success stories

Helpful Resources for Parishes Experiencing Transformation

Eugene Hemrick

Although the methodology of Church planners has a long way to go, we are seeing a new type of planning in which theologians, social scientists, business people and the use of prayer are working together.

When pastoral-planning strategies are analyzed, we learn of four planning tools in particular that are being employed: (1) ecclesiology, (2) social sciences, (3) a new configuration of leadership and (4) prayer.

1. Ecclesiology is helping planners explore models of parish that can best respond to new challenges facing parishes.

Diocesan planners are in agreement that the parish is the main focal point of planning. For example, Cardinal William Keeler's planning committee for the Archdiocese of Baltimore states that the parish is, and should be considered as, the local church.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., echoes Baltimore: “The parish community has been and will continue to be the center of the Church's life. Diocesan efforts must be geared to strengthening. . . .the parochial level in the fourfold ministry of the Church: in proclaiming the Gospel, in worshiping, in building community and in offering healing services to people in need."

Ecclesiology raises questions such as:

-- What should a parish most emphasize to be effective? Should it primarily focus on its teaching role, liturgical responsibilities, building community, social-justice outreach, preferential option for the poor, ecumenism?

-- Should a parish focus on maintaining a healthy status quo, or venture out and explore new models of parish life heretofore unthought of?

-- Should a priest's primary role be that of The spiritual leader and teacher, a developer of leadership, a social-justice advocate, one who witnesses, a moderator, an energizer, a promoter of shared responsibility?

Ecclesiology further asks:

-- Does a parish have a sense of the present model on which it operates?

-- How can lay-leader, deacon and priest charisms best complement one another?

-- What are good models of shared responsibility?

-- What ecclesial role do parish councils fulfill?

-- How does a parish keep a balance between koinonia and diaconia -i.e., serving its own community while at the same time serving the community at large?

-- What model of Church best enhances a parish's sacramental life?

-- What is the ecumenical vision of the parish?

-- How do you best create a unified Christian community in the midst of diverse cultures? What new understandings of Church does this require?

-- What role can small ecclesial communities fulfill as parishes tend to become mega-parishes?

-- Furthermore, what role can they play in responding to human injustices?

Some planners note that the thought of restructuring, reorganization and transformation frequently create fear and paralysis. The beauty of ecclesiology, they point out, is that it counters this by creating utopian thinking. It challenges planners to think of the best model of a Christian community they can imagine. This thinking adds spiritual imagination to planning.

2. Social sciences are the second tool being employed by planners. Dioceses are imitating the wise king in the Gospels who finds faces a large army and sits down to calculate his resources.

We are seeing dioceses reviewing related literature to learn what other planners across the country are thinking. And thanks to diocesan Web pages, this task is becoming much easier to accomplish.

Sophisticated projections are being calculated to learn what to anticipate. Histories are being constructed to see how lessons from the past can shed light on the present.

Attitudinal surveys and focus groups are being created to ascertain input from the grassroots.

Ethnographers are observing the daily life of parishes to identify happenings and events that define a parish's essence.

Financial experts are being employed to conduct actuarial studies to learn how to better capitalize on financial resources for the future.

Change strategists are being sought to learn how best to create change.

These social-science methods are grappling with questions such as:

-- How do you collect and use diocesan and parish success stories as a means of generating inspiration, hope and notable models to imitate?

-- How do you encourage parishes to work with each other and create new alliances?

-- What alternatives should a parish consider in redistributing the parish workload in light of fewer priests?

-- What population trends need most watching?

-- What model of operation does a multicultural parish adopt that has more than two dominate cultures?

-- How are parishioners' attitudes changed in regard to parish consolidations, closings and the absence of resident pastors?

-- What among all financial concerns determines what must be changed?

3. New configurations of leadership that combine clergy and Religious with laity are a third tool of planning. No longer is consultation restricted to a few selected diocesan officials making decisions and passing them on to be carried out. No longer is the pastor going it alone.

To work with advisers is now expected, and the consultation process has become much broader. It often includes talented men and women from the business, legal and medical worlds. These experts are now becoming much more co-responsible with the pastor for the parish's well-being.

