Efficiency en “Mass”

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

ADRIENNE WILLICH & ELIZABETH SHAUGHNEY: How the Archdiocese of Washington standardized reporting for 139 parishes, 63 schools & 4,500 staff

In the end, the transition proved to be surprisingly seamless.

For any church, having a complete, standardized reporting solution in place is crucial — often in the form of a church management system. But, ensuring all staff members are “fluent” in that solution can be daunting.

Now, imagine you’ve got to make it happen not only in your church, but in nearly 140 others. And by the way, you also need to introduce a standardized eGiving platform.

That was the challenge facing the Archdiocese of Washington’s (Washington, DC) Executive Director of Parish & School Financial Operations Adrienne Willich and Director of Stewardship Elizabeth Shaughney.

Fortunately, the archdiocese enjoys a long-established “corporate culture” of oversight and periodic review of financial results, which makes financial reporting straightforward. Amazingly, it has followed standardized reporting practices for more than 140 years.

“Canon Law requires that every parish have a finance council to give advice and guidance to the pastor and requires the pastor to discuss the parish’s financial results with the finance council,” Willich explains.

Additionally, every pastor must make at least an annual financial report to the Archbishop.

“So, we’ve always had reporting from the parishes to the archdiocese,” she points out. “In fact, we have — as part of our archives — a parish annual report from 1875.”

When personal computers came into existence in the 1980s, then, Willich says it was “a pretty easy sell” for all 139 parishes in the archdiocese to embrace ParishSOFT Family Suite, their church management system.

Of course, there was no internet at the time. Even with a common platform in use, reporting results to the archdiocese meant sending floppy disks (with each taken to a server room and uploaded) to achieve consolidated results. No small task, to be sure.

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After several years, accounting functions for the archdiocese were migrated to a corporate accounting system. In time — and amid a fair amount of resistance — all the parishes were required to follow suit.

“For three or four years, they really suffered for the change,” Willich recalls. “The system was just way too complex. It had functionalities that weren’t necessary for the way our parishes live and work.”

Not long after one major migration, it became clear that another was in order. Before making another move, however, the archdiocese made sure that a practical, well-informed phased approach was in place.

First, a steering committee of parishes evaluated different software packages and provided their independent views on which they liked best. When the committee made its recommendation to the Archbishop, it was a familiar one: ParishSOFT.

With his approval, parishes were identified to pilot-test the software implementation. Word quickly spread about how happy they were with it, especially because ParishSOFT had introduced a cloud-based platform.

Elizabeth Shaughney and Father Dan Carson

A silver-lining solution

Now, all 139 parishes are using the cloud-based version of ParishSOFT. For most of them, the new version is a more intuitive version of an already familiar software.

“We do provide training, but so does the vendor — tons of online help screens, frequently asked questions and an 800-number,” Willich explains.

Users can even email their questions to the vendor and receive an automated response, with links back to relevant online “help” resources. In this way, bookkeepers can use the system to teach themselves just about anything they need to accomplish with the software.

Sometimes the vendor even comes onsite to do in-person training with parishes. “And when that happens, even bookkeepers who went through the original implementation always leave saying they learned something new,” Willich points out.

For pastors — who might not be trained in accounting and bookkeeping, but definitely want the ability to access vital data about their churches — the archdiocese put together a special user guide. Step by step, it walks pastors through the processes to achieve their most-requested accounting / reporting objectives.

“This way, they can be more independent,” Willich says. “They don’t have to rely on the bookkeeper and can get the information that they want out of the ParishSOFT system.”

For example, a standard chart of accounts uses cost centers — some of them on the expense side, but most with a ministry focus. “So, by looking at a statement of activities, it’s really easy to see what the parish spent in administration versus ministry,” Willich explains.

ParishSOFT also has a project-reporting functionality that lets a pastor see the revenue generated and costs associated with any project run by volunteers or a ministry team.

“Using this reporting is important, because pastors can get stars in their eyes about fundraisers,” Willich cautions. “They must be able to clearly see how profitable a given fundraiser really is.”

