The pandemic has altered some of the methods but none of the urgency in discerning a new pastoral plan for the Jefferson City diocese and all of its parishes.
“There are things that may have to be done differently because of present realities, but our mission never stops,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight told 80 parish pastoral council representatives, Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) members and Chancery employees Sept. 12.
“Because we never cease being Church!” he said. “Our mission never stops. We always need to be moving forward.”
The bishop spoke from the conference room of the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center in Jefferson City.
Joining him in person were Chancery employees, DPC members and parishioners from the Jefferson City area.
Participating through video livestream were similarly constituted groups in Edina, Freeburg, Macon, Moberly and Monroe City.
Their purpose was to systematically review a working document for a new pastoral plan for the diocese.
“We are not deciding anything today,” Bishop McKnight emphasized. “We’re discerning. There’s a big difference. Deciding is about, ‘What do I want?’ Discernment is seeking what the Lord is asking of us, what He desires for us.”
The framework for the yearlong pastoral-planning process has been Number 28 of “Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the New Evangelization.
In that document, the Pope directs Catholic parishioners to look outward and minister deliberately and creatively to all people living within the territory of the parish — not just those who take part in parish life.
Bishop McKnight has identified three ways for parishes and the diocese as a whole to move toward that vision:
“This doesn’t mean the rest of the work of what goes on in your parish stops,” cautioned Dominic Perri, who facilitated the Sept. 12 assembly.
“Rather, the plan will be a focused way to inject extra life and extra energy in your parishes in addition to the foundational things you already do,” said Mr. Perri, senior leadership consultant with Leadership Roundtable (leadershiproundtable.org), a Catholic consortium that promotes excellence in management of Church resources.
From the ground up
The current pastoral-planning process began last December, when faith-sharing groups in parishes throughout the diocese met to learn about and discuss the virtue of gratitude.
In Lent, small groups met in person and online to discuss aspects of mercy and charity in parish life.
After prayer and discussion, participants submitted to their parishes the answers to questions focusing on unmet needs in their parish and community.
Pastors and lay leaders examined and complied the suggestions into doable, measurable objectives for carrying out the bishop’s three goals over the next three years.
They submitted those objectives to the diocese in the form of parish pastoral plans.
Throughout the summer, the bishop and his diocesan pastoral planning committee reviewed each of the parish plans as they were submitted.
Teens and young adults took part in an online gathering to give additional input.
DPC members met on Aug. 22 to look for themes and patterns among all of the plans submitted to the diocese.
Their observations formed the basis for the working document presented at the Sept. 12 assembly.
Participants discussed the document in small groups — specifically the aspects that ignite their passion, items that need clarification, and any concerns.
Their insights will be taken into account in creating a revised working document of the plan.
Following consultation with the priests of the diocese during their annual institute in October, Bishop McKnight plans to finalize and release the pastoral plan by the First Sunday of Advent.
The plan will shape how the diocese “coordinates and leverages its resources over the next three years to assist the parishes in fulfilling their own goals and their own activities that they are holding themselves accountable for,” the bishop stated.
At the assembly, Father Stephen Jones, diocesan director of stewardship, gave a quick presentation on the pillar of stewardship.
“Stewardship is the grateful response of a Christian Disciple who recognizes and receives God’s gifts and shares these gifts in love of God and neighbor,” he said.
Helen Osman, diocesan communications director, spoke about the road to co-responsibility.
“We need quality formation and education for our current parishioners so they can use the structures the Church gives us through which the laity can exercise their proper responsibilities for parish life,” she stated.
This will require making the most of communication technology such as email, interactive websites and social media to keep parishioners informed and connected, allow them to give feedback, register for events and enter into important conversations.
“In short, it will require us to respect how the person receiving our communication expects to be treated,” she said.
LeAnn Korsmeyer, diocesan director of parish and charitable ministries, spoke of making parishes more helpful and responsive to parishioners, and then turning their unified gaze toward the needs of the greater community.
She invited people to make use of readily available data from their parishes and from Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.
“Choose an activity and do it very well,” she suggested.
“Using the information you have gathered, start with your weakest link — who needs you the most? Are you capable of providing for their needs? If so, find a way do to it.”
Bishop McKnight said every parish is in need of “pastoral conversion.”
“We have grown very accustomed to certain ways of communicating, certain ways of acting and certain ways of deciding,” he stated. “It’s time to make a change in order for us to become more of the kind of Church the Lord is asking us to be.
“We can no longer afford the luxury of going to church and hoping and praying very hard that people will join us,” he said. “We have to go out and let the beauty of our Catholic faith shine forth.”
Participants at the assembly lauded the diocese’s willingness to listen to parishioners and build the diocesan pastoral plan around their needs.
They cautioned against adopting a single, rigid approach, due to the diversity of needs and circumstances in parishes throughout the diocese.
Several spoke of helping priests and parishioners understand the goals of the plan, how it affects their parishes and what will be expected of them.
People at the assembly spoke of “building bridges to the digital age” by addressing unreliable internet access in portions of the diocese, as well as a perceived reluctance for older people to use email and social media.
An enthusiastic consensus developed around making sure expectations for parishes and the diocese are clear and measurable and will be evaluated regularly and adjusted if necessary.
People also advocated ensuring that the voices of people on the margins are heard and taken into account.
