The Catholic University of America Relaunches Program in Church Management

Faith-based master’s degree teaches best practices.

Participants attend the Aug. 14-18 in-person week of M.S. classes in Ecclesial Administration and Management (MEAM) at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.
Participants attend the Aug. 14-18 in-person week of M.S. classes in Ecclesial Administration and Management (MEAM) at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. (photo: Patrick Ryan/CUA)

In 2019 Linda Kueter suggested to one of the priests in residence at her parish, Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, that he encourage other priests to enroll in a theologically and spiritually based online graduate program through The Catholic University of America (CUA) that sought to empower clergy to implement managerial best practices. 

Before Father Anthony Lickteig, the Washington Archdiocese’s vicar for clergy and secretary for ministerial leadership, could act upon her suggestion, Washington, D.C.-based CUA’s Busch School of Business paused the program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Kueter, 51, who works in CUA’s advancement office, learned that the program was being relaunched this year as the Master of Science in Ecclesial Administration and Management (MEAM) program, she was happy to discover that the formerly clergy-only program was now open to lay and consecrated people.

When Father Lickteig learned about the opening, he told Kueter, who is active in several parish ministries, that it would be “a great opportunity” for her and that her feedback on the program would help him decide who in the archdiocese would most benefit from it. 

“My thinking at the time was that [assisting with parish management] is clearly something that I will be doing all my life, and also working with within my parish, within other parishes,” said Kueter, who has completed two courses toward a graduate certificate in Church administration (part of the master’s degree). “If this course is a chance for me to expand my knowledge, I can then take this out well beyond my parish.”

As the program enters its first full academic year since it was paused for the pandemic, its new emphasis is on co-responsibility between parish clergy and lay staff, said Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, research associate and MEAM acting director in the Busch School of Business. 

MEAM also educates students on the priest’s role in the parish and how to implement best practices in canon law and business in parishes, as well as schools, hospitals and other Catholic institutions, he said. 

Overall, Father Gahl said, “our aim is to help the priest appreciate that by being a good leader, a good manager, a good administrator he’d be a good pastor; and that should contribute to and not be separate from his life of prayer and ministry.”

The roughly 15 students enrolled this fall are mostly clergy members but include religious and laypeople from several U.S. regions and other countries. They are earning through multidisciplinary, Catholic faith-inspired coursework either a master of science degree or one-year graduate certificate in either Church leadership or Church administration.

A need to rethink the parish business model and the role of priests arises in part from interrelated national trends of decline in ordained and non-ordained religious life, local and national migration of Catholics, increasing diversity in the population, low giving among Catholic parishioners and declining Mass attendance and other parish participation, especially among younger Catholics, according to Charles Zech, professor emeritus at the Villanova School of Business, in his white paper entitled, “Building the Parish Business Model for the 21st Century.” 

A survey done that year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., revealed that 90.5% of paid parish staff involved in ministry (such as the director of religious education or music) reported to the pastor. Only 2.8% reported to a parish manager, and 2.2% report to a combination of the two, Zech stated in his paper. 

At the same time, 71% of the paid non-ministry staff (such as custodians, secretaries, etc.) reported to the pastor. Fewer than a quarter reported to a parish manager and 2.4% reported to a combination of the two.

When priests entrust and delegate some parish duties and ministries to competent lay professionals, they can better focus on their priestly ministry, including administering the sacraments and the word of God, Father Gahl said, adding lay and religious students in the program brings new perspectives on delegating. “The priest doesn’t go to seminary to learn about HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning],” he said. “He’s put in charge of a multimillion-dollar corporation that the critical issue Monday morning might be the HVAC, at least if you’re in Texas or somewhere in the South where it’s hot.”

Some pastors are overwhelmed with administrative minutia, agreed Harvey Seegers, Busch School associate dean for operations and professor of practice who presents a MEAM course on strategic and operational leadership. “They can’t do it.” 

One reason they’re less prepared for some parish responsibilities is that many seminaries aren’t paying much attention to management, said Seegers, who has held executive positions in several major corporations. “If you were to turn back the clock, let’s say 20 years, a lot of these young priests would be able to be in a parish watching the pastor work for five to 10 years before they get their own parish,” he said. “In this day and age, you’re lucky if you get two years before you get a parish; and so the need for formal management training is pronounced right now.”

In reenvisioning the program, Father Gahl and the Busch School consulted with bishops, seminary rectors, pastors and alumni about priests’ management skills and the need for parish teams, he said. 

The revised program’s framework is the theology of the priesthood, in response to the 2022 USCCB document, “Program of Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition,” which identifies necessary formation features for a healthy priestly life. 

MEAM courses draw from business, theology, canon law, technology and other disciplines and are taught by Busch School and other CUA faculty and practitioners experienced at running institutions, Father Gahl said. 

Course content includes priestly pastoral life, governance structure and canon law of temporal goods, the virtues of priestly fatherhood, fundraising and crisis management. 

The Busch School’s Church management programs, in service of the Church, “aim to promote the faith with an ecclesial effort to reform, to aid the poor, and to promote holiness throughout the world,” the Busch School’s website states. 

Seegers, who has taught a similar course in the Busch School’s master’s program, talks about how to implement the business best practices at a parish. 

Preparing his course to include lay and religious students was less of a change for Seegers than adapting it to an online format. MEAM leaders discovered before the pandemic that priests preferred the flexibility of working online to traveling to campus for the program, he said. 

Students, including Kueter, who took Seegers’ MEAM course during the summer, along with priests, two diocesan vicars general and a religious sister, gathered at the CUA campus in August for an intensive in-person study week. Besides the U.S., students came from the Philippines, Nigeria, Tanzania, India and Australia, Father Gahl said. 

Master’s student Father Chris Stanish said he is still unpacking what he learned during the intensive week. Father Stanish, who is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, started the MEAM program in the spring after hearing about it from his bishop, as well as priests who enrolled before the pandemic.

Seeking to use business principles in a greater way at the Church level, Father Stanish said what he has learned has already been useful as he oversees diocesan departments. “The classes I have taken so far have been able to give me a wide scope of how the Church and business world can be integrated.”

While he likes the flexible online format, Father Stanish said he has appreciated online and in-person discussions with other students, such as on how dioceses and parishes serve Catholics.

At both parish and diocesan levels, “many churches either don’t have a process by which they bring services to their people, or they just try to get people through,” Father Stanish said. “These discussions have really helped us to reconsider how we go about bringing people the services they need and being able to do it consistently and professionally.”

Father Stanish said he hopes the MEAM program will help faith communities better connect by equipping as many clergy and lay leaders as possible. 

The program presents a “huge opportunity” to better prepare laity to assist ordained ministers, said Kueter, who, after earning her graduate certificate, plans to go on to earn the MEAM master’s degree.

“There are many, many roles, especially within the business realm and within the pastoral planning, that laypeople can and should assist with so that our priests have more time to be the pastoral priests that they were ordained to be,” she said. “So our parishes will be all the stronger for it if we can help them in that.”