Better analytics drive better ministry

Oversight of all 139 parishes is undertaken at the Archdiocese of Washington Pastoral Center, where Willich and Shaughney work. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is also headquartered here, as are the several departments supporting the ministries of the parishes and schools in the archdiocese.

It stands to reason, then, that employees at the pastoral center must have access to a dashboard view of all 139 parishes — and it’s easily enabled with ParishSOFT.

“I can scroll up and down the dashboard and see each parish’s accounting,” Willich says. “If one has fallen behind, I can double-click and go, for example, to the bank reconciliation module.”

“When I see offertory declining, it’s a quick call to Elizabeth [Shaughney] to say, ‘Can you please call this parish and put them on your list to visit?’” — Adrienne Willich

From there, she can see the date of the parish’s last bank reconciliation — in other words, how far behind it really is. Willich can then drill down into offertory income or tuition income and see when the last cash receipts were posted. This is critical for interacting with the parish to determine what’s going on, and how the team at the pastoral center can be most helpful.

From an at-large perspective, having a single, shared database for 139 parishes enables the archdiocese to maintain a real-time “pulse” on church health. Particularly important? Offertory trends.

“The Sunday offertory is, without a doubt, the biggest source of revenue for our parishes,” Willich explains. For this reason, the archdiocese tracks offertory trends month-over-month and year-over-year — simple reports to run with the software’s accounting functions.

Of course, these figures require a context in order to be meaningful. That’s why Willich and her team look at parishes’ budgets versus actual expenses — specifically, at aged payables, on a quarterly basis. “If a parish owes a lot of money, and has for a long time, that’s an indication of cashflow issues,” she explains. “We’re looking at parishes’ cash balances, including how many months’ worth of operating expenses they have in cash.”

(Left to right) Each week, Mirna Plazza, Adrienne Willich, Carrina Bucknor, Robert Wilson and Florence Moore discuss parishes’ financial condition and what their team is doing to support pastors and bookkeepers. Here, they review quarterly school financial results compared to budget.

 

A similar approach keeps a pulse of the health of the archdiocese’s 63 schools. If school results are at variance from budget, a quick call to the school’s office is made. Is the problem related to enrollment? Staffing levels?

“We’ve got experts right in the building who can proactively work with the schools,” Willich says.

Whether it’s a parish or school, any less than three months’ worth of operating expenses can signify a problem meeting payroll — and that’s a starting point for a conversation about what the archdiocese can do to help.

“We’re really blessed with an endowment fund from very generous donors to provide grants to parishes for church maintenance,” Willich points out. Some parishes might need more funding based on the historic nature (and expensive upkeep) of their facilities.

The Archdiocese of Washington is one of the most historically significant in the country. The oldest church in the diocese still in use — St. Francis Xavier in Newtowne, Md. — was built in 1731. The oldest parish, St Ignatius in Chapel Point Md., was established even earlier: 1641

In 1690, the church sacristy was built, originally as a chapel. The current church was built in 1797; the first Bishop in the United States, John Carroll, laid the cornerstone.

While having so many historical properties is a blessing, it also brings incredible maintenance challenges. “It can be a real challenge for some parish communities to raise enough money to support the maintenance of the church,” Willich says.

To this end, the Archbishop is able to grant funds to those churches for stained glass windows, roofs, boilers and other expensive upkeep items.

Introducing eGiving reaps benefits

When a parish’s offertory trends raise red flags, another remedy is for Willich and her team in parish and school financial operations to coordinate efforts with Elizabeth Shaughney and her team in stewardship development. A variety of resources can be deployed, including eGiving.   

Of the 139 parishes in the archdiocese, about half use Faith Direct [ faithdirect.net ] for their eGiving. It’s a secure program that works directly with givers’ bank, credit or debit cards in the same way as other electronic funds transfer payments they might already conduct (such as utility bills or mortgage payment).

“As an archdiocese, we encourage online giving. It helps a lot to know, at the beginning of every month, that X amount of dollars are coming in on the 1st, X amount of dollars will come in on the 8th, and so on.”  — Elizabeth Shaughney

A text-to-give function is also enabled, which is helpful for guests or out-of-town visitors who want to show their generosity.

Most of these parishes adopted the platform based on word-of-mouth endorsements from other parishes.

