Monday, September 17, 2007

Changes possible for archdiocese, parishes, schools

Brian T. Olszewski reported last month in our Catholic Herald on Archbishop Dolan's appointment of Father James Connell as vicar of planning. Fr. Connell wrote and is circulating a paper of "starter questions" called "Energizing Our Vibrancy". Based in part on responses to it, he will make recommendations to Archbishop Dolan. Preliminary conclusions are expected to be known by Thanksgiving, and he hopes new planning ideas will be in place for the spring budget planning for the fiscal year starting next July.

The article had a promising start, with Archbishop Dolan and Fr. Connell citing Matthew 28:19-20.
“For sometime -- three, four, five years, there has been a growing concern among the priests that we are not getting the planning job to where it needs to be,” said the 64-year-old priest. “We keep working at it, we keep talking about it, we had these new initiatives these last few years.”

What's he doing instead?
In July, he published and distributed to about 500 people a document titled “Energizing Our Vibrancy” in which he posed what he termed “starter questions” about the present and future of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The term "starter questions" looked like an acknowledgement that there's been an enormous amount of time and effort wasted in what was called planning. This goes back well more than five years. What we need is failure analysis, including looking at the assumptions on which the current planning approach is based. Instead we're getting a variation on the same approach. If he'll be trying to extract themes from huge numbers of responses, he repeats the mistake of the current process. It's too unsystematic, and based too much on opinion, and opinion of what the facts are, rather than on facts.
When Fr. Connell, a priest of 20 years, cites the loss of vibrancy in the church, he notes it’s caused by fewer people in church and fewer participating in the life of the church; few students in Catholic schools, fewer priests and nuns, and buildings that continue to deteriorate.

Aren't these effects, not causes? And if you want to know why people don't come to Sunday Mass, shouldn't you survey those people, not ask insiders and the self-selected their opinions? Fr. Connell was once a management consultant. When deterioration demoralizes people and causes more deterioration, isn't that a death spiral?

Fr. Connell raises the possibility of parishes not being geographic districts.
“I say the more that people can be pulled together in the grouping of how they tend to live life — that’s that identifiable community.”

This might mean some form of "intentional community", of which the most prominent local example is the Cathedral parish. From what's in this story it looks like the main effect is to provide a reason to "intentionally" not evangelize the people moving into all the new residential buildings in and near downtown Milwaukee.
“The younger people aren’t around that much; they’re the ones we’ve got to be finding and bringing back and getting attracted to this again,” he said about the evangelization component of his work. “The older folks, who have been very faithful and loyal, are going to say, ‘This is mine; this is the way we built it’ and yet, it’s not about them as much as it is about the younger people.”

Some of those older people apparently can't conceive or won't accept that what appeals to younger people now can be different than back when they were younger.
“We have more of an inroad to the vibrancy by being grouped in fewer yet larger organizational structures."

He appears to assume that creating larger parishes will produce the energy of Protestant megachurches. In fact no parish in our Archdiocese draws as many as 3,000 people on Sunday. Unless this can be changed with the parishes we have, we should expect that even larger parishes will be even more hollow.

He returns to his point of what views are most important.
“We’re at the point where this is not a matter of necessarily what people want in a popularity contest, because the ones who will vote are not necessarily the ones who will need,” he said. “The voters are the ones of the older group who are in church so to speak.”

So to speak, our clergy and Chancery and parish staffs are full of people committed to protecting the status quo.
In recent years, members of parishes affected by declining membership and subject to mergers developed plans resulting in mergers or in the closure of parishes and the opening of a new one. Fr. Connell appreciates that process — as far as it goes.

“Where the people themselves, from the bottom up, have done as much as they can, but we cannot get the matters resolved, they have to be resolved,” he said.

So the people who set up the process find it inadequate. Instead of investigating that failure, he assumes an alternate process will come up with better answers.
"We will be finding that the archbishop will have to make decisions where in the past they have been waiting for the people to make the decisions."

The various planning processes in our Archdiocese can be judged a success, if the goal was to discredit participatory democracy. From what I've seen, they and the similarly operated parish councils and committes are among the causes of the loss of energy.

If the Archbishop has solid data to rely on, which I doubt, and has a genuine concern for the people affected, which I'm willing to assume, and gives people an opportunity to point out problems he might not have considered before his decision are final, this might at least be less protractedly painful than the previous rounds of planning. I doubt the data since I got an inkling that the number of Catholics "on the books" has been left inflated because falling mass attendance percentages were easier to ignore than a falling total membership.

On schools,
“We close the schools that generally have financial problems, and they might actually be the schools we most need open, in terms of the mission of the church.”

Might be, in principle. Now if Father has a time machine so we can have a few decades of homilies on how this is connected to the Gospel, it just might work in practice.
In the interview with your Catholic Herald, he noted, “(Personnel) need to be pulled together in such a way that they serve the people and the mission of the church.”
As opposed to figuring the Archdiocese won't collapse until after they're collecting a pension.
“As a pastor, I would be delighted to run a parish with all volunteers. We pay people simply because we have activities, functions that need to be done and we do not have competent volunteers willing to volunteer sufficiently to do that which needs to be done,” he said.

And all we need to "energize the vibrancy" is energy. So isn't the question the source of the loss of energy? One possibility that comes to mind is asking what might be at stake if a Catholic routinely skips Sunday Mass, or, for that matter, if a Catholic leaves the Church. If the answer is "everything", that's probably more energizing than "not much".


  1. I don't totally agree with you, but I think you made some good points. Especially concerning the lack of hard data and what data exists to say mega-churches will solve the problem. Also, if this plan is the answer, I have a feeling it would be greatly compromised by those with money (something the Archdiocese wants) skewing the plans to serve rich and neglect those in poorer areas of the Archdiocese with less influence.

  2. "Go, then and teach all nations..."

    That would seem to be Strategy AND Tactics 101--without which all the MBA market surveys will come to naught.