4. Prayer is the fourth tool that is being utilized more fully. Planning is going beyond the drawing board and including retreats and quiet time to seek divine assistance.

Those in retreat work find that the attitudes and the determination needed for planning are best formed in a retreat atmosphere. Silence allows planners time to focus on the Scriptures, to slow things down to acquire helpful insights and, most important, to foster personal conversion.

Furthermore, a retreat provides the atmosphere needed for focusing on spirituality, which Pope John Paul II says must supersede programs. For when the purpose of planning is summarized, its main reason is to deepen people's spiritual lives.

Virtue as a tool

Interestingly, the literature on reorganization seldom speaks of virtues as such being needed to accomplish its goals. And yet, when we go back over that literature, it is implicitly calling for the practice of one type of virtue or other. Especially singled out are patience, hope, kindness, fortitude and prudence.

Bishop Hubbard implores planners to cultivate patience. Quoting from the Book of Habakkuk, he reminds them: "The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come. It will not be late."

In using this image, Bishop Hubbard reminds planners to display the firmness of faith and composure great professionals display when turbulence is urging them to panic. He further encourages them to empower their visioning with the meaning needed to create an esprit de corps.

This latter advice recalls Victor Frank!'s logotherapy. In World War II, Frank was imprisoned in a German concentration camp in which he saw people who should have lived die, and those who should have died live. He learned that those who survived did so because they were able to put meaning into their situation. Meaning gives life the power to move forward. Bishop Hubbard urges that this same type of meaning be infused into restructuring to empower it.

Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco encourages planners to be courageous. We have new challenges, “ he says, “we must be imaginative in meeting them, and we must not be afraid to take risks.”

He also employs the method of opposites, in which he advises planners to prudently face up to the negatives they are encountering and then envision the opposite. For example, he sees the challenge of ethnic and racial diversity bringing with it the difficulties of learning to minister in a truly multicultural setting. He also sees the opposite in that it is bringing a new vitality that will transform a diocese.

He envisions the explosion of demands for specialized ministries in the parish leading to intolerable burdens for pastors and parish staffs. But he also sees it leading to coordinated specialization among parishes, so that only certain parishes will undertake concerted outreach to certain groups.

He sees the challenge of laws dealing with unreinforced masonry buildings (and we can add, old buildings in need of repair) appearing at first as a death knell for a number of parishes, with staggering financial consequences. But he also sees it providing them with the opportunity to confront a basic question that complacency and sentiment have for too long prevented them from facing: How can physical plants be organized so that they best serve the needs of our people?

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee likewise challenges planners to practice courage. “We can simply grieve and lament the loses of the past, or we can accept the call courageously to build for the future."

His advice reflects Hazel Hall's, who at age 88 said: "You have to wind yourself up to find courage. It's easier to submit to whatever is. You have to shake yourself and say, 'No, this isn't what I'm going to accept.' "

Bishop Joseph Charron of Des Moines, Iowa, identifies attitudes that go counter to kindness and make people ill disposed toward restructuring: "It's all talk; not much else." ."Nothing can happen until Rome changes. Who has the time?" "The priests will never let it happen." “We start and stop in this diocese --- why bother again?" "Let's face it: We're set in our ways."

“Who cares enough --- and long enough --- to make something happen?"

In dioceses planning for fewer priests by having liturgies without a priest, bishops remind planners not to adopt a matter-of-fact attitude and consider this the norm, or reality of the future. Prudence, they point out, dictates that providing the Eucharist is and always must be a main concern of planning.

Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N. Y., states: “We will continue to give the highest priority to the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist in all of our parish communities. This is the norm for the Church except in a situation of emergency. Prudent planning must take place so that each community will have direction in the event of an emergency.”

Bishop Clark's advice reminds us to beware of the Durkheim Constant, which posits that as things get worse, the community adjusts its standards so that situations once thought unimaginable are no longer deemed so.

When all the virtues for planning are summarized, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that they speak to qualities that Romano Guardini says are at the heart of great ness: (1) the willingness to sacrifice, (2) being firm and standing behind what is important, (3) continuously broadening one's vision, (4) being bold in decisions, (5) investing one's self at a deep level, (6) striving for originality, (7) using creative powers to their maximum.


