Though Betsy Bohlen ’90 once enjoyed success as a partner at Chicago’s McKinsey and Co., the business leader always knew she eventually wanted to direct her efforts toward nonprofit work, especially within the Catholic Church.
“There was a part of me that always felt that, one of these days, I would serve in a more nonprofit capacity,” Bohlen said. “I think there was a calling for me to do that, to apply my leadership skills there.”
Today, she is the chief operating officer of the Archdiocese of Chicago, making her the highest ranking woman in Chicago’s Catholic Church. Officially assuming the role in April, her responsibilities include securing the financial stability and efficient business practices of the archdiocese’s many working parts, including Chicago’s 365 parishes, 200 schools, 40 cemeteries, and a central pastoral center.
“The archdiocese is first and foremost a ministry, but what people may not realize is that we are a very large institution dealing with very large, business-like strategic challenges,” Bohlen said. “Something of that size is inherently complicated, and there are lots of business skills needed to manage that.”
Business skills, she said, that she has acquired due to her intensive background in investment banking and management consulting. Bohlen, who has an MBA from Harvard University in addition to her economics degree from Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, spent 16 years at McKinsey. Based in Chicago, she also worked for extended periods in Beijing, Hong Kong, and New Delhi. She became a partner at the firm in 2003 and soon after began doing pro bono work for the Chicago archdiocese.
“Using the consulting skills I had, I helped with priest placement planning and parish financial improvement efforts,” Bohlen said. “As I got more and more involved with the archdiocese, there was always something pulling me there.”
The mounting pro bono work eventually led to Bohlen taking a year of absence from McKinsey in 2011 to devote more time to the Church. One thing led to another, she said, and she ended up sticking with it, taking on a variety of senior roles before being named COO in April.
Bohlen said the business of the Church has become much more complicated over the last 20 years, requiring many priests to focus too much on money and building issues rather than ministry. The archdiocese is working to find new ways to address these business challenges, often with lay people handling these issues, so that pastors can focus more on ministry.
“A lot of nonprofits over the years have had to professionalize their management in order to make things run more smoothly,” Bohlen said. “At the archdiocese, we need to make sure we utilize strategic planning skills—the same ones I would be using at McKinsey.”
Of top priority to Bohlen is ensuring the long-term financial stability of the archdiocese and improving day-to-day business practices. Since 2013, the archdiocese has laid off 75 people and merged or closed 17 schools. Bohlen said she is hopeful that the archdiocese can be restored to financial health through new growth and operating improvements instead of cost-cutting alone.
“We think parishes and schools can turn around pretty dramatically when the right leadership and organization is put in place,” she said. “We are attacking the issues in a more direct way—often that means providing consulting help or helping to place business managers in a parish or school.”
Bohlen lives with her husband, Jon, and their two school-aged children in Hyde Park. The Bohlens attend St. Clement parish.
So why did she choose to leave the big salary at McKinsey to work with an organization in need of substantial financial improvement? Her Notre Dame background helped guide her decision, as spending her undergraduate years at a Catholic university shaped her faith and career path.
“At Notre Dame, I had a very influential professor—a priest—who helped me understand in a real way that my business career is a vocation that can allow me to live out my faith,” she said.
Originally published at my.nd.edu.