Flexible and adaptable
Rick Nichols, the DPC representative for the Columbia deanery, said that an adaptable approach will be needed for parishes of different sizes and locales.
He also recognized participants’ concerns about educating and energizing parishioners once the pastoral plan is set into action.
The day’s discussions convinced him that any plan needs to be clear but adaptable to changing realities such as ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to measure our efforts,” he said. “We need to take stock in how we are doing things, what we need to change, how we need to adjust. What we do in 2021 may not be same as what we are doing in 2023.”
He echoed the consensus that no pastoral plan will be successful unless it energizes young people and draws them into the integral life of the Church.
A sense of community
Deacon John and Carol Schwartze, DPC representatives from the permanent diaconate community, talked about the need to expand the core group of volunteers in every parish.
“We need to go from voluntarism as a task to volunteerism as a way of life,” said Deacon Schwartze.
The couple cited as an example a thrift store operated by members of a parish they once belonged to in the Diocese of San Antonio, Texas.
“The volunteers and commitment was amazing,” said Mrs. Schwartze. “It gave us all a real sense of community and mission. You dealt with people on a weekly basis you looked forward to seeing.”
The ongoing project gave more-seasoned parishioners a venue for mentoring younger Catholics.
“It was an experience of hospitality and stewardship toward the whole community — not just the parish — and helped give us a good face in the community,” Mrs. Schwartze stated.
Proper use of authority
Bishop McKnight believes extra energy will be needed in helping people understand co-responsibility in the context of Church governance.
“Co-responsibility is not the abdication of the hierarchy or the clergy,” he noted. “We don’t have the power to dispense from the hierarchical constitution of the Church. We are Catholics! We have bishops. We have a pope. We have pastors and parishes.”
The question, therefore, is not whether bishops and pastors should have authority and power.
“The question is how should that authority and power be exercised,” Bishop McKnight asserted. “It’s our obligation to make sure that we exercise it in conformity to the mind of Christ.”
He said it’s the clergy’s obligation to make sure that people’s offerings of time, talent and treasure are used in ways that are helpful in accomplishing the mission of the Church.
The plan in action
Bishop McKnight said that once the pastoral plan has been presented to the people of the Church in the form of a pastoral letter, a more intensive round of strategic planning will take place throughout the diocese.
The bishop and Father Jason Doke, moderator of the curia, will work with the heads of the diocesan Chancery offices to develop strategic plans for each office on how to implement the diocesan objectives.
“The same process will be necessary in every parish,” the bishop stated. “Every parish is going to have to revisit their own parish plan and lay out a strategic plan in terms of how it’s going to get done.”
While overarching objectives will be outlined and explained in the diocesan plan, the specifics will be spelled out in those individual operating plans the parishes and Chancery offices will develop.
The bishop plans to invite parishes to review their parish pastoral plans each year, assessing progress and adjusting them in light of changing circumstances.
His ultimate benchmark: “whether people — not just Catholics themselves who belong to these parishes but the whole community — would see our churches as places to go to get help and also places to go to give help, especially in time of crisis and time of need.”
While he acknowledged concerns about the diocese not having enough resources — especially fewer available priests and religious — Bishop McKnight said he also sees “the great resources we have that are untapped!”
In order to draw upon those resources, parishes must look toward providing proper formation for lay leaders.
“We have to keep asking ourselves: Are we providing the opportunities for them to get involved?” he said. “And conversely, are we creating unnecessary barriers for them to come forth and serve?”
Mrs. Osman pointed out that digital communications technology opens up many new avenues for building up community and leading people to Christ.
She noted that a secure infrastructure is being created for the seamless sharing of information among parishes and the diocese.
New parish websites are being constructed, allowing parish leaders to add as much material as they deem appropriate to supplement the stream of content provided by the diocese.
She pointed out that most of the respondents to an online survey currently taking place in 10 counties in the diocese are over age 50. The overwhelming majority of them are responding online.
Simple and transparent
Bishop McKnight pointed out that the diocese is working to move away from parish assessments and the annual diocesan fund appeal that sustains the Chancery offices and other works at the diocesan level.
In its place will come a diocesan-supported annual campaign for people to renew their parish pledges of time, talent and treasure.
Parishes will make a tithe to the diocese from what the people offer in pledges.
“That, by the way, is the most transparent and simplest formula and fairest formula one could use in determining how much should a parish support the works of the diocese and the universal Church,” Bishop McKnight stated.
Youth and vocations
The bishop noted that the pastoral plan will not focus specifically on such concerns as youth engagement and vocations.
“But it will address those things in the sense that we’re looking at stewardship as a means of engaging greater participation in the life and mission of the Church — especially the youth and fallen-away Catholics,” he said.
For that to work, the invitation must be genuine and open-ended.
“We have to do the kind of inviting that requires change on our part,” the bishop stated.
He echoed Bishop Robert Barron’s assertion that the current generation of young people is drawn to transcendent beauty and concrete opportunities for service.
“They’re already motivated to participate in the works of charity the Church provides,” Bishop McKnight observed. “What we can do is provide more opportunities for them to engage in the life of the Church where they are already are.”
He said decades of data show that the most effective tool for helping young men answer the call to Priesthood is “a healthy parish that has a pastor that the adults in the parish respect.”
“So I am choosing to take the long view and try to develop from the ground up an environment and context in which all of our youth participate in the life and mission of the Church,” he said.