When all the major concerns of planning strategies are summarized, in one way or other they reflect the same concerns of Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi and Pope John Paul II's vision of new evangelization. Although diocesan and parish concerns tend to be more specific, they fall under the general category of evangelization --- proclaiming Christ and the Good News in new ways that will cause a conversion of heart and raise human dignity.

In Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI raises soul-searching questions that are an excellent way to begin the thinking process for any reorganization:

-- “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on a person's conscience?”

-- “To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?”

-- “What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effects?”

Paul VI points us to the ageless methods of evangelization that should be practiced regardless of what transformations the Church is experiencing: better use of the power of witnessing, catechesis, Liturgy of the Word, preaching the Word, the media, and person-to-person networking. He also sees value in the method of forming small Christian communities and the popular religiosity of the poor. Let's look at a few examples of how the practice of these methods responds to the major concerns of dioceses.

Paul VI recalls Christ's person-to- person contact with the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus and Zacchaeus and sees it as an excellent model of human networking. As a result of this personal contact with Jesus, they were inspired to become His followers and went out and passed on His message to larger communities. As simple as this method of evangelization is, it was responsible for establishing the Church.

Today, the same person-to-person networking translates into forming individual persons --- be they parishioners or non-parishioners, Catholics or non-Catholics --- into networks of ministers. Corps of people like these are the response to a diocese or a parish that is concerned about creating new programs that will effectively minister to families in trouble, youths looking for religious values, the poor, homeless, elderly and immigrants.

Note how this method of evangelization starts with people, not programs. It reminds us that the cultivation of interpersonal relationships must come first, and that it is at the heart of renewal.

When we further examine the method of networking, we see that it answers the concern of parishes that want to go beyond defined parish boundaries and reach out to persons no longer connected with the Church. It encourages us to walk the pavements and utilize the personal touch.

The establishment of small ecclesial communities that utilize Scripture and prayer to create justice awareness is yet another example of the power of networking. Not only in Latin America but also in this country, these communities are rapidly increasing and are becoming an effective instrument for justice awareness. They are also responsible for inspiring small groups of parishioners to embrace a preferential option for the poor.

Networking responds to the need to transform a Christian community of CEOs, planners, priests, deacons and lay leaders into a corps of ministers whose mission is to make parish life more spiritually effective and service- efficient. In so doing, it also responds to the call for shared responsibility and suggests that this is a very effective way to respond to the priest shortage.

Networking responds to the concern of interconnecting parish services by calling for the utilization of modern means of communication like faxes, e-mail and cellular phones.

Let's turn to another method of evangelization, which is catechesis. It is the evangelical tool parishes especially rely on to form the moral fibre of our youths and instill in them a Catholic tradition. When we think about it, the values of our Catholic CEOs, senators, congressmen and congresswomen are the result of the catechesis and the Catholic tradition they received. Many (but not all) of these leaders have influenced our country in a positive way with those values.

Catechesis responds to the concern of preparing the present generation with values that will enable them to become the future Catholic leaders in our parishes and in our country. It also responds to the concern of helping youths cope with a culture that often is antithetical to their moral development.

As we can see, better use of Paul VI's methods of evangelization respond to most of the concerns dioceses and parishes have. Books could be written on how they can be translated into revitalizing the Church and uncovering its "hidden energy of the Good News." We could go on, but prudence dictates that we stop here and bring this discussion to closure so that we not overload the reader.

No one denies that the Church, and for that matter society, is experiencing a unique transformation. Just as old water systems that once did a herculean job of providing largely pop- ulated cities with water now need to be replaced, so too do many of the systems the Church once relied on. Demographic shifts, new pressures and distressful needs are calling for a restructured and renewed Church.

In this article, we have tried to identify the major changes that are prompting the transformation, as well as the methods, innovations and virtues that are being employed to handle the changes.

Although the major transformations we are undergoing require more light to be shed on them than has been shed here, it is hoped that we have lit one small candle to help dispel some of the darkness that often accompanies nerve-shattering changes.