Practical Virtue

Finance and Administration in the

Spirit of Church Organizations

By Paul Roney

Is it possible to begin the work week saying, “Thank God, it’s Monday”?

A number of books with some variation of that title claim to demonstrate how we can integrate our faith into our professional lives.  But even we whose lives are spent serving the Church or Church-related apostolates often approach the week ahead with less than enthusiasm.  We face the same traffic, the same daily routine, the same brown-bag lunch as employees in the corporate world.

And many of us — especially those who toil in the hidden realm of operational and support services — can feel as removed from the human impact of our organizations as any government bureaucrat.  Even when we remind ourselves that we’re “working for the Lord,” it’s often hard to see how Catholic faith translates into practical, day-to-day function.

But it is precisely the faith dimension that makes what we do so distinctive, that makes our jobs more than just the means by which we meet the bills.  And many of us have paid a price — in other, more lucrative opportunities forgone, and often in genuine family sacrifice — to be involved in a work of faith.  We’ve sought to live out the lesson of Matthew 16:26, forsaking much worldly gain for the sake of our immortal souls.

So there is a separation.  We have our religiously inspired desire to serve.  And we have the mundane reality of how we actually spend our time and energy.  It can be difficult to connect the two.  Yet making that link is absolutely essential, both for the success of ministry and for the spiritual fulfillment of those called to Christian service.

I believe that the solution to this problem lies in a proper understanding of the spirit and functioning of Church organizations.

Crunching God’s Numbers

My particular area of involvement is finance and administration.  I am responsible for the operation and fiscal soundness of a private philanthropic group — The Ave Maria Foundation — that underwrites a variety of causes.  We are self-identified as a Catholic apostolate.  And though we have no institutional affiliation with the Church, we cooperate with the bishops of those dioceses in which the organizations we support are located.

Our resources come from one donor, our chairman, Thomas Monaghan, an entrepreneur known around the world as founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain and one-time owner of a Major League baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. A “cradle Catholic,” he had long been deeply involved in charitable giving.  When he sold the pizza company in 1998, he decided to allocate a significant portion of the proceeds (approximately $300 million at that time) to establishing several organizations which he felt could offer unique benefits to the Church.  Primary recipients of our funding have included Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law, as well as a radio broadcast ministry, several elementary schools, an overseas educational mission, and the Thomas More Law Center, a public-interest legal practice devoted to pro-life and religious-liberty issues.

I had worked for Tom Monaghan in his pizza days, serving as corporate treasurer for Domino’s and then moving over into the nonprofit world (or as it’s often called, the “independent sector”) after the sale of the company.  The Foundation’s startup period was somewhat freewheeling, with a number of charitable entities launched in rapid succession, along with infusions of cash into several existing efforts, and a number of “false starts” on projects that later proved not to be viable.  We have struggled through those early enthusiasms and growing pains.  I believe The Ave Maria Foundation has matured in the process, and now has a clear purpose and a highly focused vision.

My time at Domino’s Pizza and these developmental years with the Foundation have given me the opportunity to make numerous comparisons between for-profit enterprises and nonprofit groups.  I have concluded that, while many of the operational processes are the same, the contrasts in motive and attitude among the people in each setting make for marked differences in atmosphere.

This is true even in the financial and administrative areas.  It might seem like crunching numbers and handling personnel concerns in a Church organization would be the same as in a corporate setting.  Certainly business, when conducted honestly, serves human need as authentically as any charity, and I believe the profits derived from such service are a legitimate reward for honest effort.

But there is something special about knowing that your daily activities play a role — no matter how indirect — in educating or assisting or uplifting your fellow human beings as an expression of altruism.  Particularly so when that expression has explicitly religious overtones. This is an important part of what makes people want to work for Church organizations, and it is incumbent upon the leadership of those apostolates to both encourage and satisfy such longings.

Cultivating Practical Virtue

That takes effort, because the different motives of workers in the nonprofit-vs.-business world has a corollary in different sets of expectations.  Desire for job satisfaction may be a given in all work settings.  But satisfaction doesn’t mean precisely the same thing where people see themselves as toiling in the Lord’s vineyard and sacrificing to do so.

For instance, I have found that employees of Church organizations tend to have higher expectations of what might be called “practical virtue.” That is the assumption that fellow workers, and especially their organizations’ leaders, will be competent and will approach both work and human relationships with a well developed sense of personal integrity.  No doubt, such qualities are valued by corporate employees.  But to workers in the field of Christian service these are seen more clearly as moral imperatives, because they reflect on the character of an organization that represents itself as operating in the name of God.

