The Joy of Administration

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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The beginning of a new school year and a return to a typical work routine marks the reappearance of one of our favorite indoor sports – administration. Here I refer to the meetings and memos, the correspondence and consultation, the budgets and ballots that are intrinsic to the life of the Church today.

In referring to “favorite indoor sports” I do so guardedly, knowing that administration is the bane of pastors these days. How often have I heard pastors say, “I’m tired of worrying about administration and finances.” And the laity often chime in, “Our priests should be free from administrative duties so that they can do the real work of a priest.”

The complaint against administration climbs the ecclesial ladder too. It’s not unusual for bishops to complain about the expensive bureaucracy of the Bishops Conference or the demands and delays of the Roman Curia. And I suspect that even within the Curia, the Pope’s own offices, there are complaints about the “higher-ups” in the structure. Pity the poor Pope – to whom can he complain about the burdens of administration?

Father Peter Daly, a parish priest from Maryland, I believe, writes a very fine syndicated column for Catholic News Service in which he typically reflects upon a wide range of pastoral and spiritual topics. But in one recent offering, titled “Letter to the newly ordained,” he adds to the bludgeoning of administration. He advises the newly ordained, “You were ordained for people, not paper. The diocesan paperwork can wait; the sick person can’t.” “Stay away from money,” he adds, “It is dangerous.”

Now, while I understand Fr. Daly’s point, and I certainly applaud the corporal work of mercy in visiting the sick, it’s good to remember that neglecting “diocesan paper work” can inconvenience other people, harm their ministry, and hinder the work of the Church. Someone downtown is waiting for those insurance forms to be returned, or would you rather not have your church building insured, or medical coverage extended? Someone downtown needs to process your parish assessment, or do you expect someone else to pay your bills? I suspect Fr. Daly and other priests don’t mind paying attention to their diocesan mail if they’re looking for their paycheck. (I know – they probably use that new-fangled direct deposit idea – but you get my point.)

I recall, a few years ago, while I was knee deep in administration in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, having dinner with a young Catholic couple. We had a mutual friend, a priest who was doing missionary work in Latin America. During the conversation I was asked, “Doesn’t it bother you being stuck behind a desk while ‘Fr. John’ is doing the real work of the Church?” I replied that while “Fr. John” was doing his heroic work, I was home raising funds for his mission, arranging his health care insurance and scheduling vocation programs so that other young priests would someday continue his missionary work. “Oh,” said my young friends; “we never thought of it that way.”

The point is that administration serves a very necessary purpose. It’s not at all extraneous to the work of the Church and its priests; it’s an essential part of our ministry.

Admittedly I’m rather comfortable doing administrative chores. I’ve been told by others that I’m a good administrator. Now, I realize that saying someone is a good administrator is somewhat akin to saying that a girl “has a nice personality.” We use the phrase to avoid other shortcomings. So what if I lack the faith of Doubting Thomas, the wisdom of Aquinas or the courage of Thomas More? I’m good at organizing things, following-up on projects, running meetings, and drafting correspondence. But all this “desk work” helps the Church run smoothly. My “administration” paves the way for your “ministry.” And remember, that administration is one of the gifts of the Spirit, given for the service of the Church, according to St. Paul to the Romans.

That understanding is the key to having a positive approach to administration, or at least a truce with the concept. That, and the ability to link works of administration to the basic mission to the Church to teach, govern and sanctify. In other words, if I arrange to repair the roof of the church, I’m providing a safe and comfortable place for people to worship “in spirit and truth.” If I go through the administrative process of hiring a new principal for my school, I’m furthering the preaching of the Gospel. And if I organize a fund raiser for the “Keep the Heat On” program, I fulfill the mandate of Christ to love and to serve.

Now, experience has taught us that administration, like a bad weed, can grow out of control until it loses sight of its basic purpose. No less than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict, observed: “The bureaucracy of the Church is much like scaffolding around a beautiful building. While it might be necessary, sometimes the scaffolding is so dense that you can no longer see the building.” That’s a danger we should try to avoid. Administration is absolutely essential to the well-being of the Church, but it should be clean, neat, effective, and as invisible as possible.

So, enjoy the new school year and work year. Embrace all the challenges and rewards that come your way. Don’t hide behind your desk, but don’t run away from the administrative duties either. Properly understood, administration is your friend, not your foe.