Mary Werner’s experience in accounting, financial consulting, and executive coaching built a resume fit for a chief executive officer.
In October, she brought those skills not to a high-rise commercial firm but to her position as president of the all-female St. Ursula Academy, from which she graduated in 1974.
Recent local hirings mean laity will lead three of the six area Catholic high schools, illustrating that school leadership roles are no longer strictly the realm of nuns or priests.
“I think many of them had the educational background, but as the president, our role — at least at St. Ursula — is more of a CEO-type,” said Ms. Werner, who has sent her three daughters to the academy and had served on its board of trustees.
The school has had lay leadership in the past, but its tradition traces to the 1850s, when four Ursuline nuns began teaching students at a Cherry Street convent.
Catholic education once seemed synonymous with habit-wearing nuns or collared clergymen, but for years the laity has moved into positions left open by the dwindling numbers and advancing age of vow-taking members of religious orders.
That shift became all the more apparent in Toledo recently.
In February, Thomas Maj started his post as Central Catholic High School’s first lay president. Last week, St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy announced it too had hired its first layman as president.
“From a governance perspective, I think what you are seeing is the realization of, quite frankly, a trend that’s been going on for 50 years, and that is a decline in vocations. In other words, you don’t have as many men and women going into the priesthood and becoming sisters,” Mr. Maj said. “And if you didn’t believe it, you will now after St. John’s. It’s a very telling thing when a Jesuit school looks to a layperson to run it.”
Laity serves as presidents in 18, or about a third, of all Jesuit high schools in the United States. Nationwide at all Catholic schools, laity makes up 96.8 percent of professionals, which includes teachers and administrators, according to a 2012-2013 report from the National Catholic Educational Association.
That represents a tremendous tilt from 1920, when 92 percent of Catholic school professionals were religious sisters, brothers, or clergy.
The number of religious sisters, brothers, and priests dropped in a corresponding arc. In 2012, there were 54,018 sisters, down from nearly 180,000 in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.
“As the one supply went down, the increase in the laity came up because there were opportunities for the laity,” said Brian Gray, association spokesman. “I’ve not known a school to ever suffer when they have that kind of leadership change.”
St. John’s compiled a list of qualities it hoped to find in a successor to the school’s president, the Rev. Joaquin Martinez.
The school wanted a visionary and strategic thinker with strong leadership, Jesuit knowledge, and business experience, board Chairman Kurt Miller said.
“Ideally, in a perfect world, we would find a Jesuit,” he said.
Officials approached a few, but it’s a small number and fewer still who are able to run a school, he said. The Jesuits with whom school officials spoke were not available for the position, he said.
“There’s an added level of skill [and] requirements in order to be able to continue the longevity of the institution,” Mr. Miller said. “A Jesuit was a component of the pool of skills that was needed, but not the only measure. We feel that we got a very, very talented person.”
Incoming President Michael Truesdell is from a Catholic college preparatory high school in California. He’s touted by school officials for his familiarity with Jesuit education and for growing enrollment and endowments at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, Calif.
The nearly wholesale transition from religious to lay professionals occurs as Catholic schools face declining enrollments and school closures or consolidations. Lower birth rates, population shifts, economic woes, and competition from other schools are among the factors that contribute to fewer students, experts said.
In response, some schools have looked for leaders with business experience while still emphasizing the spiritual and academic foundation.
“There is a recognition that while we are first and foremost faith-based schools, there’s also an economic component to them that requires some expertise,” Mr. Maj said.
Central Catholic will not renew 10 employee contracts for next school year as it prepares for smaller student enrollment and less revenue.
Leaders must handle budgets, human resources, and legal issues, Mr. Maj said. But maintaining the Catholic identity is still at the core of the school’s mission. Central Catholic has created a pastoral leader position; the president used to fill that role.
Some schools throughout the region also have reorganized. Fremont area-Catholic schools consolidated about three years ago, said Tim Cullen, a layman, who is the superintendent of Bishop Hoffman Catholic School.
At St. Wendelin in Fostoria, Brian Shaver is the director of parish and school, a restructured organization model put into place about two years ago.
He’s in charge of operations and works with finances, while a pastor provides spiritual direction and maintains the title of superintendent.
“I think that the beauty of our system is that we still have a theologian who is an integral part of our leadership,” he said.
Not every school is giving up on the traditional model of priest as president.
The Rev. Ronald Olszewski, president of the all-male St. Francis de Sales High School in Toledo, said the school is working on planning the succession when he eventually leaves the position.
“The issue is there are fewer religious vocations, and it’s a matter of where you are going to put your priorities. But we feel that it’s important to have the religious here as the head of school,” he said, adding that the board believes it will find a qualified Oblate, which is a religious congregation within the Catholic Church.
St. Francis has 10 priests on the faculty and staff, and a finance committee helps provide expertise.
Sister Mary Ann Culpert, Notre Dame Academy and Junior Academy president, believes the school board would look for the “best qualified candidate” when choosing a leader.
She’s watched as laity and sisters work hand-in-hand and bring varied skills and viewpoints, and she is heartened and inspired by how laity has embraced the school.
“I think we’re all realists, and we know the laity is working alongside us,” Sister Mary Ann said.
The formation of strong leaders is key for Catholic schools, said the Rev. James L. Heft, president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California and author of Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities.
Religious sisters, brothers, and clergy serving in schools provide a reminder to students of what it is to take a vow to serve God, Mr. Maj said.
Some tradition and moral authority are lost when they leave the classroom and school office.
As a child, he couldn’t walk down a school hall without seeing a nun.
“The way I look at it is, there were millions who were educated by nuns and priests. ...,” he said. “But as the numbers declined, you have an army now of alumni that have the responsibility of carrying on the mission of the church.”
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065.