulties. And, more positively, parishes where at least 30 percent of regular donors give electronically are all in the black.

Some of the changes are easier to make than others, Bishop Kane acknowledged. Parishioners might be more willing than their pastors expect to get behind a planned giving campaign, giving the parish a larger and more predictable stream of revenue. However, when it comes to cutting staff, decisions can be more difficult.

“These are real people, and you have to acknowledge that,” he said.

Now the program has expanded to a handful of other parishes, all of which have asked for the consulting help, Kane said, and many of them have seen dramatic improvements. The project is ongoing with 10 parishes in the Cicero/ Berwyn area, as well, he said.

“This is something that we would want to roll out to all the parishes, starting with the ones that are in a deficit situation,” the bishop said.

Doing so could mean a $19 million turnaround for the archdiocese, Bishop Kane said.

But it has already outgrown the initial volunteer effort, according to both Bishop Kane and Bohlen, so it might not expand until it becomes more formal.

In the meantime, Bishop Kane said, St. Matthias saw a dramatic shift, from running a $200,000 a year deficit to being able to cover its now-reduced day-to-day operating costs with now-increased collections. However, the parish still must contend with paying off its debts from running years of deficits, he said.