For the past several months Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., along with the offices and consultative bodies of the Diocese, have been engaged in serious discussions regarding the need to plan for the future of the Church in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
Facing the reality of major shifts in population and societal trends, as well as the number of priests who are rapidly approaching retirement, the Bishop sought the advice of these groups, asking for a way to address the challenges that lie ahead.
The end result was a recommendation that the Diocese engage the priests, deacons, religious and laity who are all part of our 107 parishes, along with our diocesan ministries and Catholic institutions in our four counties, in a planning initiative that would help address the challenges that we are encountering, and help set our parishes and ministries on a footing that will enliven and strengthen our worship and deepen our commitment to serve others through diocesan ministries and our charitable organizations.
Multiple challenges are calling us to strengthen faith formation in our religious education programs and Catholic schools.
This effort will also enable us to see ourselves as a multicultural Church, welcoming and integrating the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the Diocese into our parish communities.
As my working partners and I began to lay the ground work for the planning initiative that is now known as Faith in Our Future, we met with various constituents throughout the Diocese to unveil the methodology of planning.
Two overriding questions continued to surface: “What is strategic planning?” and “Why does the Church have to plan?” Neither question was unreasonable. After all, for most of us, the Church has been the unchanging bedrock in our lives. What, if anything, would bring us to the brink of having to look at the Church through the lens of a planning process, and have us evaluate our parishes or the ministry in which we serve?
Let’s start with the second question. The answer to the question of “Why does the Church have to plan?” is found in the realities mentioned earlier in this article, some of which need to be addressed immediately and others that we will face in the very near future.
Several are worth looking at in greater detail. We are facing a decline in the number of priests to staff parishes and ministries. The number of those preparing for the priesthood will not meet the need.
We look around and see a reduction in population growth as the size of our families becomes smaller. Smaller families are reflected in a diminishing number of Catholics.
Added to that is the trend that, in today’s societal climate, fewer people feel the need to engage in religious practice and weekly Sunday worship. Parishes are finding it more difficult to recruit volunteers to staff religious education programs and outreach ministries.
With the decline in Church membership, our Diocese and parishes suffer from a loss of income, placing stress on their financial resources. A growing number of parishes are unable to meet the demands of higher costs of healthcare, payroll obligations or the upkeep of parish properties.
Suffering from a lack of funding, pastors and their staffs are limited or simply unable to enliven and strengthen parish communities so that they can effectively minister to their people. The Diocese has funded the shortfall from parishes to the amount of nearly $60 million over the last 15 years.
Lastly, a positive change and yet a challenge for the Diocese and the parishes is the influx of new Hispanic immigrants, along with a large number of young, first-generation, Latino Americans who have become part of our diocesan landscape.
Realizing that we are a multicultural Church means that we need to establish new ministries and integrate their culture into our liturgies and parish prayer life. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing segment of our diocesan family and will be the largest group of Catholics in the next few years.
Bishop O’Connell, knowing the challenges that are before us, has invited us in a spirit of prayer and collaborative discussion to help him arrive at sound solutions that will best serve the people in our parishes and diocesan ministries.
Hopefully having answered the question of why planning, we can turn to the question of planning itself.
What is planning? Webster’s dictionary defines it simply as the act of making or carrying out plans for the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures for a social or economic unit. It happens every day.
Our family can be considered a social unit, and so we plan the purchase of a home, the next vacation and our children’s education.
We not only plan, but we come to a decision on how to achieve the end result.
Other social and economic units are businesses and corporations, as well as municipalities and school districts, and each enters into their own process of planning periodically according to their needs. Businesses and corporations plan in order to create better products (research and development), and to increase earnings (fiscal responsibility), hoping for a better return on their investment.
More recently, we have become attuned to the discussions at the state level and in our towns regarding the well-being of our municipalities and school districts. They, like many other institutions, deal with the same challenges that we are facing as a Church: demographic shifts, fewer young families with children, escalating cost of providing services.
And so they plan. These realities are not going to disappear. In each instance, without planning, these tasks will become even more difficult to solve and the decisions more painful to act upon.
Here in the Diocese of Trenton, under the leadership of Bishop O’Connell, we have undertaken two great initiatives – Faith to Move Mountains, an endowment campaign that will secure our financial future, giving us the necessary resources needed to minister to God’s people; and Faith in Our Future, planning that will help to set us on the road to stronger parishes and ministries here in the Diocese.
The success of these initiatives is dependent on the prayerful support and active engagement of the faithful. Only together can we meet the goals that our Bishop has set for us, and be able to realize all that we can become as parish communities, and all that is possible as we serve the mission of this Church of Trenton.