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Father John Norman, pastor of St. Peter de Alcántara in Ewing and St. John the Baptist in Deloit Township, makes a point during a meeting of priests Jan. 10 at St. Patrick Parish in Fremont. There, Father Jeffrey Lorig and Father Scott Hastings introduced priests to a plan for organizing rural parishes in light of the projected decline in future numbers of priests and shifting rural population. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Rural parishes forge a new way forward

Conversations are beginning around the archdiocese aimed at ensuring the future viability of rural parishes while helping them achieve the archdiocese’s pastoral vision and priorities.

These conversations are the start of a process to help parishes not only survive but thrive given the declining numbers of priests projected for the future and shifts in rural population, said Father Jeffrey Lorig, director of pastoral services for the archdiocese.

“The goal is to find a better way to set up our parish groupings to allow for the reality that we’ll have (up to) 24 fewer priests in five years,” he said. “By five years, we’re going to have to make some dramatic changes.” 

Currently, 132 priests are involved in active ministry in 138 parishes. Within five years, the archdiocese is projected to have 17 to 24 fewer – that is, 108 to 115 priests. In 10 years, there could be as few as 98 priests. 

During a meeting Jan. 10 at St. Patrick Church in Fremont, Father Lorig and Father Scott Hastings, vicar for clergy and judicial vicar, introduced priests of the archdiocese to a proposal for grouping rural parishes, sharing pastors and other resources.

The plan aims to adequately serve the needs of the faithful without creating excessive workloads for priests, and to avoid church closings in the future, if possible.

“We’re all in this together,” Father Lorig said, “so we need a give-and-take for how we’re going to make this work for everybody.”

Late last year, Father Lorig assumed responsibility for pastoral planning in the archdiocese, a job previously held by Deacon Stephen Luna, who retired from that role but continues as director of human resources for the archdiocese.

WHERE THE PROCESS LEADS

Father Lorig is helping parishes begin the planning process through meetings around the archdiocese.

“At a bare minimum, it means sharing a pastor and a Mass schedule,” he said, much as some rural parishes do now. In some cases, parishes currently sharing a pastor may be grouped with additional parishes that would be served by a pastor and one or two associate pastors. 

Canon law requires that each parish must have its own finance council, but parishes are free to “be creative” concerning pastoral councils. “We recommend a hybrid council that might have two or three people from each parish,” Father Lorig said.

But change is not being imposed. Rather, staff, parish leaders and other parishioners are asked to join the discussion to advise pastors in determining what works best for their parishes.

Other organizational models could include hiring a shared business administrator, director of evangelization or other staff, sharing resources and programs such as religious education and faith formation, all the way up to merging and becoming one parish with several church sites. 

“What’s scary is losing your parish identity, but there’s no reason to do that, unless it makes sense to become one parish,” Father Lorig said. The goal is not to close any churches if possible.

EARLY PROGRESS

One parish already experienced with that form of sharing is Sacred Heart Parish in Boyd County, the result of the 2007 merger of three parishes – Ss. Peter and Paul in Butte, Assumption in Lynch and St. Mary in Spencer.

Representatives from that parish have been meeting for the past month with those of St. Patrick in O’Neill, St. Joseph in Amelia, St. Joseph in Atkinson and St. Boniface in Stuart to discuss how the five parishes could come together as a group with one pastor.

Father Bernard Starman, pastor in O’Neill and Amelia, said, “The initial feedback from the meetings we’ve had from the pastoral councils and lay leaders was far more positive than any of us expected.” 

“People have been expecting this,” he said. “They know we don’t have a lot of alternatives at this time.”

Father Starman compared the situation to the early days of the diocese when a “circuit riding” priest traveled from O’Neill to Norfolk, serving the missions in between. “We’ve come full circle,” he said, “trying to provide the best service that we can to everybody involved.”

“Our intent is to share and collaborate as much as we can in all areas,” he said. “We’re not looking at a reduction in personnel, and if someone has a plan or program that’s working at one site, we may say, ‘Teach us how to do that too.’ I’m hearing from some of the lay leaders in Stuart that it’s exciting to think about all the things we can do together.” 

Given its central location and its larger staff, St. Patrick would be the hub, Father Starman said. That group of parishes would be served by a pastor and two associate pastors.

Although long distances may preclude bringing people from different parishes to one location for programs, he said, “it may be that over the next couple years we look at curriculums and the way those programs are structured and we say, ‘How about we all do the same thing?’”

Father Starman said teleconferencing technology also could assist in bringing programs to each location.

QUALITY OF LIFE

The pastoral planning proposal also calls for greater lay involvement in future functioning of parish life to ensure a reasonable workload for priests.

“If a pastor doesn’t want to work 80 hours a week, he will have to rely on teams and lay leaders … who can take responsibility for the mission of the church as well and not be completely dependent upon the priest,” Father Lorig said.

Father Kevin Vogel, pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Elgin and St. Bonaventure in Raeville, said people in his parishes have been understanding and supportive, and are ready to make this step.

Those parishes will be grouped with St. Peter de Alcántara in Ewing, St. John the Baptist in Deloit Township, St. Theresa in Clearwater and St. John the Baptist in Petersburg. Eventually that group also will likely include St. Francis of Assisi in Neligh and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tilden.

“This is an opportunity to establish the kind of model that will lead to stability into the future,” Father Vogel said, “and helping people come to understand that the solidity of the parishes relies a lot on them, not necessarily on the individual priests.”

During planning meetings when discussing Mass schedules and the demands placed on the priests, “people were very gracious and said, ‘don’t forget about yourselves,’” he said.

Father Vogel said he anticipates that one business manager would serve all the parishes “freeing up the priests to do the things only priests can do.”

He said St. Boniface in Elgin will likely be the hub parish where a central office would be located, because of its somewhat central location and because Pope John XXIII Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School is located there. 

The school is currently a partnership between all of the parishes proposed for this group, except for Ewing and Tilden.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Father Lorig said the proposed changes will be beneficial for both priests and the faithful.

“You have a little more flexibility with the Mass schedule, there’s less isolation for priests and there’s more opportunity for team ministry,” he said.

Other benefits include the ability to provide a training ground for young priests, opportunities for more senior associate pastors and building a leadership culture for clergy and laity.

“We’ve asked ourselves, ‘Can Catholic life flourish with greater lay leadership?’” Father Lorig said. “I think so.” 

Mostly, it’s about long-term viability, he said. “The world changes, and it’s never going to be like it was 30 years ago. It’s a different paradigm of doing church.”

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