Strategic Planning Process Helps Parishes Improve Finances

by Jay Akasie

This is the fifth and last in a series on the reconfiguration process in the diocese.

Numbers_of_parishesThe chief financial officer for the Diocese of Brooklyn, John Borgia, is accustomed to dissecting complex fiscal statements and analyzing detailed spreadsheets. But sometimes he’ll dilute the many financial issues facing the diocese into an example that everyone can understand.

“Suppose you’ve reviewed your household budget and you realize that you no longer can afford to go out to a fancy restaurant five nights a week for dinner. So you stay home more often and cook for your family.  That’s not unlike what’s happening with the diocese. We’re reviewing what we’ve been spending in the current economy and are committed to operating within our means,” he says.

The Christ Jesus, Our Hope strategic planning process is not exactly driven by the diocese’s finance department, but, to be sure, money is one of the main concerns of the overall diocesan re-organization. Christ Jesus, Our Hope is currently in Phase 3, which means that the pastoral planning committee in charge of the re-organization has reviewed the financial data of all parishes across the diocese.

By now, each parish has submitted its financial data, including its annual budget, to the director of pastoral planning for the diocese, Robert Choiniere. He combined the financial snapshots with sacramental data, Mass numbers, and RCIA statistics to form an overall assessment of each parish. If a particular parish were to be operating with a deficit, a flag would go up and the committee would take a closer inspection.

One of the financial stress tests the committee might undertake is to suppose a parish had to replace its entire roof – an extremely expensive, one-time proposition.  Borgia says that the parish’sability to pay for such a capital expense, as well as the time it would take to fund the job, create a clearer picture for the committee when assessing which parishes have long-term viability.

Creating financial snapshots of parishes during phases one and two of Christ Jesus, Our Hope has already helped streamline church budgets and bring fiscal discipline to many congregations. During the 2008-2009 fiscal year, for example, parishes undergoing phase one and two assessments had a total deficit of some $3.4 million.  But during the current fiscal year, these same congregations have a total deficit of $848,000, a dramatic improvement in such a short span.

What explains the noticeable turn-around? Christ Jesus, Our Hope is helping many parishes take a new look at age-old assets and think about them in new and creative ways, according to Borgia. Often times there’s a rectory, a convent, a brothers’ house and a school.  And maybe even a separate parish hall.

“Our real estate department can evaluate the buildings and make recommendations for new types of income,” says Borgia. “Maybe the old convent can be converted to something for, say, Catholic Charities. And maybe a vacant school building can help meet the demand for school space by the New York City Board of Education.”

The leasing of these properties has a two-fold effect: The diocese is no longer financially responsible for the maintenance of the interiors, and the lease income also gives the parish a way to save money that can cover operating expenses or tackle deferred maintenance issues.

Stronger Financial Position
“We can definitely see a stronger financial position for most of these parishes,” says the comptroller of the diocese, Marty McManus.  “If you take a look at all of the 197 parishes, you’ll see the same trend: The surpluses are getting larger on a number of parishes and deficits of a number of parishes are getting smaller.”

Some of the more fiscally sound parishes have investments in the markets, according to McManus, which see swings in value as the global economic crisis ebbs and flows. Other parishes don’t have extensive market portfolios, so they’ll be less likely to see wide fluctuations in their endowments.

The group of volunteers who make up the visitation committees as part of Christ Jesus, Our Hope comprises a broad range of people. They are not employees of diocese, and everyone brings his or her own life experiences on the visits.

“They’re not just going to throw a parish into the deep end of the pool,” says Borgia. “They want to work with each parish and do what they can to help it get more self-sufficient.”

Bishop Frank Caggiano chairs a committee that reviews all of the strategic action plans.  The committee decides to either send them back for improvement or approve them. Then there will be a coordinator who will maintain the strategic plan with each parish.  Depending on what the overall expenses of the plan are, a committee person might visit the parish every three or six months, according to Borgia, in order to monitor its progress and make sure the goals are met.

There still are challenges for many parishes. Choiniere calculated the total ordinary revenue from collections from all of parishes as well as the ordinary expenses of those parishes.  Then he took the number of mass-going Catholics and divided it into those numbers. The average parishioner gives $4.82 a week whereas the ordinary expenses of the parishes are $10.70 for every parishioner a week.  In other words, it costs on average $5.88 more per parishioner per week to run a parish than the average parish takes in.

“It’s a hard process,” says Borgia. “Parishes have had to make sacrifices. The right thing to do hasn’t always been easy. But we’re placing an emphasis on every parish being financially sound.”

In decades past, it wasn’t uncommon for some parishes to run on diocesan subsidies.  All those financial subsidies have now stopped. In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the subsidy total was about $1.8 million. Last year, the subsidy stood at $800,000 – and now it’s down to zero.  Still, that’s not to say the diocese won’t help when a parish faces a large expense. Borgia says there might be some kind of fund set up that will be administered by a group of pastors for parishes with emergency expenses.

“If, say, a boiler needed to be replaced, the parish can come to the fund for assistance. It’s in the discussion phase right now,” he says.

It’s been the stated goal of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio that he prefers not to close any churches. But if a parish cannot pay its way, it’s hard-pressed to stay open.

“In my 15 years as comptroller, I’ve seen a new resolve by the pastors,” says McManus. “We’re in the beginning stages and it’s been a difficult battle, but it appears that we’re headed in the right direction.”

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