Trinity Health, one of the largest Roman Catholic health systems in the country, has named the first two lay members to its sponsorship board in a move that executives say signals the beginning of a trend in which the laity will have a more prominent role in the direction of Catholic healthcare.
With a decline in religious orders and an increased focus on the high-stakes financial side of healthcare, systems will be more willing to look outside of the religious organizations when composing sponsorship boards that oversee their facilities, experts said.
Trinity named Robert Ladenburger, the president and chief executive officer of St. Mary's Hospital and Medical Center, Grand Junction, Colo., and Norma Smith, a Detroit-based consultant and former chair at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based St. Joseph Mercy Health System, to what is known as its "public juridic person," which is called Catholic Health Ministries.
The public juridic person is a model recognized by the Catholic church that allows for a single religious institution to oversee multiple Catholic healthcare facilities. The model is intended to ensure the system follows its Catholic identity and the mission of Trinity Health. The two join five nuns to sponsor the healthcare system.
Trinity, a Novi, Mich.-based system, operates 45 hospitals in seven states. Trinity's CEO, Judith Pelham, recently announced she planned to retire after June 30 (March 22, p. 14). The healthcare system is one of four in the U.S. that use a public juridic person sponsorship model. Catholic Health East, Newtown Square, Pa.; Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives; and Lexington, Mass.-based Covenant Health Systems also use the structure and include lay members in their sponsorships.
The practice of bringing lay members into the sponsorship models will only grow and the public juridic person model could be introduced at more systems because religious orders are seeing their memberships decline, said Paul Danello, a lawyer with Ropes & Gray. Catholic systems are beginning to focus on finding candidates who have business skills and the understanding of the Catholic faith, he said.
"It is slow to take effect because there is a natural caution" to make sure the lay members are the right fit for the role, Danello said. "You will see more of this down the road. It is an integration of theology and business."
The four systems have joined forces to offer an educational program for lay members who are interested in learning the Catholic mission. By offering the courses, the healthcare systems gain a larger pool of candidates to choose from when determining the makeup of the public juridic person, said Sister Juliana Casey, executive vice president of mission and integration at Catholic Health East. That system has two lay members on its five-member board.
About 40 lay members were scheduled to meet this month in Chicago for a program where they were to learn about spirituality and the Catholic mission from experts in the field. The costs of the semiannual workshops are shared by the four healthcare systems.
Ladenburger, who completed the two-year course with Smith in which they learned canon law and Trinity's mission, said he believes that more lay members will join the public juridic person models at the four healthcare systems. Ladenburger and Smith succeeded two nuns.
"Most of the sponsoring organizations realize there is a point in time where they must look at how they are going to hand off the sponsorship role," he said. "You are beginning to see the transition. This is an area that is probably going to see continued growth."
Sister Peggy Ann Martin, senior vice president of sponsorship and governance at Catholic Health Initiatives, agrees. Its public juridic person model includes seven lay members and seven religious members. Martin said she has seen fewer religious members who have the experience needed in the healthcare industry.
"There is a decline in the religious who are interested in the healthcare field," Martin said. "We need to have other people involved. Everybody brings different levels of knowledge."
There could be a point in time where the model includes a majority of lay members, Casey said.
The Rev. Michael Place, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said the healthcare systems need to include the laity in their models. "As we look to the future, we believe it's important to have laity," Place said. "It's reflective of the larger trend of the laity sharing responsibilities with the religious."
Ladenburger said the teachings of the mission, bylaws and statutes of Trinity's model are only the beginning of balancing his business experience with the system's Catholic mission.
"Your primary responsibility is ensuring the viability of the ministry for future decades," Ladenburger said. "Some of the challenge is to put aside the business and governance roles and ask what is my role with the public juridic person."
After seven sessions learning about the duties of the sponsorship, including canon law, Ladenburger and Smith were appointed by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. The religious orders formed Catholic Health Ministries in 2000 following the merger of Mercy Health Services and Holy Cross Health System, which established Trinity Health.
The sessions were critical in bringing together Ladenburger's business knowledge with the Catholic theology practiced at Trinity, he said. "We realize we are breaking new ground," he said. "This is something we are learning together."