New mastery brings business principles to church management

Villanova School of Business Master of Science of Church Management alumni speak at a panel discussion in February. From left are Matt Manion, faculty director, Meryl Cerana (MSCM ’16), Fr. Augustine Dada (MSCM ’20), and Matt Davis (MSCM ’21.) Photo credit: Villanova School of Business

Meryl Cerana is a lifelong Catholic. Although she has a background in business and teaching, she has worked in the ministry for 14 years. Who did the pastoral associate turn to when looking for skills to better manage Mary Mother of Mercy Parish in Glassboro, New Jersey?

The Villanova Business School.

“My background in business helped me, but church administration is different from secular business, so I needed specialized training,” Cerana said. Poets&Quants. She enrolled in the VSB Master of Science in Church Management, the only such degree program offered by a business school. It aims to help religious organizations manage resources in a way that better supports their missions.

“I learned something in each class that I could use the next day in my parish work,” Cerana says. “I think what the program did best, though, was educate us on what questions to ask in many situations and how to frame new questions in new situations. Once you have the question, you can focus on finding the answer.


VSB’s Master of Science in Church Management is the school’s primary academic program Church Management Center, considered the only such center within a business school, says Matthew Manion, director of the center’s faculty and professor of management and operations at VSB. He also graduated from the course in 2011 himself.

Modeled after the business school’s MBA program, the online master’s centers the fundamental elements of a business curriculum in the context of church leadership in the Christian tradition. Other schools may offer church management as a complementary specialization to an MBA, but Villanova’s version is fully integrated, Manion says. For example, the opening course is Leadership Ethics and Catholic Social Thought, a class that teaches skills for business leadership through a denominational lens.

“I think what’s unique is that it helps people become bilingual in church speaking and business speaking,” Manion said. P&Q.

The 30-credit online degree is delivered through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Students come from all over. In a recent virtual session, Manion had both a priest in Rwanda connected alongside a business manager from the North Pole Parish, Alaska. Because Villanova is a university in the Augustan Catholic tradition, 75 to 80 percent of students in the program are Catholic, Manion says, but it accepts students from all traditions.


The Center for Church Management was established in 2004 under the leadership of Professor Chuck Zech. The idea had been proposed many times, but after the Boston sex abuse scandal, “there was a recognition that we needed to do better and as an institution of higher learning – and especially as a school of commerce – to contribute not just to the Catholic Church, but what churches in general need,” Manion says.

“Many church leaders are trained in the ministry aspects of their roles, but like doctors, lawyers and other specialists, they receive no training in how to run a business.”

The 2021 graduates of VSB’s Master of Science in Church Management celebrate after their commencement. Photo credit: Villanova School of Business

How could a business school help the Catholic Church respond to the growing global crisis? How could sound business principles prevent a culture that seeks to cover up wrongdoing rather than confront it?

“I think of an increase in transparency and accountability in general. Sunlight heals a lot of things, and I think there wasn’t a lot of sun. It created a culture of secrecy that allowed bad things to continue,” Manion says.

Churches that fail to manage their organizational resources and face their failures distract people from their message. On the other hand, those who do it well amplify it in the world. For example, the VSB center encourages churches and leaders to undergo financial audits. Not to catch anything below the edge, necessarily, but to save the mission. A strong budget can show how the church uses resources to, for example, feed the poor, provide education, and serve the community.

“I think by equipping lay leaders and ordained leaders with this language of how to do that, the fear of accountability and transparency diminishes,” Manion says. “St. Augustine said, ‘Keep up order and order will keep you safe. you are doing can continue.


Broadly speaking, there are two types of students who enroll in the Masters program: First, professionals from successful business careers who are now looking for ways to give back and become more involved in their faith or community church. And, second, church leaders and administrators looking for skills to better manage church resources.

Instructors emphasize that the church is not a business. It’s a mission. You can’t come in and tell a pastor that he has to treat his people as customers. A church is, however, an organization. It has human resources, finances, strategy and communications that must be managed to carry out this mission.

“We have a responsibility to properly manage the resources of this organization,” Manion says. “When these things are done wrong, they can block or inhibit the transmission of the gospel.”

Pr. Dada speaks at a panel discussion for VSB’s Master of Science of Church Management in February. Photo credit: Villanova School of Business

Prof. Augustine Deji Dada, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Elmsford, NY, graduated from the program in 2020. With seven years of experience in church administration, he had an idea of what a church could accomplish through strategic planning and relationship building, but he was frankly surprised at the rigor of the program.

“I must admit that I was initially surprised by the rigor of the program. I went there thinking it would be a piece of cake because I am a priest, I have administrative experience and a degree in theology,” says Dada. P&Q. “I appreciate that during the program there was an enrichment of diverse backgrounds and experiences as well as case studies to impress management lessons and theological values.”

Dada recommends the course to anyone committed to seeing “a revitalized and competent church.”

“In the wake of the many moral and financial challenges, it is important, in a spirit of faith and faithfulness to the truth, to maintain the identity of the Church in our stewardship, while moving from mission to performance” , he said.

“The MSCM helps bring out these gifts, talents and resources. We are now at a point where the stakes are very high when it comes to our identity, in a world that has become very culturally volatile and driven by data and technology. Moving forward will require holistic and strategic management skill.