Busted: Kerry Robinson

The young director of the Leadership Roundtable makes the connection between faith and best practices

It is a tragedy that appears to have no end. Recent announcements of enormous clergy abuse settlements in Los Angeles ($660 million) and San Diego ($198 million) underscore the sense that—more than five years into it—the full ramifications of the sex abuse scandal in the United States have yet to be fully understood. Add to that the corruption trial involving former diocesan officials in Cleveland and it would seem that Catholics in the United States have every reason to walk out in despair. And yet—for reasons also not yet fully understood—despite this endless stream of bad news, Catholic churches in the United States aren’t showing signs of emptying.

While the ability of those in the pews to make distinctions between their faith and the sins of an institution is certainly a reason for hope, it can’t mask a critical loss of organizational credibility and trust that isn’t easily repaired. Kerry Robinson, the executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, is convinced that this crisis is actually a unique opportunity for the laity and clergy to collaborate on finding practical solutions to the Church’s temporal problems.

The young mother of two, is no stranger to these sorts of issues. Robinson is a member of the family-operated Raskob Foundation that is dedicated exclusively to Catholic causes. Her position with the Leadership Roundtable however has moved her beyond the world of philanthropy into the role of communicator and advocate. The Roundtable brings together bold-faced names like Leon Panetta, Fay Vincent and Geoff Boisi along with other well-known leaders from the worlds of business, finance, academia, philanthropy, not-for-profits and the Church. Their stated mission is to promote excellence and best practices in the management, finances and human resources development of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Building Bridges

The Roundtable has no interest in addressing doctrinal or theological issues. The challenge for Robinson and her colleagues however is to build bridges and promote their particular expertise in temporal affairs to a diverse collection of US bishops and church leaders who are, understandably, still reeling from the effects of the recent scandals and sensitive to issues of episcopal authority. It is a formidable task that Robinson believes is essential not only for healing but for ensuring the Church’s relevance and credibility to future generations.

In many ways it is a mission of hope in dark times worthy of her great grandfather, businessman and philanthropist John Jakob Raskob. During America’s Great Depression, he also defied conventional wisdom to pursue a dream that would ultimately become his crowning achievement: the construction of the Empire State Building.

BustedHalo: Can you give us some background on what the Leadership Roundtable is and when it started?

Kerry Robinson: Though we are not focused in any real respect on the sex abuse crisis, the Leadership Roundtable had its genesis in 2002 when suddenly the front pages of all of the secular papers were about the Catholic Church’s crisis. The scandal had the effect of waking the Catholic laity out its lethargy in order to take a look at their own parishes, dioceses and other Catholic institutions. Ultimately they properly viewed that crisis as a crisis of management. And as devoted members of the faith, to whom the Catholic Church mattered deeply, they asked themselves ‘what can I do to repair the damage? To affect reconciliation? To restore the trust that was eroded?’ If your family is in trouble, you step up to the plate and you do whatever it takes to heal the wounds there.

One man, Geoff Boisi devoted considerable energy to how he might be able to bring his own talents and expertise to the service of the Church. And as he has done with other institutions, he believes that one of the best ways to solve problems is to convene a diversity of the best minds around a particular problem and try to creatively foster solutions. And those meetings were happening for several years when, as a result of conversations with bishops, priests, religious women, lay leaders as well as Catholics from the secular world, the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management was formally established on July 11, 2005.

BH: Who are some of the public figures involved in the work you’re doing?

KR: In recent decades, Catholics have risen to levels of influence and affluence at levels that we have never seen before. The Leadership Roundtable is a membership organization of senior level executive leaders from diverse industries and sectors who are Catholic and care deeply about the Church.

“We are entirely non-doctrinal. And that is extremely significant. We exist to focus exclusively on the temporal affairs of the Church such as the management, the finances and the human resources.”

Geoff Boisi was the youngest person to be named partner (he was 31) at Goldman Sachs. He is one of the superstars globally in the world of finance and he is also a life-long devout Catholic and a member of the Papal Foundation. He was also chairman of the board at Boston College for a number of years when Fr. Monan—another Roundtable board member—was president there. He saw the positive impact that BC’s decision to invite lay people to join Jesuits on the board; how it impacted the financial health of BC, the raising of funds and investments and some of the management decisions. He believes the Catholic Church will benefit on the parish level, diocesan level and on the non-profit, institutional level from sound management with a particular incorporation of the skills and expertise of the laity.

Other Leadership Roundtable members include Fay Vincent (former commissioner of Major League Baseball), Leon Panetta (chief of staff during the Clinton administration), Dr. Charles M. Geschke (Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Adobe Systems). Our membership of 200 executives includes presidents of Catholic universities and colleges, the head of Catholic Relief Services, the head of Catholic Charities USA as well as the president of the Catholic Health Association.

BH: Often in church circles the dynamic can devolve into a liberal vs. conservative sort of polarization; I don’t get the sense that the Leadership Roundtable is interested in appealing to those categories at all.

KR: We are entirely non-doctrinal. And that is extremely significant. We exist to focus exclusively on the temporal affairs of the Church such as the management, the finances and the human resources. Though we recognize that the Church isn’t a corporation, it consists of people, finances, and resources that deserve to be managed well. And here is where I think I our missions intersect. I think there will be a positive byproduct of the fruitful work of the Leadership Roundtable with respect to the polarization that exists in the Church. It’s not a stated part of our mission, but the positive consequence of bringing a diverse group of people together around the mission of the Leadership Roundtable, I believe, will be a lessening of that chasm of the left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, whatever labels you want to use. I personally don’t think that there is any place in our Church for that kind of vitriol.

BH: In your research have you found that there is a real need to codify best practices in dioceses and churches?

KR: There is a need. Good parishes can always get better. Good dioceses can always improve. Our first approach, frankly, was to identify good examples and there are many. It was important for us to us to identify them and to examine what contributes to a welcoming, vibrant, robust parish or diocese. There are many examples out there but you rarely hear about them. We add them to our online clearing house of best practices. When something is working very well, we want to use them as a model as to what others might emulate.

BH: The Church is an ancient institution where change doesn’t often come easily. Still, the Leadership Roundtable’s collective expertise is pretty extraordinary, how do you convince dioceses around the country to take advantage of your resources?

KR: I’m constantly telling bishops, priests and people who work for the Church that the US Catholic Church is so blessed with incredibly talented, devout, faith-filled laity in the parishes, the churches, dioceses in the US. And we want to awaken, invite and incorporate the competencies of the lay faithful, particularly in the temporal affairs, in the management of the church.

BH: I think it’s a miracle of sorts that people are able to look beyond the scandals and recognize that there is something of greater truth, depth, ancient wisdom that the Church embodies.

KR: Absolutely, I come from the perspective as a person of hope. People of faith are confident in the future. I believe the fruits of reconciliation are already evident. Imagine the caliber of the person I am describing, a CEO of an international corporation is electing to use his/her free time, expertise, reputation, influence and finances in service to the Church he or she loves. Right away, that is a sign of hope.