“As an archdiocese, we encourage online giving,” Shaughney says. “While it isn’t necessarily right for every parish in the archdiocese, we do encourage it if a parish is potentially not capturing all the gifts it could be receiving.”

As Shaughney explains, this makes a lot of sense from a budgeting perspective. “It helps a lot to know, at the beginning of every month, that X amount of dollars are coming in on the 1st, X amount of dollars will come in on the 8th, and so on.” 

Additionally, as Willich points out, Faith Direct lets parishioners support offertory second collections, without writing multiple checks — a facility maintenance fund or the archdiocese’s annual appeal, for example.

Based on the data Willich and Shaughney are seeing, it appears the timing is also right for eGiving.

“In 2019, the millennial generation surpassed the baby boomers — and they don’t come to Mass with cash or a checkbook,” Willich says.

“Most of them don’t even have envelopes!” Shaughney adds.

Long-time givers often are another story, however. Communicating to this group about the availability of new, more tech-driven giving options can be a challenge for just about any church.

“Anytime you switch platforms, or start a new one, it can be a big concern for them,” Shaughney acknowledges. The loss of revenue can be significant if the transition isn’t well-orchestrated.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON
• 139 parishes, 61 elementary schools, 2 high schools
• 119,957 in Sunday Mass average attendance across
all parishes 
• 4,500 staff — about 200 in the pastoral center; all others serve in parishes, schools, affiliated corporations and charities (such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Cemeteries, Victory Housing)
• 330,000 registered parishioners

Fortunately, Faith Direct transitions as many legacy givers as possible, seamlessly, by creating temporary profiles. Each parishioner already set up for eGiving simply logs on, and then refreshes his or her profile with Faith Direct.

Beyond this, Shaughney and Willich encourage parishes in the archdiocese to run two giving platforms concurrently (the new and existing one) for three to six months. This helps to prevent unnecessary fall-off during the transition.

Additionally, once a year, Faith Direct offers a mailing to members of participating parishes that encourages them to sign up for eGiving. Those who do receive a contribution statement at the end of the year. It’s just one way the platform makes life a little easier not only for church members, but for staff.

And because Faith Direct is integrated with ParishSOFT databases — a new feature — all donations across the archdiocese are tracked seamlessly in the software. This integration provides the archdiocese with a more holistic, informed perspective of parishioners’ engagement.

Beyond these benefits, the integration of ParishSOFT databases with Faith Direct giving data has improved ministry at the parishes.

For example, Faith Direct lets parents sign up and pay for religious education online. The same is true for spaghetti dinners and countless other fellowship events in the life of a parish.

“It makes it very easy for anybody to be included in all those things,” Shaughney explains. “Then, they’re not coming to an event worrying about whether or not they already paid for the event. They come in the door set and ready to go.”

Transparency fuels trust

Perhaps most significantly of all, trust levels have improved between the archdiocese and the parishes, as well as among the parishes themselves.

As Willich reiterates, it started with the roll-out of ParishSOFT, when all 139 parishes had to be convinced that yet another church management system migration was in their best interest.

“We just acknowledged what they’d been saying: ‘We’re ready to simplify,’” she recalls. “We knew that people loved the church management system. We just had to make sure they were ready to return to that system, but the cloud version.”

Now that the onboarding of the ParishSOFT across all parishes in the archdiocese is complete and more than half of them (so far) are using Faith Direct, the implementation is even informing personal ministry and consultation. For example, parish visits by diocesan staff and Archbishop Gregory are even more effective as a result.

“The Archbishop has such a heart for supporting his brother priests,” Willich points out. “He visits at least three or four parishes a week.”

Before those visits, Willich and her team use ParishSOFT to assemble a parish-specific financial briefing for Archbishop Gregory, including (where applicable) school financial results, as well as more spiritual indicators — the number of registered parishioners, Mass attendance, ministry participation, and so on. 

“All this helps us stay on the front end of challenges parishes might be encountering,” Willich explains. “It’s just an extreme relief for a pastor to know that the Archbishop supports him, supports the parish community, and wants to continue to draw more people in to Mass in our beautiful worship spaces.”

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