By RENEE WEBB
The Diocese of Sioux City has undergone change and growing pains as a result of the pastoral planning process Ministry 2025 that was announced two years ago.
Father Brent Lingle, diocesan director of pastoral planning, explained its main purpose was to create a plan to use the diocese’s limited priestly resources as wisely as possible while strengthening and sustaining vibrant parishes.
The announcement came with the unveiling of a draft pastoral plan listing proposed parish mergers, new parish groupings and a new deanery structure. The draft plan was printed in the Feb. 25, 2016 edition of The Catholic Globe.
“I remember stating very clearly, ‘this is a draft, it will change,’ and it did,” Father Lingle said. “It continues to be a changing reality for us.”
When you set out to create a pastoral plan, he said, there is always hope you can anticipate the future accurately by studying the past, looking at demographics and so on. However, unexpected things have happened in the process along the way that have caused re-evaluation, adjustments and change.
Bishop Walker Nickless said when he arrived in the Diocese of Sioux City in 2006, he never imagined he would be involved in a pastoral plan like this, but he knows it is designed to utilize the priests and the parish resources in the best way.
“Everyone knows that for the last two years we have been meeting and meeting and meeting, discussing and trying to find the best solutions to the concerns we have as priests and people,” he said.
Knowing it has been a very difficult process, the bishop said he has been pleased with the response of the people.
Sister Esther Mary Nickel, RSM, associate director of worship, said throughout the process there has been a conscious effort to keep parishioners of the diocese informed about the goals of the pastoral plan and the reasons why it was needed.
After the proposed plan was released, there was a series of meetings for leadership to provide feedback and from there, adjustments were made. She noted a revised plan was published in January of 2017.
“That plan wasn’t definitive, but it was leaning towards what would be definitive,” said Sister Esther Mary. “However, there was still an openness for dialogue and discussion.”
She has witnessed a variety of reactions to the plan, noting that in some cases the changes were more readily received because people were more prepared to recognize the need for the pastoral plan. In other cases, especially when parishes were slated to go to oratory status (no longer have the Blessed Sacrament present and do not celebrate weekend liturgies), it has been very hard and sad.
In the summer of 2017, the plan was put into motion for the majority of the diocesan parishes. This included many parish mergers and realignments of parish groupings. Parish mergers resulted in some churches being designated as worship sites (hold weekend liturgies) and other churches were placed in oratory status. Five parishes that had been designated for that status opted to formally close in the last year.
When parishes officially close, Sister Esther Mary explained a detailed inventory is taken of all the sacred patrimony in the church. She credited Father Brian Hughes for “the exercise of optimal pastoral charity” in caring for the people and the sacred items of their church. Some of these items have gone to other parishes in the diocese and some have been given to the missions.
After the release of the revised plan, she noted more work began at the local level with all parish groupings (previously referred to as clusters), asked to devise a pastoral plan.
“Every parish community has been very involved in addressing the pastoral plan. A good number of pastors, about two-thirds, have submitted the pastoral plan for their parish and it has been approved by the bishop,” said Sister Esther Mary, who noted the entire process has been guided by consultants TeamWorks International.
Given that canon law allows priests to celebrate three weekend liturgies, part of devising a local pastoral plan included coming up with revised Mass schedules.
Father Lingle acknowledged the changes have not been without trials, difficulties and frustrations.
“This process isn’t perfect. It’s a living process, a dynamic process,” he said. “We are dealing with people from all walks of life, cultures and parishes. It has not been without its struggles. It’s been hard in a lot of ways, but once we get into things and they realize this has been the hand we have been dealt, they are starting to embrace it and work together.”
One of the goals, noted Father Lingle, was ensuring for healthy, holy and vibrant priests, but that is also a “work in progress, but this process has been hard on our priests just as it has been on the people. We, too, experience the loss of parishes and the loss of people. They are real emotions for us as priests, too. We don’t want to do this, but we know we have to.”
“This is a very difficult process for everyone – from the bishop, to the pastors, to the people,” Bishop Nickless said. “All of us are struggling to make sense out of what the Lord has given us at this particular time.”
Signs of hope
As they work through the struggles, however, diocesan leaders have found hope in the innovative ideas, ministries and new-found collaboration of the people.
The bishop has found hope in parishioners coming together to worship, increased communication between priests and parishioners along with a willingness of the people to become involved in parish life.
“The priests will never be able to lead the church in the next few years without the great assistance of the laity,” Bishop Nickless said. “We have so few priests and not many on the horizon to be ordained, that we really do need the resources of the laity to help us put this plan into effect.”
Much work has gone into changing the actual structure of diocesan parishes and new deanery make-up.
“All of that takes a significant amount of energy,” Father Lingle stressed. “That is the thing people are most affected by right away – Mass times or the location of Mass has changed. From there, it’s time to begin the next step of looking at the vibrancy of parish programs.”
Sister Esther Mary said now begins the work of assisting parishes to implement the goals they set for their individual pastoral plans. Among the ways this will be done, she noted, is by the diocese’s Fred Shellabarger visiting the parishes to look at their goals for evangelization and catechesis, under the auspices of his office. From there, he will offer suggestions and assistance in part based on recommitment to the bishop’s pastoral letter, Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (The Church is Always in Need of Renewal.)
“For the pastors, I am currently working on guidelines for criteria for the vibrancy and vitality of a worship site and criteria for maintaining an oratory,” she said. For the people, she said they encourage adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and continual prayers for vocations to the priesthood.
Bishop Nickless extended gratitude to Father Lingle and Sister Esther Mary for the countless hours of discussion, travel and meetings that have gone into formulating and implementing the plan as well as the clergy and laity who have helped with the process.
“The important thing to remember is that we will always be in planning mode from now on. The demographics continue to change, our priest personnel situation continues to change,” the shepherd said. “We continue to look at the best ways to provide ministry to our people.”
Referring to the name Ministry 2025, Father Lingle said in some places things will unfold as planned by the year 2025, but in other areas it may not, due to changes with priest personnel and other factors.
For some parishes, such as those in Carroll County, the plan is still a work in progress.
“Will things look exactly as we have them laid out by 2025? Practical experience tells me no, but we are doing the best we can with what we have and trying to make the decisions based on priest personnel and meeting the needs of the people as best we can in the diocese,” Father Lingle said.