Such religious consciousness cuts both ways.  It can also make Church workers more responsive to the expectations of others. This reciprocal aspect is not perfect, of course, since what we demand of those around us generally exceeds what we are willing to give of ourselves.  Nonetheless, “practical virtue” can be infectious.  When these expectations are cultivated assiduously, doing one’s job well becomes more than just ordinary diligence or living up to a generalized moral requirement — something to which anyone who works for any company or organization is obligated.  In the unique context of ministry, excellence becomes a statement of grace.  One does one’s best because that’s what God expects.

But excellence must also be recognized.  Working for the Lord can be gratifying, even consoling.  And it often proves a source of unexpected and transcendent joys. But automatic sainthood is not part of the benefit package offered by Church organizations.  There remains something in the human soul that craves earthly accomplishment and the recognition of our fellow human beings, especially those in temporal authority over us.  Leaders of Christian ministries are obliged not only to treat their employees fairly, but to give them work that is truly meaningful, to make them understand its importance, and to acknowledge when they have done it properly.

I have had many occasions to impress upon members of my finance and administration staff that what we do is neither abstract nor mechanical.  Rather, our work is of crucial and immediate significance to the mission, operation and future of The Ave Maria Foundation.  Moreover, that significance is eternal, because the Foundation’s mission, operation and future are directed toward something beyond human objectives.

Additionally, I stress that what we do, we do as a team.  The idea of an organization as a  “family” has been cheapened by too-frequent use.  But it’s no mere cliché to note that we’re all in this together.

That fact is very much in accord with the words of St. Paul (in I Corinthians 12:27-28): “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.”  If that doesn’t quite describe a family, it surely suggests a team, even a society, which on its limited scale and with its diverse elements, is what a Church organization resembles.

We attempt to live out this principle at the Foundation — imperfectly, no doubt, given our status as flawed creatures, but as best we can.  We each bring our gifts.  Tom Monaghan brings money and a certain entrepreneurial vision.  The rest of us apply our particular skills to making those assets accomplish the work which, he would be the first to admit, was inspired at a higher level.

Making Communication Easy

The critical element in all of this is communication.  After a series of scandals in both the corporate and nonprofits worlds, “transparency” is the watchword today.  And while all organizations have proprietary data and prudence may sometimes dictate that arrangements be in place before information is widely shared, the nature of religious ministry puts a high premium on openness. Candor is especially important in dealing with employees.  It’s wise to minimize secrets and stay ahead of the rumor mill, which with the combined attributes of speed and inaccuracy, can disrupt the peace of any organization.

Direct personal communication — both within departments and one-on-one — should be an integral part of your operating procedures on a daily basis.  Attentiveness, accessibility, and easy give-and-take with workers are essential to effective management and staying on mission.

Direct personal communication makes possible the feedback and recognition employees need.  It’s consistent with the feeling of  “specialness” that sets Church organizations apart, reinforcing the idea that ministry is more than just a way to earn a living.  It helps to dispel feelings of isolation and meaninglessness that can creep into anyone’s life, from time to time, no matter how bright their outlook or how firm their faith.  It forges bonds of personal loyalty.  And it reminds people of their individual worth when routine threatens to become a grind, or when cell phones, e-mail and text messaging overwhelm them with the feeling that they’re on call 24 hours a day.

In a very real sense, direct personal communication becomes a sort of ministry in itself.  But it doesn’t necessarily happen spontaneously.  It’s one thing to tell your people, “My door is always open,” and quite another to be available when they need your input.  What’s required is a practical system that makes information-sharing easy, that encourages the flow in both directions, and that will work regardless of the demands on individual schedules.

At The Ave Maria Foundation we’ve adopted a program originally designed for Domino’s Pizza in which each employee files a brief, written, end-of-day report to his or her direct supervisor.  In that report (which we refer to as a “daily”) the worker provides a quick recap of the day’s activities, and notes any situations to which attention is needed. The manager reads and responds to the report by the next day, so issues and requests don’t linger unattended. Everyone files a daily, all the way up the line (Tom Monaghan gets mine).  Faxes, e-mail and PDAs make the system convenient — and functional, even when people are on the road.  In addition, we have weekly departmental meetings, and divisional managers (or as we call them, members of the “executive team”) gather each week for a luncheon meeting with the chairman.

The most innovative aspect of our system, and what makes it especially personal, is a monthly “JP&R” (job planning and review) session, in which everyone meets privately with his or her supervisor.  Lasting from 30 to 90 minutes, as necessary, these are opportunities to share concerns directly, oriented to problem-solving and encouragement.  JP&Rs are structured in a way intended to avoid the feeling of being called to the principal’s office, and those who conduct them are trained accordingly.  The basic format of the JP&R (involving analysis of goals, progress made in meeting them, and resources needed to overcome any remaining obstacles) can also be applied to measuring progress at an organizational level.

