Benefits of plan will be apparent over time, archbishop says

| October 16, 2010

Archbishop hopes for a greater sense of unity

The archdiocese’s strategic plan for parishes and schools has now been announced, but the work of implementing its initiatives is just beginning and it will take time to reap the plan’s benefits, according to Archbishop John Nienstedt.

“We’re asking pastors and their staffs to work with our chancery staff to address the recommendations and how they will be implemented over a period of time,” he said in a recent interview with The Catholic Spirit.

“The real benefit I see is not that we’re going to implement these [initiatives] within six months or even in a year or maybe two,” he said. “But it gives us a road map as to how we are going to be moving toward the future.”

No changes to parishes are slated to begin before January, according to the plan. Changes in schools will not begin before June. All decisions regarding the future of individual Catholic schools will be made by the pastor, principal and other local leaders and recommended to the archbishop.

Although some parishes will be merged into others and other parishes will move into new clustering relationships, the plan calls for more collaboration among all parishes.

Once that happens, Archbishop Nienstedt said, “I think it will allow us to be a better church, to put our resources behind what they need to be behind” — including liturgical worship, religious education and outreach to the poor.

“I saw that in New Ulm when I was there,” said the archbishop, who headed the rural Minnesota diocese from 2001 to 2007.  “It took three years there for us to put a plan for our parishes and schools together, and I was there for another three years. I began to see there was greater harmony among what we call the ‘area faith communities’ — people working together in a more systematic way.”

The plan, in addition to initiating structural changes in various parishes, also outlines a number of other strategic initiatives, including ongoing formation for priests, deacons and lay pastoral leaders; strengthening the commitment to Catholic education, faith formation, youth ministry, and evangelization and outreach; and instituting best practices in the areas of finance and administration.

The plan also creates a regional vicariate structure. Regional vicars appointed by the archbishop will exercise various canonical and administrative responsibilities and make regular parish visits.

Archbishop Nienstedt said he had a similar vicariate structure in place when he headed the New Ulm diocese. “I think better communication, with the priests in particular, is one of the big things I see as a value in the vicariate system,” he said.

How did we get here?

Archbishop Nienstedt initiated the planning process in February 2009 with the appointment of a 16-member Strategic Planning Task Force in response to a variety of challenges facing the archdiocese.

Those challenges include economic and demographic factors:

  • While the number of Catholics in the archdiocese is growing, fueled largely by immigration, the archdiocese projects there will be 19 fewer priests eligible to be pastors, 10 years from now.
  • Many parishes and schools are not located in areas where population growth is the strongest — in “exurban” areas located between suburban and rural areas.
  • In parishes across the archdiocese, 32 percent of weekend Masses are less than one-third full and Catholic schools, as a whole, have 20 percent more seats than they have students.

A significant number of parishes and schools face serious financial challenges. More than 25 percent of parishes, for example, are being monitored by the archdiocese due to serious debt and budget issues.

Consultative process

The strategic planning process has sought to address these challenges with a consultative approach. In the spring of 2009, priests began meeting in their deaneries to draft proposals for the task force outlining potential changes. Dozens of meetings were held around the diocese for input into the plan. And input was also collected via letters sent to the archdiocese, a voice-mail hotline and a website comment form available in various languages.

While Archbishop Nienstedt let the task force do its work, he was very engaged in the process, said Father Peter Laird, task force co-chair and vicar general of the archdiocese. The archbishop also consulted with others, including priests and the presbyteral and finance councils.

Change never easy

Archbishop Nienstedt said the archdiocese has worked hard to maintain ongoing communications with pastors and parishioners throughout the process. Nevertheless, he said he knows parishioners affected by changes — especially those in parishes designated to merge into others — will experience a variety of emotions, including sadness and anger.

He hopes, however, that the changes will become a positive experience for most.

“I certainly feel for them,” he said. “I realize one gets emotionally attached to the surroundings, especially a place where people have always worshiped, where maybe their parents were married or their children were baptized and all those sorts of things. Those really do make a difference in the spiritual lives of people.

“But I would really call them to a greater sense of what it means to be Catholic,” he added. “In the Kingdom of God, we’re not going to have [members of one parish] here and [another] here. Everybody’s going to be gathered together around the Lamb. He’s the source of our unity; he’s the source of our hope; he’s the source of our happiness.

“I see this plan as calling us to be more Catholic. For people who are being merged, [I ask them] to be open to the fact that there’s going to be a new experience in their faith life, which need not be a negative experience. Hopefully, it will be a very positive experience — a way of seeing how they can worship maybe in a different way, maybe even a better way. For those that are receiving other parishes, it’s an opportunity to reach out with Christian love and embrace these people as their brothers and sisters.”


Category: Archdiocese Planning Process

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