DPC LogoSmallFive Essential Lessons about Pastoral Planning

Today’s Parish 36:6 (October, 2004): 9-13.

By Mark F. Fischer

Fifteen years ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago developed the most thorough parish planning process I had ever seen. Father George Sarauskas, a priest of the archdiocese, gave a presentation about it at a 1989 convention for pastoral planners. The presentation was so good that I still have my notes from it. The essence of his presentation was that the archdiocese faced a $16 million parish operating deficit and needed to close several dozen parishes. By giving parishioners facts about the problems and letting them recommend their own solutions, he said, the archdiocese could solve the problems and maintain parishioner morale.

Father Sarauskas, then the archdiocese’s Director of Research and Planning, laid out a four-point solution to the archdiocese’s problems. The solution, he said, was “to convene, convoke, inquire, and critique.” By bringing parishioners together and letting them discuss the financial problems they faced, the Chicago archdiocese would, in effect, enlist them as pastoral planners. Educating them about the issues and involving them in problem-solving, the archdiocese would gain their practical wisdom. Moreover, by seeking their help as problem-solvers, the archdiocese would develop support for the difficult choices it needed to make, including the choice of closing parishes.

Chicago’s four-point solution was designed to give parishioners a measure of control, Father Sarauskas said, over the closing of parishes. He realistically acknowledged that no parishioners would want to see their parish close. But by means of a thorough planning process, he said, “it can be done with dignity.”

That was in March of 1989. Before the end of that year, the deficit reached over $26 million and the archdiocesan Finance Council recommended immediate closures. The thorough consultation recommended by Father Sarauskas was abruptly accelerated. In June of 1990, the archdiocese closed 28 parishes and 18 schools. Those who did not expect it were disappointed by archdiocesan officials. On July 9, 1990, the New York Times quoted a parish business manager who had this to say about his Chicago parish: “You put your heart into it and they take an ax and start chopping.”

Lesson One: The Consultative Nature of Pastoral Planning

What can parishes learn from the Chicago experience? Admittedly, the story of Chicago’s pastoral planning efforts took place at the archdiocesan (and not at the parish) level. The problems the archdiocese faced were vaster in scope than those faced by any one parish. The numbers of people and the financial sums involved were enormous. I believe, however, that the archdiocese’s experience can teach five lessons to parishes who embark on pastoral planning.

The first lesson is about the nature of church consultation. When the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin appointed Father Sarauskas to develop a process of consulting Chicago Catholics about parish closures, both men envisioned a consultation in the precise canonical sense of the word. Consultation means that the chief pastor (in this case, Cardinal Bernardin) wants the good advice of his people. He consults them so that his ultimate decisions will be wise and well-informed. He is not surrendering the decisions to them, but asking them to study the matter and give him their best recommendations.

This first lesson is as essential for parish planning as for diocesan planning. When a parish priest engages in pastoral planning, he consults his people. He is giving them a say in the matter. The more widely and thoroughly he consults, the better the ultimate decision. That decision, however, remains the pastor’s own. To him the bishop has entrusted the parish, and with him the buck stops. Pastoral planning begins on the wrong foot when a pastor fails to make this consultative relationship clear.

During Chicago’s parish closings, Cardinal Bernardin had put the process in motion. As chief pastor, he wanted good advice. He was consulting the Catholics of Chicago, rather than asking them to make a decision for him.

Today, as I read my notes from 1989, not everything about the consultation is clear. Based on Father Sarauskas’ presentation, I cannot tell how long the consultative process was supposed to last. Nor do I have every criterion needed by which to judge when the process would be complete. But it was clearly a consultation. Cardinal Bernardin was asking Chicago Catholics to inform, to shape, and to improve his decision. Catholic participation in church decision-making and pastoral planning – even at the parish level – is consultative.

Lesson Two: Courage to Tell the Truth

Back in 1989, Father Sarauskas laid out the problems faced by the Chicago archdiocese in startling detail. Numerous churches in the inner city, he said, were decaying. One square-mile area in the city included twelve parishes. Between 1920 and 1990, the Catholic population there had decreased by half. Once filled by German, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak, and Ukrainian immigrants, the churches had lost many parishioners. Moreover it was found that only 26% of baptized Catholics regularly attended Mass. A smaller number of churches would better serve those who remained.

