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Early promotions challenge priests

Young clerics, lacking mentors, struggle with ways to manage

CLEVELAND -- The Rev. Bill Rose figured it was divine intervention when he was put in charge of St. Rose Catholic Church in the western Ohio city of Lima.

But as the youngest pastor in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo, he was in over his head. He inherited a debt and had to lay off workers and cut costs. ''It was overwhelming," the 38-year-old said.

In the 1950s, Rose would have spent years as an apprentice under several pastors to learn the skills of running a parish. Now, with a shortage of priests, young clergymen are being promoted much earlier, and dioceses have begun training priests in business practices as their careers are beginning, or while they are still in the seminary.

''It is imperative we give them capabilities to succeed as leaders," said the Rev. Dave Nuss, director of vocations for the Toledo Diocese. ''It's more than accounting and payroll."

While bookkeeping skills are important, broader management skills are just as critical, said Nuss, who routinely has priests meet with local corporate executives to glean business savvy.

Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati has been providing an elective class on parish finances since the mid-1980s, one of the first seminaries to begin doing so.

''Some of these guys are going to be the CEO of multimillion-dollar operations," said Dennis Eagan, who teaches the class, adding that many of his former students later call to thank him.

The Archdiocese of Chicago provides workshops on management and personnel issues for newly ordained priests. It also matches new pastors with mentors, a common program in large dioceses, said the Rev. Louis Cameli, the archdiocese's director of ongoing formation.

A course in pastoral administration at St. Mary's Seminary and University, a Baltimore school that trains priests for 20 East Coast dioceses, covers everything from balancing a budget to fund-raising to building maintenance.

The seminary places great importance on getting priests ready to lead parishes because some become pastors within a year of ordination, said Betty Visconage, vice president for institutional advancement.

''The faculty sees this as their primary mission," she said.

Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based group of liberal Catholics, would like to see every seminary require courses in human resources, management, and community organizing.

''Most priests want to be a priest because they want to be ministering to people, not because they want to be a manager," Schenk said. ''Most do management badly."

But the Rev. Edward J. Burns, executive director of the secretariat for vocations and priestly formation at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said each diocese has its own administrative style and therefore should be left to decide how to instruct priests.

Part of what makes appropriate training tricky is the changing face of the priesthood itself. Many men are deciding to enter the clergy later in life, and some have business backgrounds, which has helped broaden the talent base.

Decades ago, priests generally were ordained in their mid-20s. Last year, the average age of an ordained priest was 37, according to the bishops' conference.

The Rev. Brendan McGuire, 39, of Holy Spirit Parish in San Jose, Calif., was the executive director of the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association before becoming a priest. That job took him around the world, as he worked with computer giants, such as Microsoft and Fujitsu.

''Fundamentally, it's exactly what I do now," McGuire said. ''You deal with lots of different people who have their own agendas, and you have to keep everyone unified on the same standard. And this standard is Jesus Christ."

McGuire has brought business practices, including employee evaluations, to Holy Spirit, a parish of more than 4,000 people.

With such large parishes and increasing pastoral duties, such as counseling for youth and parents, some, including the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, based in Chicago, say lay people need to take over more duties. That includes watching over parish finances.

Management duties take up 80 percent of Rose's time at St. Rose and its sister parish, St. John the Evangelist. A degree in public relations has helped, but Rose is taking advantage of a local businessman's offer to send him to a two-day seminar on management skills.

''The seminary training provided me with the necessary training to be a good priest," he said. ''The training for being a good pastor came from having good role models."

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