By JOANNE FOX
Implementing a pastoral planning process is no easy task, but officials with two dioceses adjacent to Sioux City reported the results far outweighed the challenges.
Matthew Althoff, chancellor of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., and Msgr. Richard Colletti, vicar general for the Diocese of Winona, Minn., offered insights on how pastoral planning played out in their dioceses.
Both were facing the same issues as the Diocese of Sioux City – which recently announced its pastoral planning process, Ministry 2025: fewer vocations, shifts in population centers and an aging demographic.
“Bishop Paul Swain made a pilgrimage around the Diocese of Sioux Falls and issued his pastoral letter in 2009, ‘To Hold and Teach the Catholic Faith that comes to us from the Apostles,’” Althoff said. “Even before the letter, it was apparent to the bishop a pastoral planning process was needed.”
“From the time Bishop John Quinn came to Winona, people were asking him what his plan was for the diocese,” Msgr. Colletti noted. “After getting a feel for the area, he took the initial steps that led to our Vision 2016 Pastoral Planning process.”
However, Winona put its process on hold because of a capital campaign. In 2015 the Vision 2016 Draft Plan was initiated with deanery and cluster-level meetings.
Sioux Falls proceeded with deaneries subdivided into study areas. Its first plan was in 2010 in a small area, then more fully implemented in 2014. Both dioceses contracted the services of TeamWorks, a Minnesota-based, strategic and leadership development consultancy. This is the same consultant the Diocese of Sioux City is using for Ministry 2025.
“If we had done the work internally, it would have immediately set up winners and losers,” Althoff pointed out. “With an outside consultant – they have no stake in this game; they just want to help frame the issue.”
“While we explored the possibility of hiring a new staff member for pastoral planning, we decided to work with TeamWorks,” Msgr. Colletti said. “They not only have experience seeing pastoral planning processes through from start to finish, but they also have staff who have expertise in assessing a variety of data, drafting plans and facilitating meetings.”
Demographic information was gathered and despite what may have been obvious with fewer priests and parishioners, there were other revelations.
“I was surprised by how many of our pastors were consumed by funerals,” Althoff said. “It’s a non-renewing course when all one is doing is burials and not baptisms and solemnizing marriages.”
“Rochester was the place with the largest growth in population but yet, we did not see a growth in our parishes,” Msgr. Colletti shared. “In many cases, the people were there in the city, but not coming to church.”
Bishops Swain and Quinn became integral parts of the planning process as it was introduced to the pastors and the laity.
“If you polled our 120,000 Catholics, I would guess less than 1,000 would even realize we were using a consultant,” Althoff speculated. “Bishop Swain opened and closed every meeting with prayer.”
“Bishop Quinn started each meeting with half an hour of Eucharistic Adoration,” Msgr. Colletti said. “That was very helpful in centering those in attendance on what was truly important.”
Although initial meetings began with administrators and priests of each diocese, the importance of including the laity surfaced quickly.
“Every one of the consultations with the faithful unequivocally changed the original pastoral plan,” Althoff insisted. “Only the locals would know details particular to their communities. All that led to modifications of the draft.”
“This planning process was purposely designed to allow for parishioners’ input,” Msgr. Colletti said. “The meetings were not only about parishes merging, but more importantly, about creating faith-filled and vibrant parishes and clusters.”
Even with input from the laity, there was still a good deal of angst associated with mergers, closings and taking parishes to oratory status.
“Bishop Swain was pastoral and inviting, sometimes citing St. Francis: ‘Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand’ or ‘We’re not closing; we’re merging,’” Althoff said. “These are difficult messages to communicate and reactions to them are human and natural.”
“Of course, there has been grief and anger expressed, which is to be expected with any major change, especially merging of parishes,” Msgr. Colletti acknowledged. “Getting past the initial reactions of anger and denial were a struggle at times, but we realized those reactions are inevitable and take time to work through.”
He continued, “However, many people told us they saw this coming. They see how there are less people in the pews, how the next generation is not staying in the rural communities, and they realized that a plan like Vision 2016 was only a matter of time.”
Now that the Sioux Falls and Winona dioceses are implementing pastoral plans, the results have been affirming.
“One group of parishes had a lot of strife associated with their merger, but just recently, of their own volition, created a 20-page, high-gloss brochure as a way of commemorating the fifth anniversary of the multiple parishes becoming one,” Althoff said. “Two others that were averaging 20 people at Mass now see 100 to 150.”
Althoff quipped, “We even had folks who were willing to cross a county line to attend another parish!”
Msgr. Colletti joined in the lightness with, “People certainly enjoyed it when the Director of Pastoral Planning’s dog attended meetings! That definitely lifted the mood of the oftentimes emotional meetings.”
One goal the Diocese of Winona had for Vision 2016 was for parishes to think “outside their parish walls.”
“We wanted people to see how by collaborating, they can build a more vibrant and vital Catholic community,” Msgr. Colletti said. “Seeing both parishioners and pastors’ enthusiasm and ideas for how to make the Catholic Church flourish in southern Minnesota has been gratifying.”