The financial woes described by Father Sarauskas were also daunting. More than half of Chicago’s urban parishes operated at a deficit. The average annual cost of operating a parish was $290 per parishioner in 1988, said Father Sarauskas. The average annual contribution per worshipper, he said, was $270. The difference between the two figures contributed to the $16 million archdiocesan deficit, and meant that some parishes had to close.

By sharing these facts with Chicago Catholics, Father Sarauskas implied the existence of two commitments important to pastoral planning. First, he implied that the archdiocese was committed to transparency. The fact of low mass attendance might be embarrassing to some, but transparency was worth the price of embarrassment. Without honesty, a discussion of the future would be pointless.

Second, Father Sarauskas implied that knowledge about archdiocesan problems was the first step toward solving them. This reality principle is as old as Greek philosophy. Virtuous decisions are based on knowledge. The Johannine Jesus put it this way: the truth shall make you free.

These two commitments – first, to expressing the truth of a situation, and second, to basing decisions on that truth – are essential to pastoral planning. Father Sarauskas’ presentation struck me in 1989 as courageous because it did not shrink from unpleasant realities, but made them objects of reflection. Every pastoral planner should be so courageous. That is a second lesson from the Chicago experience.

Lesson Three: Criteria for Making Judgments

Chicago’s process taught a third lesson, a lesson about about articulating the criteria for planning decisions. The archdiocese invited its people to reflect on the “viability” of parishes. Father Sarauskas defined viability – the capacity of a parish to survive and prosper – under five headings:

1. Ministerial life. To meet this criterion of parish viability, for example, a parish must verify that it provides basic ministries, such as ministries of word, worship, service, and leadership.
2. Ministerial personnel. A thriving parish should have no fewer than 300 registered families per priest. It not only attracts congregants, but raises enough money to hire competent personnel in the parish office and school.
3. Parish demographics. To be viable, a parish must draw its members mainly from within the parish boundaries. The congregation should reflect the race, ethnicity, income, and other demographic features of parish-area residents.
4. Religious formation/education. A viable parish should have at least one certified catechist for each 20 religious education students. A parochial school contributes to the viability of a parish, to give another example, if it has at least 200 students and an acceptable ratio of tuition income to parish subsidy income.
5. Finances. The financial aspect of parish viability can be measured, for example, in terms of the average contribution of parishioners and the annual cost of parish maintenance. Financial eccentricities (e.g., when parish costs per member are much higher than average) may signify diminished parish vitality.

Under the five headings of parish viability, Father Sarauskas presented many more criteria than this brief overview allows. But even a brief overview teaches a valuable lesson to parish planners. It is not enough for pastors to describe a problem and ask parishioners to solve it. Pastors must also indicate how the problem should be solved.

The Office of Research and Planning had developed the criteria for parish viability first in 1987. Cardinal Bernardin announced the criteria and invited – but did not at first mandate – parishes to apply the criteria to themselves. Some parishes accepted the invitation. They took the initiative to consolidate, close, or merge. But these were a minority. Had every parish accepted the cardinal’s invitation, they could have judged their own viability and helped decide their own fate. Each parish could have shared responsibility for resolving the archdiocese’s financial crisis.

Lesson Four: Leadership in the Search for Practical Wisdom

Father Sarauskas’ four-point plan – “to convene, convoke, inquire, and critique” – emphasized the intellectual nature of the planning task. It is intellectual, but not in the popular sense of being restricted to an intellectual elite. Rather, pastoral planning is intellectual in the classical sense of seeking wise judgment. Planning aims at wisdom. It convenes and convokes people because sound planning needs the wisdom of all.

Inquiring and critiquing – the last points in Father Sarauskas’ four-point plan – also underline the intellectual nature of the planning task. Intellectual knowledge includes not only the expert advice of those with specialized skills, but also common sense. This is the sense about practical things, a sense that resides with people who know their parish and neighborhood. Without the facts, including accurate estimates of the community’s morale and spirit, decisions have no firm basis.

