One of the hallmarks of a Stewardship Parish is having the parishioners take ownership of the parish and feel a sense of responsibility for all its activities, including its finances. In this regard it is important to promote openness in all financial dealings so that parishioners have a real sense of what is going on in the parish, what its financial needs and responsibilities are.
Based on the parish surveys we at Catholic Stewardship Consultants, Inc. (CSC) have conducted in Catholic parishes over the past 12-plus years, most parishioners do not have a good understanding of where their parish is financially. Quite often parishioners think their parish is far better off financially than it actually is. In fact, in many cases we have seen situations where a particular parish is in deep financial trouble, and most parishioners’ responses indicate that they think their parish is doing just fine financially or even generating a surplus. On the other hand, we’ve found cases when a parish has an adequate income, but many parishioners think the doors are about to be closed.
How does this disconnect happen so that parishioners think the parish is well off financially when in fact the opposite is true? Or that they think the parish is worse off than it actually is? Well, oftentimes, they have not been given enough accurate information in an understandable format by the parish leadership to know the parish’s financial situation. Granted, in other cases, the parishioners are at fault – they have been given enough information, but they have not taken the time to understand what is going on.
It is very helpful, if we want parishioners to assume financial responsibility and take ownership of the parish, to seek their participation in setting parish goals and objectives, including the associated costs. This can be done as needed through newsletter articles and public presentations at Mass. Special publicity when the annual budget is being formulated can explain what the parish plans are along with the associated costs. It is not necessary to get too detailed or to disclose information like specific salaries that should remain somewhat confidential. At all times, the parish leadership should not only inform the parishioners but honestly seek their input and comments. With advanced planning, this can be done without slowing down the annual budget process and at the same time draw the entire parish into that process.
Once the parish sets its budget, it is incumbent upon the leaders to keep the people up to date on how their contributions are being spent, and if the budget goals are being met. This should be done in a timely fashion on an annual basis and periodically, at least quarterly, with a report that shows how actual expenditures compare to the budget. The report should be in summary form and not take up more than one page. A commentary should accompany the figures to explain areas where actual expenditures vary significantly from the budget. For example, if the offertory is down by 15 percent and/or staff salaries are up by 10 percent, these and similar items should be briefly commented on. The summary should include a statement of how the situation has been or will be remedied and/or its impact on the fiscal year budget.
Today, a lot of people are cynical about the Church because of what they read or hear in the press regarding scandals in her. They read about mega legal settlements or financial scandals in parishes or dioceses that leave them rightly concerned and somewhat jaded in regards to supporting the Church financially. While these things are rare, the wide publicity gives people a feeling that it is everywhere. The result is a negative effect on people’s giving to the Church.
All Catholic parishes today are suppose to have a Finance Council (FC) to advise the pastor in good financial practices for the parish. Here are a few actions a Finance Council can take to improve the financial operations of the parish and at the same time increase parishioner confidence in the parish’s financial management.
1) Appoint a small group of financially competent and committed parishioners who understand the nature of the Church and how it differs from secular businesses. The group should include at least one practicing or recently practicing CPA who understands internal controls.
2) Document the parish’s internal control system and have it reviewed and tested at least once a year by the FC to see if it is still adequate and operating according to the established procedures.
3) Have the FC annually review the financial reports provided to parishioners and test the underlying data supporting those reports to the degree necessary to affix their name to a brief statement accompanying the reports indicating what they have done and that they believe the internal controls are adequate and functioning according to design and the reports are reasonably accurate. They should function like an internal audit committee.
Parish and diocesan financial operations should at all times be as transparent as possible. However, in the situation in which the Church in this country currently operates, we need to go out of our way to be even more transparent to relieve people’s concern. Most people in our Catholic parishes are truly interested in being a part of what is going on in the parish and in supporting it financially. Those of us in leadership roles need to do what we can to relieve their anxiety about their financial giving.
Parishes, too, must be, or become, true communities of faith within which this Christian way of life is learned and practiced. Sound business practice is a fundamental of good stewardship, and stewardship as it relates to church finances must include the most stringent ethical, legal, and fiscal standards. That requires several things: pastors and parish staff must be open, consultative, collegial, and accountable in the conduct of affairs. And parishioners must accept responsibility for their parishes and contribute generously—both money and personal service—to their programs and projects. The success or failure of parish programs, the vitality of parish life or its absence, the ability or inability of a parish to render needed services to its members and the community depend upon all.
– An excerpt from Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response