Administration as Christian Discipleship

Christ founded an institutional Church; it is a gift to help keep it running smoothly


Although the words “ministry” and “administration” contain the same root, most pastors have little enthusiasm for the kind of tasks involved in administration. This was the firm conclusion of an extensive national study of Catholic and Protestant pastors done by the Lilly Endowment some years ago — and later followed up by a second round. The title given to the results of their study tells the tale: “The Reluctant Steward.”

Most priests and parish pastoral staff members recognize that administrative tasks are necessary. The facilities have to be maintained; salaries have to be paid; schedules for meetings have to be arranged; and the heartbreak of personnel problems don’t go away. Yet many pastors yearn to spend their time in the direct pastoral work of preaching, teaching, visiting the sick and celebrating the sacraments. Administration is viewed as something of a necessary evil or work that pulls one away from a pastor’s first love. Hence, reluctant stewards!

I have not served as the pastor of a parish and have been involved in parish life only on an occasional weekend. My primary ministry as a priest has been teaching Scripture — a work of the ministry I consider my first and last love. But circumstances led me to full-time work in administration as the president for 23 years of Catholic Theological Union, one of the largest theology schools in the United States. This was not a position I had sought but one for which I was drafted. At first I was reluctant, too. I rather would be spending my time studying the Scriptures, writing about them and teaching our students and giving workshops about the beauty of God’s word. Instead I found myself immersed in fundraising, budgeting, troubleshooting, personnel issues, strategic planning and working with a group of colleagues on the host of things necessary to keep an institution alive.

Over time, however, I began to view administrative work in a different light. I often compare my experience to that of an arranged marriage. I did not choose my “spouse” (a full-time administrative position), but over time I came to cherish it. More and more I realized that the tasks of administration are also a form of ministry, an expression of Christian discipleship.

The Institutional Church

A starting point is to realize that institutional structures, and the work of administration that enables such structures to be effective, are essential to the life of the Church. If you were to Google the term “institutional church” you would encounter no less than 57,500,000 items! Although I explored only a fraction of these, I discovered that the vast majority have a negative view of the “institutional church.” For many of the articles and comments on this topic, the words “institution” and “church” should not go together. Many of the comments stemming from more “free church” traditions view the institutionalization of the church as a sad departure from its original and essentially charismatic nature. Jesus, they claim, did not want to create an institution but a loving community of faith.

Vatican II on the role of the
laity in administration
“As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet
and king, the laity have their work cut out for them
in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so
necessary within the Church communities that without
it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve
its full effectiveness. … They bring to the Church people
who perhaps are far removed from it, earnestly cooperate
in presenting the word of God especially by means of
catechetical instruction, and offer their special skills
to make the care of souls and the administration of
the temporalities of the Church more efficient and effective.”

Apostolicam Actuositatem, No. 10

While one can only agree that Jesus wanted to create a community of disciples bound by love, it is far from the mark to suggest that Jesus was opposed to the Church being an institution — that is, a community with structures and organization and all that goes into supporting an institution. For one thing, Jesus himself belonged to a religion that was also institutional. Jesus revered and frequented the Jerusalem Temple — among the largest human structures in the entire first-century world. It was an institution that required an elaborate means of financial support from Jews all over the Mediterranean world, a place whose worship was maintained by well-organized cadres of professional priests and attendants, a place that had to provide services for thousands of pilgrims who came there for sacrifice and worship throughout the year. We know from the Gospels that Jesus frowned on some of the abuses surrounding the Temple commerce and criticized some of the motivation of those who supported it financially. But Jesus, during his lifetime and that of his earliest followers in the wake of his resurrection, frequented the Temple and revered it as the house of God.

And we also know that a big part of Jesus’ ministry took place in the synagogues of Galilee — another facet of the institutional life of Judaism, then and now. Synagogues were vital institutions for Jewish life, located in towns and villages and providing the locus for worship, education and other community activities. The synagogues, where, the Gospels note, Jesus went “according to his custom” (Lk 4:16), involved buildings, administrators, financial support, schedules, etc. Luke’s account of Jesus’ first day of ministry places him in a synagogue with an attendant (paid, by the way) assisting Jesus with the scroll from which he would read and preach (cf. Lk 4:16-30). In another Gospel scene we learn of the “leader of the synagogue” who is upset that the Sabbath schedule has been disrupted (Lk 13:14), and in Matthew we learn that Jesus instructs Peter to pay the half-shekel tax used for the upkeep of the Temple for himself and Jesus (17:24-27). The Acts of the Apostles tells us that when Paul began his missionary work throughout Asia Minor and then into Greece, he usually would go first to the local Jewish synagogue to preach, a pattern already set by Jesus himself.

