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Some want to run the Church like a business. This is a very bad idea

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So, how has it been for you? I mean, of course, GDPR, the new rules on data protection, that, according to some, were going to wreak havoc in Church life and be a real headache for parish priests. While this report of a church not praying for people because of GDPR related concerns represents an exaggeration, certain things are true.

First of all, GDPR is a headache for the clergy, given that they are responsible for what goes on in the parish, and the buck stops with them. If anyone were to create trouble over GDPR, and the parish were to be found to be breaking the law, the parish priest would be the one who would have to answer for it. This is of course unlikely, but the fact remains that GDPR is just another thing for the parish priest to have to deal with.

While the idea behind GDPR is quite a good one, and it is certainly praiseworthy that we should have the right in law to have our data forgotten about, this legislation is clearly aimed at the titans in the field of data harvesting, and not at the minnows, such as parishes. But it may make life difficult for parishes as an unintended consequence. It gets harder and harder to access and pass on information these days, something that predates GDPR. Quite often this is absurd – for example when schools will not tell you which child is in which class, or when hospitals will not tell you if there are any Catholics in the hospital, despite the fact that people may have registered as Catholics on admission.

In the meantime, I have not noticed any falling off in the junk emails and junk phone calls I receive on a daily basis, despite asking these people to unsubscribe me or remove my details from their database.

I mention all this because just recently, in the United States, the Catholic University of America is offering a specialised degree course in ecclesial business management. We are told that the course “gives priests the practical knowledge and skills they need in areas such as financial administration, human resource management, strategic and operational planning, canon law, and other areas related to administration and management while placing it within the broader context of Catholic social teaching and the mission of the Church. Every priest, whether he is new to administration or he wants to hone a skill set he has already learned, can benefit from this program.”

The Vatican already runs something similar for new bishops, but this course is aimed specifically at parish priests, who, in America, may well run what looks like, to British eyes, a small corporation. And yet, I wonder, do parish priests really need this sort of training on top of the six years’ training they have already received in seminary?

From one perspective, the answer must be yes. The seminary course is overwhelmingly philosophical and theological and may not equip a priest for many of the tasks he has to face in a parish. It is simply not good enough for the priest to object when faced with practical matters that “That was not the job I was ordained to do.” He does need certain practical skills. Ideally he can recruit volunteers to help him, but this still requires a bit of understanding of what tasks he is recruiting people to collaborate with; and in the end, he is the one who gets into trouble if it all goes pear-shaped.

But at the same time, is a parish a business? I hear it constantly lamented that various professions have been “taken over by accountants.” Publishers used to be run by people who loved books, restaurants by people who loved food, and so on, but they have all been replaced, so the lament goes, by people who only care about the bottom line, the profit and the loss. One often hears it about schools too: teachers and heads in particular are chosen for their business skills, not their love of learning or their love of the young. And it has even been said about the Church of England: the current Archbishop of Canterbury was an oil executive; the Bishop of London our chief nurse.

It would be awful if parish priests became executives, and if their role, from being pastoral, became one of cold administration. It has to be said that administrative skills are useful, but administrative skills alone will not make a good priest; and that there are many good priests who were and are terrible administrators. But, as the Church grows and becomes more and more like a business, then administrators will come to dominate.  But a Church that grows in that way, may well become less like the Church the Lord intended it to be. The obvious example of this is the German Church, as Pope Benedict himself pointed out. It is a giant corporation, with thousands of employees, but is it in fact any good as a Church? A look around the empty pews would indicate not, as this magazine has suggested in the past.

“You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys,” as someone once supposedly said. But when we try to run the Church as a business, disaster inevitably follows – for the Church ceases to be the Church. Perhaps we should give greater prayer a chance, and start at least with a few Hail Marys. Though I doubt that would cut much ice when the GDPR police come to call.