Archbishop George J. Lucas shares his vision for flourishing parishes at a Journey of Faith kickoff meeting April 30 at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha. DEACON TIM McNEIL

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Parishes begin planning for how to flourish amid challenging realities

With a spirit of openness and gratitude, along with some questions and concerns, more than 800 priests and lay leaders from parishes throughout the Omaha archdiocese recently came together to begin charting a course into the future.

Groups from every parish attended one of seven kickoff meetings around the archdiocese to learn more about “Journey of Faith,” a planning process to help parishes flourish and become missional communities, and to begin the work of aligning parishes into collaborative groupings, or “families,” to achieve that goal.

“There was a lot of information shared in a short amount of time, but the meetings felt like a great start,” said Father Scott Hastings, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield, vicar for clergy and a member of the archdiocese’s Journey of Faith planning team.

“Overall, the comments were really positive,” he said. “The most common thing we heard was probably ‘Thank you for doing this,’ … for being proactive and not reactive.”

Father Ryan Lewis, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Parish in Omaha, is grateful for Archbishop George J. Lucas’ leadership in taking action to address trends that affect the viability of parishes, including a projected decline in numbers of priests, falling participation in the faith by Catholics, and shifting populations in both rural and urban areas.

“These are the realities that we can either face or put off,” he said

“I was thrilled that my parish is taking to it (the planning process) as positively as they are,” Father Lewis said.

“I didn’t hear negativity, I didn’t hear discouragement, I didn’t hear resignation or despair,” he said. “I heard, sort of a ‘can do,’ let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to it.”

“I was very pleased with the kickoff meetings around the archdiocese,” said Archbishop Lucas. “There was good information shared about our present reality and trends moving forward. I appreciated the high level of engagement of the clergy and parishioners who attended. 

“I have real confidence in the planning process which we have introduced,” he said. “We all want flourishing parishes, and we will do our best to create the structures that will support that. Now the work begins to formulate a plan within each of the families of parishes.”

OUR JOURNEY

The planning process, which began late last year, was introduced to priests during their February Clergy Conference, with proposed families of parishes and their schools released shortly after Easter.

Pastors are now organizing planning teams to work as parish families to develop plans for collaborating and sharing resources within established parameters that address priests’ workloads and essential duties, parish staffing, and parish and school governance.

Pastors have received guidelines for assembling planning teams of about 12 members, plus priests, said Phil LaSala, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese.

Teams should include members from each parish in a family, selected from finance, pastoral and school councils, school principals or administrators, deacons, parish leaders and staff, and other active parishioners, he said.

A planning template will be sent to pastors by early June, LaSala said.

As the teams work to develop their plans, the archdiocese will provide continuous consultation and help, said Calvin Mueller, head of coaching and rural engagement for the archdiocese.

“None of us are pretending to have it all figured out,” he said. “So, as we collectively pray and think through what success looks like, we know that different ideas are going to surface that are going to help other families as a whole.”

“What we’re looking for from each parish is how do you propose flourishing,” Father Hastings said. “It’s easy to focus on Mass times and where the priest lives, but those are a means to an end. We hope parishes think, this is really a time to engage people in a new way.”

‘THE CHURCH THAT WE LOVE’

One person familiar with what it takes for several parishes to become one family is Rachel Becker, a member of All Saints Parish in Cedar County who attends Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Fordyce, one of three worship sites that make up the parish.

St. John the Baptist, along with St. Joseph in Constance and St. Boniface in Menominee, successfully came together as one parish four years ago. All Saints now will join with seven other parishes as one family.

“We have to look at our mission and stay focused on it,” Becker said. “This is the Church that we love, so we can’t be focused only on what we want, but we have to be more community minded. And we have to take care of our priests. They’re not superhuman, so we have to help them out.”

Parish families will submit their plans in November for approval by the archbishop by year end. Implementation will begin in 2023.

Between now and then, priests will convene again in June, and additional meetings with family pastoral planning teams may be held, possibly in September.

“I invite all in the archdiocese to pray for this process, as we undertake the Journey of Faith,” Archbishop Lucas said. “We must begin with prayer, asking God to reveal his plans for us to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ in our time and in the coming years.

“I also encourage all parishioners to become informed about the challenges we face, as well as the process to plan for the future. We will all experience some changes. Together, we can shape what we will experience with the power and the confidence of the Gospel.”