It would be dishonest not to admit that this system can seem burdensome on occasion.  Managers with large staffs can find themselves facing more information than they’re prepared to cope with.  And workers can feel “on the spot” when the day’s accomplishments don’t fit neatly into summarizable chunks that match the reporting schedule.  But overall, it keeps things organized, it limits the cracks through which details can fall all too easily, and it helps people to feel that they’re in touch, they’re supported, they’re part of something.

The Management Vision

Well now, if everyone is marching along together and feeling good about it, what exactly is so unique about the way they march?  Or to put the question more directly: Is there a vision of management — particularly in the area of finance and administration — specific to Church organizations?  If so, what does it involve?

My approach rests on three broad principles:

  1. 1.ETHICS ARE INDISPENSABLE — Groups that bear the identity of Christ’s Church do Christ’s work, and so we should expect them to be held to a higher standard of human and fiscal accountability.  Consequently, ethical behavior must be a priority, both as an institutional policy and as a personal moral commitment throughout all levels of the organization.  This is essential, and its truth has been proven time and again.  Over and over we’ve seen how ministries that neglect or compromise this principle collapse in disgrace, giving scandal to the entire Christian community.

  1. 2.GOD IS HERE AND NOW — Our daily work is not something we do so that we may serve the Lord later. The functions we perform in our jobs, no matter how mundane they may seem, are in themselves ways to serve. If the organization is operating ethically, then diligence in meeting its needs or innovation in refining its processes move it closer to fulfilling its purposes.  Thus, workday details have a definite moral, even spiritual, dimension.  There is no separation between building up the Kingdom and balancing the books.

  1. 3.THERE IS ONLY ONE GOAL — Like St. Paul “running the race,” a ministry has to focus continually on a single, over-arching mission.  That mission should be defined with some precision (preferably in terms more specific than “bringing the Gospel to the nations”). Everyone involved must understand it.  Consistent effort must be applied to avoiding projects that deflect energy and resources away from it.  And since organizations operate in time, functioning from day to day and pursuing various intermediate objectives, some mechanism must be put in place to measure progress and assess the ministry’s ongoing ability to stay faithful to its ultimate goal.

Finance and administration do not direct the apostolate.  That is the responsibility of the trustees, directors or whatever individuals have policy-making authority (in the case of actual Church agencies, it’s usually a bishop or religious order).  But when finance and administration function properly — operating in a way that reflects and upholds the three principles above — they permit the organization to run smoothly, to accomplish its aims, to provide for its future, and to render to God the service which is the point of the whole undertaking.  There are two main areas of concern for finance and administration which must be attended to carefully and consistently:


An organization’s existence and operations depend on its solvency and its ability to stay in compliance with the regulations affecting nonprofits.  That requires a budget, customarily established on an annual basis but analyzed more frequently using a standardized system of internal controls. Monthly financial statements and short-term reports are reviewed using pre-defined benchmarks to measure the flow of income and expenses and to evaluate the ministry’s financial performance relative to projections.  This system and other oversight procedures act to protect the organization’s assets and provide the information needed to meet government reporting requirements.

Funds collected from outside supporters are managed through a system that is consistent, accountable and secure. It should include sufficient procedural safeguards, but should not be so complicated as to increase the risk of mathematical errors, misclassification of funds, or embezzlement.

Good relationships must be maintained with the vendor firms and outside support services on which the apostolate depends. Of primary concern is paying bills on time, which requires a system for documenting transactions, tracking invoices, and recording disbursements.  Procedures that are simple and standardized are similarly advantageous on the accounts payable side, as are clear policies about personal relationships with suppliers (since the purchasing function has been known to present its own opportunities for corruption).

Finally, effective resource management requires policies for short and long-term investments that are in accord with the character and mission of a Church organization. At The Ave Maria Foundation we follow well established guidelines for Morally Responsible Investing that accept or reject investment opportunities based on consistency with Catholic teaching.


Money is not the only resource essential to an effective apostolate.  Every bit as important is the human factor.  Christ’s dictum that “Many are called, but few are chosen” is directly applicable to ministry.  There may be a large reservoir of individuals who are spiritually motivated.  The question is: Who among them have the particular talents, skills and knowledge which an organization needs.  Identifying and recruiting the right people, and then keeping them happy by meeting their needs and resolving their problems, are key responsibilities of nonprofit management (just as in the corporate world).  But the religious dimension adds its own wrinkles.

First among them is the delicate issue of faith commitment.  The constitutional guarantee of free association has come under steady challenge.  No apostolate — even no Church-owned agency — can assume that its preference for Catholic employees will always be insulated from charges of discrimination merely because the group calls itself “Catholic.”  It is increasingly necessary to emphasize the religious character of the organization and its work, making sure that prospective employees understand it fully and will be completely comfortable working in an environment saturated with a very specific set of convictions and pious practices.

