If it’s worth doing, it will be worth doing differently.
New realities call for changes in how the Church in this area carries out its mandate to baptize, teach and form disciples of Jesus Christ.
“We cannot be so bound by the past that we prevent the faith of the future from being born,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight wrote in his Aug. 21 “Making Connections” column about 10 of the Jefferson City diocese’s counties.
The counties — Chariton, Cooper, Crawford, Howard, Monroe, Phelps, Pike, Pulaski, Ralls and Saline — include 29 parishes and missions.
“How the Church is present in these 10 counties will change,” the bishop wrote. “Indeed, it must change in order for the Church to continue to be present in these 10 counties.”
The diocese is conducting a brief survey that will help the bishop determine how to put the diocese’s limited resources to best use in carrying out the Church’s ministry in those areas.
According to the diocese’s records, there are about 9,100 adults registered in the 29 affected parishes and missions, constituting 5,523 households.
The diocese is sending postcards to those households, as well as emails to those with valid addresses on file, asking them to complete the online survey.
All surveys, whether online or hardcopy, need to be submitted by Sept. 18.
The 14-question survey — available in English or Spanish — is designed not to take more than a few minutes to fill out.
“Some of the questions — like the ones about age and gender — are quick,” stated Renee Hanrahan, the volunteer research consultant who will collect and analyze the information from the survey. “Some will require a bit more thought and discernment.”
Respondents will answer questions about the level of growth and engagement in their parish, preferred models of combination and collaboration with neighboring parishes, the number of recent priestly, diaconal and religious vocations from each parish, and the respondent’s own level of involvement.
The final question is open-ended, asking if there’s anything specific the respondent wants to share with the local pastor and the bishop.
“Basically, we want them to be able to think things through and give us honest, good, heartfelt answers to those questions,” said Mrs. Hanrahan.
To thrive, not just survive
Mrs. Hanrahan emphasized that this is a golden opportunity for parishioners to share their ideas and perceptions with Church leaders who are interested in hearing what they have to say.
“It’s your responsibility to provide that information for the good of the parish,” she suggested. “It’s important for the vitality of each parish to have all voices heard, so this is your opportunity!”
Bishop McKnight said the purpose of the survey is not necessarily about closing parishes. Rather, “it envisions most parishes working together, being creative in deciding Mass times and other ways to collaborate,” he stated.
He cited shifting demographics, a sharp decrease in the number of available priests and consecrated religious, and necessary maintenance to parish buildings.
“The process isn’t about ‘letting go,’” stated Father Greg Oligschlaeger, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City and St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek. “It’s about thinking differently.”
As dean of the Hannibal Deanery, he has met with Bishop McKnight and other priests about how to make the best use of what the diocese has.
He said necessary changes in how parishes are organized and how the sacraments are given present an occasion for people to help plan for the future.
“We have been given a process for discussing these matters — first at the parish level and then at the deanery level and then at the diocesan level,” he stated. “I applaud the process.”
Regarding combination and coordination among parishes, he pointed to benefits such as simply having enough available lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion each Sunday.
“You don’t always get that in some of our smaller parishes that have gotten smaller due to various factors over the years,” he stated. “You often wind up with the same people always having to do everything.”
He also cited the benefits of parish staffs collaborating and strengthening programs such as youth ministry and sacrament preparation.
“In that sense, we can work together as a parish to thrive, as opposed to just trying to have a church survive,” he said.
He has seen how drawing people into larger groups can bring new energy and vitality.
Since there are several models for parish collaboration and combination, Bishop McKnight hopes the people will help him find the best way to serve them within the current realities.
And it can’t stop there.
“These considerations that the faithful will discern in the 10 counties will eventually need to be discerned throughout the entire diocese,” Fr. Oligschlaeger noted.
He pointed to the bishop’s observation that that the average age of active priests in this diocese, excluding international clergy, is over 60.
Within five years, the diocese will likely have 11 fewer priests in active ministry.
“We’re never going to stop praying for priestly vocations and believing that God will send us what we need,” said Fr. Oligschlaeger. “But we must also cooperate with God’s grace in making the best use of the priests that are available to us now and in the near future.”
Looking for answers
The survey results will lead to action.
Working with local pastors, his priest advisors on the Diocesan Presbyteral Council, and his lay advisors on the Diocesan Pastoral Council, Bishop McKnight will make decisions steeped in prayer and the people’s input.
“Bishop McKnight really, really wants parishioner feedback,” said Mrs. Hanrahan. “He’s asking the people to look at the current limited resources and develop fresh ideas for involving parishioners, to ensure the Church’s availability for future generations.”
She previously conducted research and numerous community needs assessments for the United Way of the Plains in Wichita, Kansas, and as director of community benefit for Ascension Via Christi, the largest provider of healthcare services in Kansas.
She has also conducted several parish-needs assessments, using targeted surveys, data analysis and focus groups for the Diocese of Wichita.
“Bishop McKnight told me he wanted someone who has experience in gathering and interpreting parish data and care about what the people are trying to say,” she said. “As an applied sociologist, who is also Catholic and recently retired, I was eager to assist with this research effort.”
She said the more people who respond to the survey, the more reliable the data will be.
Her goal is for enough people to participate to yield a 95-percent level of confidence with a margin of error of +/- 5 percent in the results.
Statistically, that would require at least 400 adults responding to the survey.
“And if I heard back from several thousand, I would be ecstatic,” she said. “That would mean the research results would be much more valid and reliable.”
“Analysis and context”
Mrs. Hanrahan said the survey takes tangible and intangible aspects of each community into account.
“Data means little without proper analysis and context,” she noted. “I want to know the history of that parish and it’s community — whether they’re growing, whether parishioners are involved and whether vocations are being realized.”
Similarly, the sacramental and evangelical culture of each parish tells a great deal about whether that parish can be sustained and grown.
“If the communities around that parish are dying, the chances are good that the parish is also struggling to stay alive,” she said. “Also, if people are moving into the area but the Church isn’t growing, there may be other challenges that need to be addressed.”
Bishop McKnight acknowledged that this kind of change can be frightening and difficult, and he wishes to prayerfully accompany the faithful through any transitions that take place.
“We’re never alone,” he said. “God is with us, and we never stop holding each other up in prayer.”
He is confident that a new springtime for the local Church is on the horizon.
He pointed to the emerging parish and diocesan pastoral plans that will promote a spirituality of Catholic stewardship as a way of life; proper collaboration among the ordained and the laity; and a universal recognition of every parish as a center of mercy and charity.
He is convinced that all of these things, sealed and strengthened with God’s grace, will help ensure a holy, vigorous and vital Catholic Church in this area for current generations and for those who will follow.
“When we open our minds and hearts in gratitude to all the greater things God has planned for us, we will realize that we really are better together,” he said.
More information can be found at: diojeffcity.org/ten-counties.