When the Church Lights Goes Out,
They Look at You
"Together in God's Service"
By Stephen Kent
SEATTLE -- It's the type of job that, when there's a light out or a chill draft, many eyes in the congregation turn toward you. Some describe it as similar to a hospital administrator: making sure the building is maintained, the staff is paid and the budget balanced so physicians, surgeons and nurses can practice their professions.
In some dioceses, it is called parish business administrator, in others, pastoral assistant for administration. However known, the position is becoming increasingly prevalent as lay people bring their skills and gifts to benefit the temporal affairs of the church.
Few have had formal training for their roles. Some have evolved into the position from an earlier ministry, others are people who had careers in such fields as accounting and the military and now use their business and managerial skills.
John Meyer is typical of the former. He has been in parish administration over 20 years. He is pastoral assistant for administration at St. Brendan Parish in Bothell, Wash. The parish, established in 1946 when the area east of Seattle was rural "berries and dairies," now serves 5,000 parishioners in 1,500 households in the suburban software boomtown.
St. Brendan is Meyer's third position in parish management. After graduating from Western Washington University with a communications degree, he became a youth minister at a suburban Seattle parish in 1978.
"We had two priests and then one was transferred and we were down to weekend help," he recalled. "So the pastor gave me some extra administrative duties and that's how I got into administration." In 1985, he went to another north Seattle suburban parish in full time administration. Meyer came to his present position at St. Brendan in 1992.
"There I became aware of others doing similar jobs," he said. "I invited them to lunch and out of that came the Association of Parish Administrators of Western Washington." That group, which had 50 members, met regularly and had day-long sessions on such things as parish accounting software and stewardship of time and talent. The organization was later blended into the Association of Lay Ministers.
The Archdiocese of Seattle now operates a program for newly hired administrators which meets one day a month for nine months, to cover topics such as personnel management, diocesan accounting policies, and facilities management.
"The most important aspect of this position is to create credibility and integrity with the parishioners," he said. He is responsible for fund raising, budgeting, personnel and capital projects and facilities management. "But in any one day, I can do all four," Meyer said. Now a new responsibility has been added, computer technology.
Like the liturgical year, the administrative year is cyclical, according to Meyer. Fall is for fund raising through stewardship, winter is for planning and budgeting, spring for hiring staff and summer for capital projects.
"The job is one where you have to know a little bit about a lot of things," he said. He will be overseeing a major building renovation of the parish school this summer, including the heating plant and seismic retrofit.
Meyer admits to a 50-60 hour, six-day work week.
"I get tired after a while but I've been able to make it work."
"With a six-day week, I may not always want to come back on the seventh day to worship. If the light goes out at Mass, everyone turns and looks at you," he laughed.
The pastor and his assistant for administration (PAA) must have a close relationship, Meyer feels.
"The relationship with the pastor is extremely important. The pastor and PAA must be very close and must work well together," he said.
After 20 years and three parish positions, Meyer can assess the pluses and minuses of a parish administrative career.
"Working with and ministering to people of the same values I have makes a great difference. The staff is a team and is cohesive and there is the real commitment of the parishioners who give of their time and talent."
A survey taken prior to fund raising for the school renovation showed "a high degree of confidence" in the parish administration, he said.
The professional challenges are financial.
"As a parish there is never enough money. While salaries for staff have improved, they are not where they should be. This is a very tight labor market and we've had to work very hard to fill positions."
He and his wife have raised three children, now aged 17, 19 and 21. The personal challenges, he said, have been to balance job, family, and health and maintain his own spirituality. "Maintaining one's own spirituality can be a challenge," he said.
He summarizes his career. "I see myself as a minister first, a business manager second.
"God has taken extremely good care of me."
Stephen Kent is the editor of the Catholic Northwest Progress, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Seattle.