Pastoral Administration Book Review: “A Pastor’s Toolbox”

A Pastor’s Toolbox: Management Skills for Parish Leadership, Ed. Paul A. Holmes (Liturgical Press, 2014)

This is one of many books that aim to equip Catholic parish ministers with the leadership, managerial, and administrative skills to be successful in parish (or any) ministry.

In the Introduction, Holmes writes, “with all the requisite education in philosophy and theology that seminaries must provide future pastors, in addition to all the needed formation in spiritual and pastoral care, our seminaries can do little to prepare priests to deal with the difficult temporal issues pastors face” (p. 1). 

That’s probably the reality. Though, I’m kind of skeptical to think that seminaries can’t do a better job of this. Or, maybe dioceses have to take matters into their own hands, with in-depth pre-pastoral continuing education for new priests serving as associate pastors who don’t happen to have a pre-seminary background that prepared them for leadership of a sizable organization (like a parish). Same goes for lay ministry formation programs.

Anyhow, the problem exists. The greatest strength (and weakness) of A Pastor’s Toolbox is that it is specifically focused on priests serving as pastors. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are specifically tailored for priestly ministry as a pastor. Chapter 2 highlights three overarching responsibilities of the pastor: 1) to be the keeper of the vision, 2) selecting a staff, and 3) assessing the needs of the parish. Great list! Helps keep the pastor focused on the big picture and setting conditions (through staff selection and needs assessments) rather than being too operations focused, and not delegating enough (p. 23). In the many parishes I’ve been a part of, there does seem to be a tendency among pastors to not delegate enough. I think this flows from their authentic love for the flock and servant leadership, which translates to not wanting to burden others. While the motivation is virtuous, it’s shortsighted and ultimately limits the mission of the parish.

Chapter 3 “A Six-Month Game Plan” for new pastors is especially useful as a practical guide. Focusing on priests in pastoral leadership is important because many of the other books I’ve reviewed stretch more broadly into leadership and management, and just maybe, there are some priests out there who think “this stuff is for my business manager,” and tune out. The opening chapters of this book should get every seminarian, future pastor, or pastor’s attention. This is a good thing. It makes A Pastor’s Toolbox an outstanding resource for any Pastoral Administration course that includes seminarians.

On the flip side, if you’re preparing for non-priestly leadership or management in a parish, you can probably just skip the first three chapters. It’s a nice-to-know perspective, but not something you can act on.

Some of the other best practices from the first three chapters that are most needed in parishes (and involve more than just the pastor’s initiative) include:

  • having annual study/reflection/planning days that include the whole staff stepping away (I know Church of the Nativity, aka the Rebuilt parish does this; and Patrick Lencioni explains the concept well as a quarterly meeting, and I tend to think most parishes need 2x per year or quarterly meetings for this).
  • mailing every registered parishioner a financial statement for the parish each year (so that even those who don’t attend Mass and might typically receive it in the bulletin have a chance to read it–promotes transparency)
  • keeping relationships transparent by channeling friends/parishioners who want to talk to you (the pastor) about something (i.e. why not to do a new building project) to the correct formal forum, such as setting them up for coffee with the parish council member leading investigation into a building project (p. 33-34)

The other chapters in the book focus on particular areas and would be valuable for almost any pastoral leadership/administration course (i.e. for lay persons, deacons, etc.). Chapter 5 “Developing a Comprehensive Human Resources Program,” Chapter 7 “Best Practices in Parish Internal Financial Controls,” and Chapter 12 “Parish Planning” are outstanding. These should definitely make it onto your formal (or informal 🙂 ) reading list.

Some of the best tidbits from Chapter 7 (Finance) include:

  • only 9% of parishes hold open budget meetings! (p. 79) — don’t do this, be transparent. I can certainly attest to this, of the many parishes I’ve been a part of only one was highly transparent about the annual budgeting process. In all the others, finance council meetings weren’t even announced. 😦
  • giving via EFT (electronic funds transfers) tends to increase giving by 30% (p. 82) — that’s pretty significant! I can also see how it reduces the labor needed for counting offertory collections and reduces the opportunities for fraud. So many wins. Parishes can brainstorm ways to help people switch and to continue to ritualize the spiritual act of financial offerings (since many people are just used to putting an envelope in the collection plate/basket and feel “wrong” not doing this).

All of the other chapters are simply okay. Not the most comprehensive or best chapters I’ve read on these subjects, but certainly not bad. Chapter 9 “Pastoring and Administering a Mission-Driven Church” could use a greater focus on discipleship processes, Chapter 8 “Fundraising as christian Stewardship” could use some conversation with research on Catholic giving and giving as a spiritual practice. However, on the whole, this is a solid book with some outstanding portions, it stands out as the only book I’ve seen that’s specifically tailored for the priest/pastor role. Thanks Liturgical Press for a great resource!

On a personal note, I had a little chuckle reading the forward to this book. U.S. Army Lieutenant General (Retired) James Dubik is “where the story begins” in the creation of the Toolbox for Pastoral Management program and this book. I instantly recognized that name. Lieutenant General Dubik was the commander of MNSTC-I (pronounced “minsticky”) aka, the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq during the 2007 “surge,” the same time I was serving in Iraq. While I never worked directly with him, I heard him speak during vitual briefings. And, I remember being my commander’s notetaker during a trip to Baghdad to visit the MNSTC-I headquarters and engineer section. So, a small world 😉 and a laugh that out of the 168,000 or so  U.S. troops in Iraq during the “surge” there were at least 2 of us turning an eye toward Catholic parishes. 🙂

Here’s some more of Lieutenant General (Ret.) Dubik’s work through the Leadership Education programs at Duke Divinity School:

Your Job is to Develop People
Onward, Christian Soldier!
Managing the Asset of Time




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