In the process sketched by Father Sarauskas, the leadership for pastoral planning lay with the vicars or deans and with archdiocesan department heads (working in cooperation with pastors). The leaders were to meet with groups of parishioners, acquainting them with the archdiocese’s financial plight and inviting their reflection. The pastors, vicars, deans, and department heads would listen to the voices of the parish. By listening, interpreting, and analyzing the voices, the leaders were to reach decisions that they could recommend to Cardinal Bernardin.

This strategy was a sound one, as far as it went. A good consultation does not put everything up to a popular vote. Some opinions count for more than others, and they should. This sounds elitist, but it is common sense. Every Catholic wants wise people to make decisions on the church’s behalf.

For that reason, pastoral planning needs a mechanism to filter out unpersuasive opinions – imprudent, ill-considered, unwise – and give due weight to the stronger ones. The vicars, deans, and department heads were to function precisely as such a filter. Pastors acted both as parish leaders and as representatives of the archdiocese, helping people to accept Cardinal Bernardin’s decisions.

To be sure, there were some weaknesses in the strategy of focusing consultation leadership solely in the hands of archdiocesan officials. But the leaders performed a valuable service. They judged which proposals were excellent enough to come to the attention of Cardinal Bernardin, and which deserved nothing more than a fair hearing.

In short, the Chicago process properly recognized that church consultation is an intellectual task that aims at wisdom. It depends in part upon the expert advice of those with specialized skills. It also depends upon the common sense that resides with people who know their parish and neighborhood. The archdiocese was not seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It sought it for the sake of wise decisions.

Lesson Five: Focusing and Limiting the Consultation

A failure of the Chicago consultation – “failure” in that the consultation was speeded up and left many Catholics angry at the church – teaches a fifth lesson. It is the lesson that consultation needs a sharp focus and clear limits. The pastor who consults should define the final product of the consultation and commit himself to consulting for an established period of time.

The consultation’s final product, for example, may be a written or oral report. Or it may be a manifestation of the collective discernment of the consultants, such as a ballot or vote. Whatever form the final product takes, that form (which expresses the result of the consultation) should be defined in advance. Prior definition focuses the efforts of the consultants. It enables them to take satisfaction in the completion of their work.

A good consultation should also have a deadline. The deadline is the moment at which the pastor expects the final product. Such a deadline helps the consultants organize their time and become realistic about how extensive their search for knowledge will be. A deadline also forces the pastor to meditate the next steps he will take after the consultation is complete.

Some people balk at the word deadline. To them it seems onerous, constricting, and incompatible with spiritual freedom. But a deadline need not be inflexible. Consultants may appeal for more time to complete their work. Pastors may invite consultants to investigate matters they had not first anticipated. A deadline is not the antithesis of spiritual freedom. It is rather a discipline that respects all parties to the consultation.

The Chicago consultation would have been more successful if its final product had been clearly defined. Instead, Chicago Catholics did not know precisely what archdiocesan officials wanted from them. They did not know in advance how the success of a consultation was to be measured.

As the consultation continued without a clear deadline, the deficit grew. The patience of archdiocesan officials wore thin. The archdiocesan Finance Council judged that, by the fall of 1989, nearly two-thirds of Chicago parishes were not meeting expenses from currently local income. This finding precipitated the decision to close parishes.
David F. Schwartz (Chicago’s present Associate Director for Research) remembers the events of 1989 clearly. Had Cardinal Bernardin not made the decision when he did, said Schwartz, he “would have needed to borrow another $15 to $20 million from very impatient bankers.”

When Cardinal Bernardin announced the changes, his decision seemed peremptory. Planning meetings became seminars to help integrate parishioners of closed churches into the churches that survived. If he had allowed the consultation to continue as it was originally envisioned (but with a clearer deadline), he might not have met the anger he did.

Father Sarauskas – now a monsignor and the newly-named pastor of St. Mary in Riverside – agrees that planning efforts must have a clear deadline. Looking back at the events of 1989, he admits, “We could have been more aggressive in insisting that parishes complete their planning by 1990.”

The failings of the Chicago process, however, cannot obscure the valuable lessons it taught about pastoral planning and the successes it enjoyed. Good planning is honest and firmly consultative, and the Chicago process was both. It revealed to participants the mind of the pastor and the problems he wanted to solve. It built upon measurable data and focused on practical wisdom. Good pastors and the people they consult will benefit from these lessons.