An interesting thing happened at a 2012 breakfast meeting between Bishop Timothy Senior, a rector at Saint Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Howard Stoeckel, retired CEO of Wawa, a chain of convenience stores on the U.S. East Coast. As they discussed their visions of leadership, they recognized similarities between leading a business and running a parish. Stoeckel then mentioned a leadership training program designed for Wawa’s managers by the Haub School of Business at Philadelphia-based Saint Joseph’s University.
That gave Senior an idea: If management training worked for Wawa, why not for the Catholic Church? He called Haub’s dean, Joe DiAngelo, to see if the school might design a program to train Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary students in servant leadership.
That conversation led to the creation of a leadership program for seminarians designed by Ron Dufresne, associate professor of management; Eric Patton, associate professor of management; and Stephen Porth, associate dean and professor of management. To determine course topics, Dufresne, Patton, and Porth surveyed pastors and parishioners to learn the biggest issues priests face when leading a parish.
The program, which enrolls up to 15 students, is delivered over five full days spread out over several weeks. During each meeting, the seminarians discuss assigned readings on leadership themes. On day one, they talk about the fundamentals of action learning, innovation, teaching, and mentorship. On day two, they examine the concept of emotional intelligence, developed by Daniel Goleman. From there, they explore empowerment, goal setting, trust, and the importance of developing a vision and managing organizational change. The program also trains them to build more successful parish councils and form more effective advisory boards for their parish schools. The skills they learn are not that different from those required to manage a successful multifaceted business.
At program’s end, faculty give the seminarians an assignment: Put the concepts they’ve learned into practice. These assignments aren’t “projects” in the traditional sense, explains Patton. “Each man is assigned to a parish for the summer, so we challenge them all to integrate what they’ve learned into those assignments.” Faculty follow up with each seminarian twice during the summer to learn how they’re meeting that challenge. This summer, for example, one worked to build community by involving youth groups, teachers, and office staff in more of his own work. Another developed a social media plan and worked on the parish census.
The seminarians return to Haub in the fall for a final session, to share what it was like for them to motivate others, deal with conflict, manage change, and gain acceptance as newcomers in places with strong traditions, says Patton.
Next spring will mark the workshop’s third offering. Senior has asked the Haub School if it could offer another session for formation directors—mentors assigned to guide the seminarians.
DiAngelo believes that this kind of servant leadership training has become essential, now that the Catholic Church is facing a dearth of men entering the priesthood. “In Philadelphia, we had 2,000 priests 15 years ago—there are less than 500 today,” he says. “Today, a single priest might serve three or four parishes, so he must rely on laypeople to manage the church’s daily operations.” With this kind of relationship with parishioners, pastors need to emphasize consensus and team building more than in the past.
“Seminarians understand a great deal about philosophy and theology, but they often don’t learn how to deal with people,” says DiAngelo, who was once a seminarian himself. “We’re a Jesuit school, so part of our mission is to be what [16th-century Jesuit founder] Ignatius would call a ‘man or woman for others’ and to make the world a better place. This course fits right in our wheelhouse—it teaches servant leadership to seminarians, who are going to help make the Church a better place.”