Task force leads strategic planning process
By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
June 26, 2008
As the number of priests who serve in active ministry in the Diocese of Sioux
City declines, a long-range planning process is underway to evaluate how to best
utilize priest manpower while providing the most effective ministry at parishes.
Armed with the knowledge that the number of active priests could be reduced
by more than 40 percent in 10 years, it was the priests who called for a
"The priests of the diocese as a whole were instrumental in bringing
this about," noted Msgr. Duchaine, who said this concern was raised
repeatedly at Presbyteral Council meetings.
In November of last year, he said the issue was again raised at the priests'
"Rather than letting it drop once more, a suggestion was made that a
Strategic Planning Task Force be established with a purpose of looking into this
matter of parish viability, organization and good use of priestly
manpower," he said.
Msgr. Duchaine, vicar general and pastor at St. Mary Church in Mapleton and
St. Mary Church in Oto, serves as chairperson of the task force. Three other
priests on the Presbyteral Council quickly came forward to work with him: Msgr.
Kenneth Seifried of St. Joseph Parish in Milford, Father Bill Schreiber of St.
Mary Parish in Humboldt and St. John the Evangelist Church in Gilmore City and
Father Armand Bertrand of Immaculate Conception Church in Cherokee and St. John
the Baptist Church in Quimby.
All four priests volunteered to serve on the committee because they realized
the importance of planning for the future of the diocese.
Numbers tell story
According to Msgr. Seifried, the number of priests in active ministry in the
diocese will take a significant downturn in the next 10 years.
Currently, there are 78 priests available for active parish ministry in the
diocese - 11 of whom are of retirement age but have chosen to continue ministry
(not including the five to retire in July). In 2014, it is anticipated that 53
priests (those under the age of 70) will be available for ministry. By the year
2019, the number of active priests available for ministry who will be under age
70 is expected to be 39.
The numbers and facts speak to the urgency to create a workable plan.
"If you don't manage change, change is going to manage you," Msgr.
Seifried noted. "The priests and the people know - from their everyday life
in their community that their schools are combining and consolidating, and they
are losing people. They know that their church might also have to do the
Members of the task force also mentioned the June 22 article in the Sioux
City Journal that addressed the decline of retail shopping in rural cities -
just another reality of the mobile society in a declining rural population.
The goal of this long-range plan, Msgr. Seifried said, is to provide the best
ministry at parishes while making sure the priests are not worked to the point
In addition to the large number of priests eligible for retirement, there's
also the possibility of untimely death and restrictive illnesses.
"We simply have to have something ready for this eventuality," said
Msgr. Duchaine. "It's not a possibility - it's going to happen."
He added that many of the retired priests continue to assist on weekends and
take parish Masses where they live, but it is not prudent to count on that in
any long-term sense.
"Streamlining, reorganizing parishes is an important goal of this for
the purpose of maintaining the priests we do have and providing the priestly
service that is needed in our parishes," said Msgr. Duchaine.
Planning creates options
"I had been looking at demographics for a long time before this, as my
brother priests had," said Father Bertrand. "We were questioning: Are
we going to deal with the realities reactively or proactively. Reactively would
cause great pain and suffering along the way because we would have no options to
work with. In a proactive sense, this strategic planning kind of concept is a
While the process is in its initial stages, for many parishes the plans could
mean further collaboration with another parish or more parishes - sharing a
variety of resources. It could also mean that three or four smaller parishes
will be amalgamated into one larger parish, streamlining efficiency by creating
just one administrative unit while maintaining separate worship sites in the
various churches that comprise the parish. In certain cases it could mean parish
The committee members stressed the fact that Bishop R. Walker Nickless feels
strongly that closing parishes is a last resort only.
The diocese went through a long-range planning process in the mid 1990s
called Ministry 2000. Through that process, the committee members learned that
some things worked and other things didn't. Msgr. Duchaine said this process is
not a duplicate nor a part-two that earlier process.
Part of the job of the task force will be to raise the awareness level of
parishioners regarding the current situation. Many may not know that as of this
year, 2008, the diocese has 16 priests in active ministry who are either at the
age of 70 or are going to turn 70. All could have opted to retire, but only five
The perfect storm
Msgr. Duchaine stressed that if they had all retired, it would have been
impossible to cover all the openings with the limited number of active priests
That situation would have made for what Father Schreiber described as
"the perfect storm." It would have forced a reactive response as
opposed to proactive one.
"We would have heard a howl of protest out there," said Msgr.
Duchaine. "Fortunately, because we have such a devoted priesthood, 11 of
the 16 retirement-age decided to continue on at least for another year, but they
are eventually going to be stepping down and all the while others will be
reaching retirement age, too."
As lay people gain awareness about the current status, Father Schreiber said
it may motivate parishes to evaluate their own situations and possibly take
action to reduce some of the workload of priests. For instance, they may opt to
eliminate one of their Masses on weekends or may even realize the need to look
at unifying their pastoral/administrative efforts with a neighboring parish or
And parishioners are not the only ones who want to know what the future may
hold. Msgr. Seifried said that when a priest is asked to take an assignment they
want to know what to expect during their tenure, whether they will be at some
point asked and expected to take on an additional parish.
This task force meets on a monthly basis and reports its findings on a
regular basis to the Presbyteral Council. Priests on that council offer input
and the bishop offers guidance as to the next step.
"There is a lot of affirmation out there among the priests for this
committee," Msgr. Seifried said. "It has really raised a positive,
refreshing spirit out there."
The priests, he noted, have stressed the importance of the laity having a
"There will be two ways to involve the parishioners on the local level.
A form will be sent to every household in the diocese with parish vitality
indicators," explained Father Schreiber. "They will be able to assess
where they think their local parish is at."
Another form will be that of a parish viability survey, to be completed by
parish leadership teams: parish staff, pastoral councils, finance committees and
"They need to look at what reality really is and it will help them see
if they are healthy spiritually and determine if they are growing as
people," he said.
While financial viability is no doubt important and can even be considered
essential, the priests said that is just one factor to determine viability. Mass
attendance, percentage of parishioners involved in ministry, educational
offerings and many other factors play a role.
Because the task force wanted to gain input from the priests and people who
live here, Msgr. Duchaine said they intentionally did not seek involvement of
outside consultants for this process.
Plans are to have something in place by the spring of 2009 so that the bishop
can make that year's assignments based on these results.
(This is the first in a series of articles on the long-range planning