So, a Nun, Two Priests and a Bishop Walk into a Classroom ...

By John Monczunski | Spring 2013

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Before the election of Pope Francis, a Vatican Radio interviewer asked an American priest-journalist what qualities the cardinals would be looking for as they chose the next pope. Expectations were so high, Father Thomas Reese, S.J., told the interviewer half in jest, that the papal job description could best be summed up as “Jesus with an MBA.”

The reply may have been facetious, but there’s a serious underlying point: Whether you’re inspired by prophets or profits, business skills are valuable, even for a pope.

Church leaders have come to realize that many of the managerial, marketing and financial-management skills taught in business school can aid the mission of the church, supplementing traditional ministerial education. Evidence of that realization could be found this past semester at Mendoza College, where a bishop, two priests and a Franciscan sister were among those enrolled in the College’s various graduate programs.

For Sister Petra Nielsen, OSF, enrolling in the Notre Dame MBA program was a matter of the vow of religious obedience. Earning the degree likely was the last thing on her mind five years ago when she joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, Ind.

In her pre-Franciscan life as Catherine Nielsen, she earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Purdue University, a master’s in international relations from The George Washington University, and she was on her way to a Ph.D. A research fellowship brought her to Vienna, Austria, where she landed a job speechwriting and researching in English for the Japanese ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Returning to Washington, D.C., the future Franciscan hired on as a contract worker for the State Department on nuclear issues. This was followed by a stint working for The National Security Archive, a nonprofit focused on foreign policy and security research.

Then her life took a wrenching turn. In the space of a year, both her mother and father passed away from cancer. The shattering experience rekindled a dormant faith, eventually leading her to join the Franciscan sisters, who taught her in elementary school.

The Mishawaka Franciscan community works in education and health care. So with no need for a foreign-policy analyst, she was assigned to the corporate office of Franciscan Alliance with the idea that she might eventually assume a leadership role in administration.

To that end, two years ago she was asked to enroll in Notre Dame’s MBA program. Rather than a degree tailored to nonprofit or hospital administration, the congregation believed it would be best for her to receive a more comprehensive MBA, she says.

“Even for nonprofit health care, there is still very much a business side to it. You have to run it in a competitive way because you are competing with for-profits,” she says.

Sister Petra, who graduated with the Notre Dame MBA Class of 2013, says she wanted to learn how to compete in an ethical way, hence the choice of Mendoza. She says she found the theme of ethics running throughout the curriculum, but was particularly impressed with a human resources course called Managing Talent taught by Joe and Jane Giovanini Professor of Management Robert Bretz.

“The approach to managing people was based on respecting them as individuals. By respecting them you create an environment in which they can flourish rather than merely using money as an incentive. Work is supposed to be uplifting, part of who you are. It’s what the church teaches about work. I don’t think I would have gotten that perspective anywhere but Notre Dame.”

When Father Michael Callaghan, C.O., began the Master of Nonprofit Administration (MNA) program two years ago, he already had considerable experience running nonprofit organizations. A priest for 21 years, he had been the founding pastor of a parish in the archdiocese of Baltimore, overseeing the financing and construction of the first elementary school in the archdiocese since 1967. After joining the Congregation of the Oratory in Brooklyn in 2005, he assisted in contract negotiation and management at Good Shepherd Services, a charitable agency comprising more than 70 programs in New York City. For the past seven years, he has been executive director of Nazareth Housing Inc., a nonprofit that offers low-income housing, emergency family shelter and urgent-needs services to low-income families in New York City.

The priest says he enrolled in the MNA program because he realized no amount of real-world experience could substitute for solid business training.

“When it comes to administration, fund raising, all those things, the world has become much more complex. I want to make sure I have the right set of skills and credentials, not only for my work at Nazareth Housing but also for work that supports my religious congregation.”

Callaghan says he considered several business schools, including Columbia University and New York University. Mendoza won out for practical and sentimental reasons.

“I was weaned on the milk of ND. My dad, Leo Callaghan, was a halfback on the 1954 championship team,” he says. Callaghan also found the time commitment of summer sessions on campus supplemented with online distance-learning courses to be more manageable than Columbia‘s schedule of 28 Saturdays plus week nights in the summer.

The Oratorian priest says the MNA coursework has taught him new techniques and frames of reference and has validated some practices he had learned by doing. Especially valuable, he says, was a course on human resources taught by Matt Bloom, associate professor of management.

“That particular course made me realize that I had some good intuitions regarding personnel management, but I didn’t know how to frame the next steps. Professor Bloom has helped me to restructure our whole HR approach at Nazareth,” he says.

“Returning to the source” has been a recurring theme in Father Eric Cruz’s life. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1986 with a B.A. in American Studies, he worked for 15 years in education and as a reporter for the South Bend Tribune. Then, feeling called to the priesthood, the Bronx native who grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium returned to New York to enter the seminary.

Fast forward to 2010 and it seems preordained that the pastor of three parishes would return to his undergraduate alma mater after Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of the New York diocese, asked him to pursue a graduate business degree. The cardinal wanted him to prepare for a new assignment, as director of the Bronx region of Catholic Charities.

Father Cruz says the first time he read the Master of Nonprofit Administration program’s motto—“Servant Heart. Business Mind”—he knew he had made the right school choice. Discussions on human dignity, the ethical dimensions of decisions, and subsidiarity were not uncommon in classes. Among the most uplifting and helpful courses, he says, have been Marketing Professor Patrick Murphy’s class on business ethics and a course on board governance taught by Roxanne Spillett, former CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She teaches as an executive in residence in the MNA program.

“The thing that separates Notre Dame’s business school from secular schools,” he says, “is its emphasis on the Church’s social-justice teachings as foundation,” he says.

Although the MNA usually is pursued part time and designed to take a minimum of two years, Father Cruz blazed through the program in 14 months as a full-time student. Coincidentally, Cardinal Dolan served as Notre Dame’s 2013 commencement speaker.

In May, the Most Rev. Thomas Paprocki, Bishop of Springfield, Ill., became the first member of the hierarchy to earn a graduate degree from the Mendoza College.

The Chicago native, who already holds a law degree from DePaul University and a canon law degree from Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, says he’d been intrigued with the potential of business education even before he began taking Executive MBA program classes twice a month at Mendoza’s Chicago Commons center on Michigan Avenue in 2011.

As the bishop noticed the church’s structure becoming more complex, he says, he became convinced that he should formally study management theory, finance and other business disciplines. “Parishes once were like ‘mom and pop’ operations,” he points out, “but today, the pastor is like the CEO of a small business….”

He says he has already applied lessons from his classroom experience. A donor’s suggestion during an interview as part of an assignment for a marketing course taught by Professor Joe Urbany produced savings for a Springfield diocesan Catholic Charities program called St. John’s Breadline. Also, he says, his classmates in Edward Frederick Sorin Society Professor of Management Ed Conlon’s Design Thinking course brainstormed ways to improve the Chicago Legal Clinic, a legal service agency for poor people co-founded by Bishop Paprocki.

Bishop Paprocki says he thinks the church can learn a lot from the business world. “We talk of evangelization, but what is that but ‘marketing’ under another name? In matters of finance, the church may be ‘not for profit,’ but we still have to operate in the black.”