Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: The business of saving souls

Father Michael Sliney may be a 48-year-old Roman Catholic priest, but he’s also in business.

His business is saving souls — well-paid ones — and he does it on Wall Street, on millionaire’s yachts, at the Harvard Club, in corporate boardrooms, on the fairways and in sprawling mansions.

Sliney is a peripatetic presence. He is a salesman for God, working nonstop to try to make businessmen who are wealthy in pocket become even wealthier in spirit.

“My mission is to help business leaders develop a relationship with Christ in a way that is realistic,” he said. “Even Mother Theresa said that sometimes, the poorest of the poor are in the wealthiest neighborhoods of our civilization, because they don’t have God.”

Until recently, Sliney worked and lived in Washington, where he imparted spiritual advice to an array of heavy hitters, from author and speaker William Bennett to lobbyist Shawn Smeallie.

Sliney doesn’t have a parish. Instead, he works with the Lumen Institute, a Catholic organization that provides what its Web site called “personalized formation” for leaders. Sliney counsels 37 members in the Lumen chapters in Manhattan, Greenwich, Conn., and Summit, N.J. — all enclaves of the well-to-do. Members contribute $5,000 annually to the institute and also help cover other costs, in addition to any donations they may give to charity.

Sliney has a multi-pronged approach to his mission. He has 5,000 Facebook followers and uses Google Plus, Instagram, Twitter and a list of 1,500 e-mail addresses to deliver two messages daily. One is a gospel reflection and the other a quote for the day.

He knows his target audience is busy and doesn’t have time for long-winded homilies, so he keeps his messages short and to the point — things that Washington and New York crowds appreciate.

He even employs drama. In a recent video (I am on his e-mail list), Sliney stood on a train platform and said that you never know when God is going to come into your life. As he did so, a speeding train shot by.

In addition to the 30 or so Lumen members that he meets with monthly, including some wives, he participates in a Wall Street fellowship program that targets 20-something Catholics who may have lapsed from the faith. At the end of each meeting, they schedule the session for the next month.

Even as he leads a hard-charging ministry, Sliney’s order, known as the Legion of Christ, has had to face crises and threats to its brand. The order’s founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, who died in 2008, was found to have committed sexual indiscretions during his ministry, including fathering children and “other gravely reprehensible behaviors,” according to the Legionaries’ Web site. Some Catholic bishops have placed restrictions on the group’s practices in their dioceses.

“St. Paul said God brings good out of evil for those who love him,” Sliney said. “This has made us stronger and made us more humble. It’s been really hard to accept this reality, but it’s been a purifying experience and made us realize the importance of regaining the trust that we lost.”

Sliney grew up in tony Bloomfield Hills, Mich., one of four children of a successful Ford executive and his wife.

He was wealthy, but he had to work.

“I caddied for 10 years at Forest Lake Country Club. I wasn’t a spoiled brat and wasn’t pampered. I appreciated what dad was doing for us.”

He attended Michigan State for mechanical engineering but quit to attend the seminary of the Legion of Christ.

“Having grown up in a fairly wealthy area, I saw the need to give God to people who were very successful. There was something missing in people’s lives, and I wanted to help put it there . . . to bake spirituality into busy people’s lifestyles.”

I asked Sliney how he reconciles Catholicism, especially given the populism espoused by Pope Francis, with the wealthy businessmen whom he counsels.

“There is a difference between being competitive and aggressive and being unjust and unfair,” he said. “There’s a balance that needs to be found. I am not taking away competitiveness and aggressiveness and hard work and determination. Finance is about research and doggedness and opportunities, and that is a part of the professional that you don’t want to eliminate.”

Rather, he said, he has his own business plan for their souls.

“I want to see the ethical level of their professionalism increasing, their marriage getting stronger and more committed to their kids, and they are not living an unethical lifestyle.”

One person he is mentoring just made $30 million for his company and is going to get a $2 million bonus.

“I tell them, once your needs have been met, you have to look around and share the wealth. I would say, ‘Be generous.’ You should give something back after you meet your wife’s expectations and your kids’.”

During one recent week, Sliney met a pair of young professionals for brunch at Rockefeller Center, then attended a Lumen Christmas party at an Upper East Side restaurant and participated in a Bible study with Lumen members on a yacht sailing on the Hudson River.

One day he met for lunch with a managing director at Merrill Lynch and the family of the chief executive of a 125-year-old private company, and the next day he counseled a husband, wife and their college-age daughter.

It’s not all networking. He is up at 5:45 a.m. in Westchester County, N.Y., where he lives with seven other priests. After waking, he spends several hours in prayers, meditation, Mass, breakfast and housework.

He recently visited a school for children with Down syndrome in New Orleans, and he has mission trips planned with executives to distribute clothes and Bibles in El Salvador. He also is going to take some of his wealthy brothers to an Indian reservation in Montana, where they run a sports camp that includes fly fishing and hunting.

I asked Sliney how he is able to judge something a success without a profit-and-loss statement.

He cited a call he received six years ago from a close friend of a Lumen member.

“He said, ‘I’m a bachelor. I’m 31. I make a ton of money. I have a girlfriend living with me, and I’m extremely unhappy.’ He said he wanted to be more like his buddy, who was a Lumen.

“I told him, ‘You need to get rid of the girlfriend.’ It wasn’t a healthy situation. And start going to Mass and be a Catholic. As far as I know, he is happier now and has a fulfilling marriage. He is in a better place.”

 
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