Regardless of one’s faith, however, one must earn one’s daily bread.  Tom Monaghan has sold enough pizza that he can indulge his spiritual interests full-time at no pay.  But for the rest of us, that biweekly paycheck is what makes it possible to do the work we do.  Thus, setting salaries and administering payroll and benefits are central concerns of nonprofit management.

The physical processes related to compensating your employees can be handled either internally or by the many companies offering such services on a contract basis.  However, numerous questions of policy can be addressed only at the apostolate’s highest level of decision making.  Many of those questions are distinctly moral — for instance, health insurance coverage issues involving pro-life considerations, or pay questions that turn on prevailing salary rates and Church teaching about fair wages. It generally falls to finance and administration staff to provide the research, documentation and expertise on which policy decisions will be made.

One management concern unique to nonprofits, and especially to Church organizations, is the effective use of volunteers.  People willing to donate their time to ministry are an invaluable resource. Volunteers can both enlarge the talent pool and reduce costs.  Moreover, their varied life experiences and involvements in the larger community can also serve to reveal new opportunities and spread word of the apostolate’s work to other potential volunteers and supporters.

However, having people working outside the official structure of compensation and authority can create circumstances that demand a nuanced approach to supervision and human relations.  People who don’t “do ministry for a living” don’t always do it for completely altruistic reasons.  God loves those who act purely from a good heart, but there are some for whom the religious impulse gets all mixed up with ego, emotional need, or just a craving for some way to pass the time.  Any of those motives can produce good and valuable work, but a certain emotional fragility can be part of the package.

Appreciation is the indispensable element in working with volunteers.  The need to be recognized and thanked is especially urgent.  That is understandable and appropriate. But the intensity of this very human need makes it crucial that no person, no act, no good intention be overlooked.  Additionally, volunteers who work for an organization over an extended time can begin to assume a proprietary interest, injecting themselves into areas that are not their legitimate concern, and even speaking on behalf of the ministry without any authorization to do so.  It is essential to provide clear guidelines for volunteer work and clear policies on volunteer responsibility, so that conflicts and resentment can be avoided.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of personnel management in a Church organization is handling the difficult, though often inevitable, situation of dismissing employees.  At The Ave Maria Foundation we have had to discontinue funding for entities which we felt had no realistic hope of success.  This prompted the loss of jobs held by competent, dedicated people who, in some instances, had been struggling valiantly against impossible odds.  We’ve also encountered cases where individuals were wrongly hired for our own staff — individuals of whom it must be said that the strength of their faith didn’t compensate for deficiencies in skill or personality, causing serious organizational problems.

Christian charity demands that such situations be handled in the most humane way possible.  Every effort must be made to create opportunities for proven employees to serve the ministry in alternative roles.  And those who must be let go should be assisted in finding other work (or even in obtaining any counseling which might be needed to address troubling personal issues).  Practicality also dictates a generous approach.  People are unfortunately eager to intuit hypocrisy behind what they see as a “facade” of holiness.  Reputation is one of the greatest assets of any apostolate, and it is easily tarnished.

Enjoying a Rare Privilege

Managing a Church organization requires special care and sensitivity.  It isn’t always easy to know what’s right or to do the right thing, but it is essential to create arrangements that make the best possible use of the fiscal and human resources available, and that exploit the practical virtue which ministry encourages.  In that way the money, time and work dedicated to accomplishing your mission can bring you closer to your ultimate goal.  As stated in Proverbs 11:14, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  I would turn that around to say: Organizational success depends on wise administration.

But such effort is the price one pays for the rare privilege of working in a unique setting where values are shared and supported, and where expressions of belief are unconstrained by religious self-consciousness.  It is a blessing (and a particular advantage) that those very qualities of Church organizations contribute to administrative success.  This atmosphere of spiritual unity encourages prayer, and prayer is the key to translating faith into human benefit.

At The Ave Maria Foundation, Mass is celebrated four times a day in our own chapel.  We also have opportunities to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, participate in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and go to confession. Also, we typically begin our meetings with a prayer.  And, there is ample encouragement of private devotions, including the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.  I, myself, begin each morning by dedicating my day to the Lord at morning Mass, and I try to set aside the 15 minutes it takes me to drive home each night for reflection on the day just completed.

All of these practices help to clear away the fog of daily worries, opening the mind for insight and inspiration.  They also encourage a spirit of thankfulness for the opportunity to do the Lord’s work — which is the spirit that makes us eager to do it any day of the week.

So I believe it is possible to integrate your faith into your professional life.  If, like me, you are blessed to work in a Church organization, you truly can say, “Thank God, it’s Monday.”

• • •

Feature Article

Late ’00s

Essay on administration of religious ministries developed in consultation with Paul Roney, Executive Director of The Ave Maria Foundation — originally given as a seminar presentation and later published

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