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Archdiocese adopts new finance model

Some question timing, wisdom of asking all parishes to tithe 18 percent of revenue

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / July 6, 2010

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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, moving to stabilize its finances and replace an old-fashioned patchwork of parish taxes and fees, is rolling out a new financial model in which all parishes will be expected to contribute 18 percent of their weekly offertory, “grand annual’’ fund-raising drive, and net rental income to the archdiocese’s central ministries.

Thirty-three parishes are participating in a yearlong test of the program that began July 1. All parishes will transition to the new system next year.

The change is occurring at a time when the archdiocese hopes to balance its budget for the first time in years, but still faces a severely depleted priest pension fund, declining Mass attendance, and a drop in Catholic school enrollment. One-third of the 291 parishes in Greater Boston ended the 2009 fiscal year in the red.

Last week the archdiocese announced it would eliminate 21 staff positions through layoffs, attrition, and other adjustments, which will allow it to target limited resources toward its top priorities, such as evangelization, care for the poor, and parochial schools.

The archdiocese is also closing its offices early on Fridays this summer to compensate lay workers for going without a raise for the third straight year and to save on energy costs.

The new parish finance model, which the archdiocese calls a form of tithing, is not designed, at least initially, to raise more money for the archdiocese than the parishes are currently contributing. Instead, church officials say, the primary objective is to establish a fairer and simpler system in which all parishes contribute the same share of their income to help fund the archdiocese’s central ministries.

In the 2010 fiscal year, which ended June 30, parish taxes, fees, and the annual Catholic Appeal raised about $20 million of the archdiocese’s $34 million budget. Just over half of parishes are already exceeding or meeting the archdiocese’s new expectations, according to church officials, but about 46 percent will have to step up their fund-raising.

The archdiocese is pushing parishes to hire professional fund-raising consultants to encourage parishioners to give more generously and consistently. “Hopefully it will be a win-win situation in terms of greater fund-raising and in terms of a greater relationship between the various ministries and the outreach of the Archdiocese of Boston,’’ said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese.

Some parishioners, however, question the wisdom of introducing the new program amid an economic recession and the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and so soon after the closure of about 60 parishes.

“I think the abuse crisis and the reconfiguration process engendered a great deal of mistrust . . . and some of that has been demonstrated by a lack of contributions,’’ said Chris O’Brien, a member of Corpus Christi-St. Bernard Parish in Newton, one of the parishes in the pilot program. “I think now what we are seeing is that the archdiocese is coming in on a financial level and simply taking what they want from parishes.’’

Warren Hutchison, a member of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Brookline, said he wants the archdiocese to succeed, but he thinks the new system is the wrong approach.

“What it very well may do is dissuade people from giving to their local parishes, because they feel they’re being forced to give to the archdiocese,’’ he said.

But archdiocesan officials say the parishes and the archdiocese are interdependent; both must be financially sound to carry out the church’s social and spiritual missions. They also say the new model is more equitable and transparent than the present one, which requires parishes to pay fees to support services provided by the archdiocese, such as schools, auditing, and hospital chaplaincy. The parishes are also expected to help the archdiocese raise money through the annual Catholic Appeal.

The result, archdiocesan officials say, is a confusing and unfair system in which parishes contribute widely varying proportions of their income — from 2 percent to 35 percent.

The new system was created by a committee of priests, archdiocesan staff, and laypeople, and is similar to the model used by about two-thirds of the 30 or so other US dioceses the committee surveyed.

After being assessed 10 percent of its base revenue, each parish will also be asked to raise the equivalent of 8 percent of its base revenue for the Catholic Appeal. Parishes that exceed their Catholic Appeal goal will be allowed to keep half of the overage.

“It’s a more equitable way of dealing with things, and it prevents us from being nickeled-and-dimed to death for the various fees we pay,’’ said the Rev. Rodney Copp, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Waltham.

Some Catholics are concerned, however, that not all parishes will have the wherewithal to meet those goals, given the sour economy and declining Mass attendance.

“How many times do you go to the well?’’ said Mary Akoury, who sits on the finance council of St. Albert the Great Parish in Weymouth, but noted that she was speaking only for herself. “There will always be a certain percentage of parishioners, God bless them, that if you ask, they will give — and they give, and they give, and they give. There are many others who can only give what they can afford.’’

Erikson said that abatements will be granted to parishes that cannot meet their goals for economic reasons and that the archdiocese will work with parishes that are having difficulty raising money.

“We don’t judge parishes on their financial capability or performance; we judge parishes on their ability to bring people to Christ,’’ he said. “We have many parishes in very poor parts of our archdiocese who may not be making it financially, but they are at the heart of our efforts for evangelization.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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