We might also note that the earliest church formed by the Spirit of God in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection immediately became involved in institutional life. They organized themselves so they could meet in various homes and frequent the Temple together (cf. Acts 2:42-47). To offset some perceived inequity, the apostles established deacons to make sure the distribution of goods was carried out fairly for both Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking people in need (Acts 6:1-7). The apostles gathered to choose a successor for Judas (Acts 1:15-26). They organized a meeting to settle some important questions about the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 15:1-35). Collections were taken up in Antioch to help with a famine in Judea (Acts 11:29). Leaders were appointed in various local churches. Paul even managed to take up a massive collection for the poor of Jerusalem involving weekly collections for a year in each of the communities he had evangelized (2 Cor 8, 9), and Paul himself declared that he deserved a salary for his work, even though he chose to forego it (1 Cor 9:1-18). Such activities — and there are many more one could cite — reflect an institutional church, one requiring personnel, funding, facilities, schedules, salaries and planning.

Incarnation and Institution

There is a fundamental theological principle underlying the Church’s nature as an institution. The Christian community is incarnational. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, became human in order to carry out his mission of love for the world. Jesus, truly divine, was also truly human. The Word becoming flesh in John’s Gospel (cf. 1:14) does not simply refer to the moment of Jesus’ conception, but it refers to his entire embrace of the human reality: a human body with all its needs, living within a particular moment of time and history, embedded in a particular culture with its language and customs, carrying out his mission in a definable place with its environment and unique settings, living a life marked by time — as Luke’s Gospel reminds us — and therefore developing in wisdom and age and grace (Lk 2:52). Jesus could not carry out his God-given mission to the world if he were invisible or disembodied.


The Church, too, is embodied, is incarnational. To be an authentic and enduring community of human beings, the Church has to be incarnate — to be immersed in all those aspects of life that are necessary to nourish a community, to make it visible and to enable it to endure over time — thus needed are a place and a designated time to gather for worship or mutual support, and financial and other types of resources to maintain such a place, with volunteers and paid leaders and staff to help gather and sustain a community. The Christian community is inherently universal — that is, while gathered locally, it experiences communion with followers of Jesus worldwide — thus increasing the need for other types of institutional structures and means.

The community also has a history; it remembers its ancestors and thinks about its future. Therefore it keeps records of baptisms and first Communions and funerals; it has membership lists; some parishes even take a census. Even a community that uses an abundance of technology to communicate among its members still needs someone to formulate the messages, maintain the servers, develop the lists and pay for the equipment — in other words, institutionalize!

All of this might seem self-evident, but I think sometimes it is important to take inventory of all of the practical realities necessary to maintain a human community, including the human community of the Church. For many in our Western culture there is a profound suspicion of institutions and, in particular, institutionalized religion. We all have heard the declaration, “I am spiritual but not religious.” But history tells us that a community built only on a possibly shared spiritual experience, but without genuine human, physical engagement with other believers, is likely to dissipate over time and remain basically invisible and individualistic. The capacity of such a spiritual communion to offer a public witness regarding its values and purpose would be severely limited.

Mission Is Key

The problem is not that the Church is an institution but that the components of its institutional life can go astray without constant attention to its ultimate mission and purpose. All too sadly we are aware of this at the present moment. If a priest or religious or bishop fails to care for vulnerable victims of abuse or even become perpetrators of such abuse, then such leaders violate a fundamental purpose of the Church’s mission. The gross failures in these areas that have been coming to light over the past few years have dealt a serious blow to the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the world.

Collaboration with parishioners and parish staff members is key to keeping Christ’s Church thriving. Lightstock

But the failure to be attentive to the mission of the Church and the virtues and practices that promote that mission is also found in other areas of the Church’s life. If someone entrusted with the financial resources of a school or parish or hospital embezzles the Church’s funds or foolishly squanders them, they betray the mission of the Church. If a parish or school fails to pay a just wage to its employees or does not establish proper personnel policies and procedures, they blunt the Church’s witness to its mission. If the pastor or members of the pastoral staff treat others harshly or fail to protect the rights of their employees and their working conditions, such poor personnel policies work against the very mission of the Church.

