Religious institutes keep themselves professionally staffed

I covered the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee, and in 2015 in Houston. This year, I instead covered the Resource Center for Religious Institutes' national conference in southern California.

Both were gatherings of hundreds of women religious. Both had me spending several days in hotel conference rooms. Both were extremely air conditioned inside and sunny and warm outside. Both were even put on by Nix Conference & Meeting Management.

But that's about where the similarities end. For one, RCRI is not limited to women religious: There are also brothers and priests. Nor is it limited to religious — many attendees were the lay financial people employed by religious institutes. On a practical level, that meant that rather than one male drop in a sea of women religious, I was one of a small minority of men.

More importantly, where LCWR gatherings are rightly geared toward leadership issues, RCRI is much more down in the weeds. For example, one session was on how to structure the corporation of a sponsored nonprofit so that a religious institute can still legally wield control but also minimize its risk and liability. Another session examined court cases and legislation that affects religious institutes and their ministries, such as medical privacy law and insurance coverage for abortion.

Another key difference: Where LCWR gatherings do not draw members of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, RCRI membership includes institutes from both leadership groups, allowing all sisters to unite in their need for education and training. Add in the priests, brothers and laity, and you have a group much more like the church itself: people of every background coming together for a common cause.

Sisters and swag

Another thing I learned: Religious institutes are big money. Yes, numbers may be falling, and yes, institutes across the country are downsizing. But they still have hundreds of millions of dollars in retirement funds that need to be invested, and they have finances to manage and facilities to run.

Of the 74 vendors at the conference, 37 were primarily investment managers. Not surprisingly, almost all of them handle socially responsible investments either exclusively or as a key part of their offerings to religious institutes. There were 11 financial management firms represented, as well as insurance companies and consultants, architects, five accounting firms, facility and property management companies, and even two different fleet management firms.

Of course, they didn't just have booths set up: They had booths set up with free swag to draw you in. There was no shortage of fair-trade chocolates, all types of candy, several types of lip balm, two different fancy soaps, several touch-screen cleaning cloths, sunglasses (very welcome if you happen to be in southern California and, ahem, forgot yours), notepads and pens galore, business-card holders, planners and even T-shirts.

One vendor told me she jokes with her friends that she's a finance professional by day and a giver of free soap by night.

Do the candy and trinkets work? I don't know. But I do know that even a small community can have an investment portfolio of more than $10 million, making breath mints a pretty small expense if you're able to snag a new account. I also know that candy and trinkets make your children very happy to see you when you return home.

In good hands

I am a geek. In my old life as a daily newspaper reporter, I was the one who loved using Excel spreadsheets and creating databases. I know more about nonprofit law than many and more about property taxes and zoning than most people ever want to know. I even know how to read the financial statements of a bank.

So I was right at home at the RCRI conference, as the attendees were the people whose job it is to know the details of otherwise obscure topics. Still, being in the religious world rather than the municipal government or civil world, there was still some language I had to learn, most notably a term heard in almost every session I attended: public juridic person.

I won't bore you with the details of what it is (or explain the difference between a public and private juridic person), but I bring it up to make a point that's largely taken for granted in the Catholic church but frequently missed in the secular world, and one that is especially important as Election Day nears: Institutions large and small need professionals to run them. Period.

There are myriad legal and practical issues (and within the church, canonical issues) that affect them, and meaning well simply isn't good enough. These professionals have to be paid like professionals. They need training and continuing education. They need decent benefits. And none of this is cheap.

You would never want, say, a Catholic school principal who knows nothing about education and thinks teachers are leeches upon the church treasury. But that seems to be exactly the model many look for in a politician. That may be a legitimate position, but then you have no right to complain when the lines for government services are long and the workers incompetent.

After spending several days with about 500 of the people running religious institutes, however, I can tell you that most communities do not at all suffer from the same mentality. Rather, the institutes that sisters, brothers and priests belong to seem to be in very good hands, indeed.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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