Parish Annual Reports Provide Accountability To All

September 19, 2008

Stewardship, The Pilot

By Craig B. Gibson                  

Like many parishes around the country, Boston area parishes have been distributing income and expense statements to parishioners for years. But in 2002, in the wake of the Church crisis, a small number of Boston parishes, like St. Mary in Winchester and St. Patrick in South Lawrence decided they wanted to go further. They worked with their parish finance councils to identify ways to provide more details and better information about the finances and accomplishments of the parish. They began to include information about how the parish was growing, attendance at Mass, and growing volunteer participation in many life changing ministries that touch the lives of many parish families. These parishes and others were responding to an energized laity that had begun to crave more information.

Of all the lessons the Catholic Church has learned in the past few years, perhaps the one that will have the most lasting effect is the laity’s increased desire for transparency and accountability. But how do parishes transform the need, desire and will to provide laity the information they want into a practical plan of action? How does a pastor translate the affirmation–we believe in increased accountability–into the day-to-day activities of the parish?

In the Boston area, the epicenter of the Church’s recent challenges, many parishes are taking concrete steps toward rebuilding the bridge of trust by, first, increasing communication between the pastor and the parishioners; and second, making that communication a two-way process. One communications vehicle chosen by a growing number of parishes is a brief and effective annual report. The format is deliberately concise to encourage more parishioners to read and understand the important highlights about parish accomplishments and finances.

In addition to providing a context for financial information, this annual report format often includes a tool for parishioners to rate the report, provide feedback and offer advice. St. Mary’s has innovated with something that intuitively might seem simple, but is rarely done: they included with each parish’s annual report a survey that asked for a rating and specific feedback on each section of the report. The survey also gave respondents an opportunity to comment on the parish in general.

“As a tool to get feedback, this is wonderful,” said Father Richard Messina, pastor of St. Mary’s. The responses are completely anonymous, but Father Messina sees a survey summary report that presents the data. “People who are dissatisfied may be more comfortable in being honest if they know the source is anonymous,” said Father Messina. “They can respond in confidence, and we need to know. We are blessed to receive a lot of positive feedback.”

Past surveys found that over 90 percent of the parishioners thought the St. Mary’s Annual Report was very informative. Also, 86 percent rated the coverage of parish activities and ministries as the most important part of the report. “People need to be reminded of all the educational, faith formation and outreach services that their parish provides,” said Father Messina.

While a parish annual report plays a critical role in communicating the mission and engaging parish members through relevant sharing of financial information, it must be regarded as one of many tools to boost community participation. If the parish is genuinely growing and sharing a common mission, you’ll see people responding with giving more time in prayer and additional service in the parish. Parishes publishing a parish annual report frequently experience new commitments of time through prayer. In addition, theses parishes typically see new interest and involvement in parish ministries, and almost always experience an increase in weekly and grand annual giving. These faith-filled responses are a reflection of new bonds of trust from enhanced transparency and accountability.

Annual reports that are succeeding in Boston area parishes provide a good balance between engaging readers in the mission of the parish and responding to those who want to look more closely at how finances are received, managed and allocated to successfully advance the mission of the parish. Annual reports are needed to build trust, acknowledge support, set goals and minimize conflict. All of these ingredients contribute to the building of a deeper sense of community.

 

 

Craig B. Gibson serves as President of the Board of Trustees for The Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of Boston

This article originally appeared in a special “Stewardship” section of The Pilot on September 19, 2008

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