In many instances, it is not that there is something wrong or false about the components of a church institution, but there can be a lack of coherence, a failure of the various sectors and personnel to work in harmony for the benefit of the whole. Various parts of an institution and the personnel who work there can become siloed — each working diligently in their own sphere but not in synchronization with on another toward a common mission. Even very good and dedicated people within an institution can find themselves in chronic tension or in competition with others who are called to work for the same common mission of witness and outreach. Paul called on the members of the Church in Corinth to be aware that each one’s unique gifts were meant for the good of the whole “body” and that all derived from the “same Spirit” (cf. 1 Cor 12:4-12). And throughout Paul’s letters there are earnest appeals to avoid factions and for the members of the community to work in harmony (cf. Phil 2-4; 1 Cor 1:10-17).

The mission orientation of the Church is absolutely fundamental and goes to the heart of Christian faith. Missiologists note that first and foremost is the missio Dei — the mission or intention of God out of love to heal and redeem the world. The missio Christi embodies and reveals the full scope of God’s mission of forgiving love for the world. In Misericordiae Vultus, the bull of indiction for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis beautifully wrote, “Jesus is the human face of the Father’s mercy.” And the missio ecclesiae is the Spirit-driven extension of this same divine mission to the world. The focus on the “world” is important. The Church does not live or work for its own sake. Put another way, the goal of the Christian mission ultimately is not to build up the Church but to work for the redemption of the world.

‘Unceasingly Serve Others’
”Since the priesthood is given to us so that
we can unceasingly serve others, after the
example of Christ the Lord, the priesthood
cannot be renounced because of the
difficulties that we meet and the sacrifices
asked of us.”

Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Priests on
Holy Thursday 1979

The Church exercises that God-given mission in two fundamental ways. By living as a community of believers bound together in love and justice, the Church gives a witness to the world of what, even if only in a fragmentary way, union with God can mean, of how we as children of the one God should be to one another. And along with this witness through the quality of their life in community, the members of the Church also are called to reach out in an active way to the world and to work for healing, for reconciliation, for justice and peace. The Church is not meant to be a community turned in on itself.

It is this mission of both communal witness and Christian action in the world that provides the rationale and purpose for every feature of the Church as an institution. The components of the Church’s institutional life will vary according to the nature of its particular institutional expression. The structure and makeup of a parish will be different from that of a university or a Catholic hospital. The components of a diocesan Catholic charity organization will be different from that of its chancery or pastoral center. But in each case the mission of the Church should be the ultimate focus and guide.

The articulation of that mission and ensuring it is the focus of all the personnel and structures of a Church institution is the prime responsibility of leadership, whether a pastor in a parish or a president of a university or the administrator of a hospital or the bishop of a diocese, the nature of its fundraising, the prudent use of human and financial resources, the design and care of its facilities, the message it projects to its friends and donors, the policies that ensure equity and justice for its employees, the environment that rules within its doors and the hospitality shown to all — all of these should be credible expressions of the Church’s mission. I am convinced that one of the most important practices that a leader of a Christian community embodied in an institution can perform is in various ways and from time to time to encourage the members of that community to be aware of their mission, to think through together its implications for all the facets of their institution and to make the necessary adaptations to ensure the ongoing vitality of their mission-oriented work.

Some parishes, usually larger ones, have the resources that enable the pastor to delegate to other qualified staff many of the specific administrative tasks required. In some smaller parishes and ones that are poor, the pastor will have to take on direct administrative duties to keep the community alive. But I am convinced that in every instance, if a pastor accepts his role as a leader of a local Christian community, he will have to be aware of, foster and support those in direct administrative roles. And above all, as leader of the community, the pastor or chief administrator must have a mission focus and enable all the components of the community to move in that direction together.


Viewing administrative tasks as an essential way of continuing the Christian mission in the world enables us to see administration as a vital form of discipleship. Paul lists administration as one of the “gifts of the Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Paul seems to rank other gifts ahead of this one — for example, apostles, prophets, teachers and healers. Few would contest that ranking. The works of preaching and teaching and healing directly reflect the activities of Jesus’ own ministry portrayed in the Gospels. Yet Paul did not forget that administrators, too, were vital for the Christian community.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus blesses Peter and declares, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (16:18). Centuries later, Francis of Assisi, when passing by the ruins of the church of San Damiano, heard a voice tell him to “rebuild my church.” In each instance we know that “build my church” did not refer simply to the physical construction of a church building but to the formation of a vital Christian community. Constructing a vital Christian community includes a compelling proclamation of the Gospel and the conversion of hearts to embrace it. But at the same time, for such a community of love and justice to endure, some are called to create, to protect and to nourish the necessary human structures and practices that help such a community take flesh. That is how communities, including churches, are built. And that is the gift of administration.

FATHER DONALD SENIOR, CP, is president emeritus and chancellor of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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