How should pastoral planning decisions be made?
'Fourth Plan' emphasizes discernment and dialogue

Frank Swedinski, a former parishioner at the Church of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Taunton, holds an invitation he received from the Church of St. Mary in Arlington in 2009. After Ss. Cyril and Methodius closed in 2008, 13 of its church’s stained-glass windows were sold to St. Mary’s. Swedinski’s invitation was to a dedication ceremony for the windows in their new home on Oct. 25, 2009. (Photo by Gayle VanVooren/Minneota Mascot)

Frank Swedinski, a former parishioner at the Church of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Taunton, holds an invitation he received from the Church of St. Mary in Arlington in 2009. After Ss. Cyril and Methodius closed in 2008, 13 of its church’s stained-glass windows were sold to St. Mary’s. Swedinski’s invitation was to a dedication ceremony for the windows in their new home on Oct. 25, 2009. (Photo by Gayle VanVooren/Minneota Mascot)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / June 2014

NEW ULM – For over 100 years, Catholics in Taunton, Minn., didn’t have to travel very far to make it to Sunday Mass. That included Frank Swedinski. Every week he and his wife would make the four-mile trek into town to Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, their seven children in tow. The parish’s 350-seat brick church was just the right size for the family of nine and their fellow parishioners.

Today it isn’t that easy for him. In 2008, Ss. Cyril and Methodius closed, largely due to a drop in the area’s Catholic population. A couple of years later, the church building was torn down.

Swedinski wasn’t looking forward to it. But despite the pain, he’s grateful that it happened. He knew it was the best direction given the circumstances.

“There was a lot of difference of opinion on what we should do and how we should do it and stuff like that, but in the end, everybody agreed (on) the main question: We have to close,” he said. “Everybody accepted that fact – not joyfully, but it’s a fact.”

Swedinski said he and his fellow parishioners started discussing their parish’s future around 2003, when the diocese’s “Third Plan for Parishes” was promulgated by then-Bishop John C. Nienstedt and published in The Prairie Catholic. There, they read that Ss. Cyril and Methodius had been designated as a possible future oratory due to its small size.

The designation didn’t surprise them. For years they’d been watching their parish’s population decline as fewer and fewer younger families stepped in to replenish their ranks. Not only that, but their long-time pastoral administrator – Sr. Roselle Zollar, a School Sister of Notre Dame who started serving the parish in 1986 – retired in 2003 for health reasons. The fact that no one was hired to replace her only confirmed that things probably would have to change.

So, as would happen in any small community, they began to talk – at coffee houses, in homes, or wherever they happened to run into one another. Even though no one wanted to talk about it, they chose to anyway, Swedinski said.

Eventually, those conversations culminated in a series of parish meetings in 2008, at which parishioners could express their ideas and learn about different available options. Their pastor, Fr. Jeremy Kucera, and diocesan staff were present to facilitate the meetings and answer questions. “The opportunity was there for all of us to express our opinions and our feelings and to (be made) aware of why it was being done,” Swedinski said.

In the end, those who attended realized that the best, most viable option for Ss. Cyril and Methodius was for it to close. So on Oct. 25, 2008, Bishop John M. LeVoir celebrated the final Mass at the church. Many past and present parishioners attended.

What made that final Mass easier for Swedinski and his fellow parishioners to accept was the way Fr. Kucera prepared them. During several Sunday homilies beforehand, Fr. Kucera reminded them that the Jesus they worshiped at Ss. Cyril and Methodius was also present at the Catholic parishes they’d be joining. He also encouraged them to become involved at their new parish, something Swedinski embraced wholeheartedly. Today, you’ll find him chairing the finance council and singing in the choir at St. Edward’s in Minneota.

Facing reality

Ss. Cyril and Methodius is the only church Bishop LeVoir has had to close since coming to the Diocese of New Ulm six years ago. He knows, however, that it likely won’t be his last. With fewer Catholics and fewer priests projected for the future, the diocese simply won’t be able to maintain the 76 it currently has.

“If we were to build churches today, we wouldn’t put them where they are now and there wouldn’t be as many,” Bishop LeVoir said. “We’ve got to work with what we have to ensure that the faith is celebrated and passed on.”

His observation is echoed in the “Fourth Plan for Parishes,” the diocese’s most recent pastoral planning document. “At some point, most area faith communities will no longer be able to function well simply by reducing the number of their Masses and integrating the operations and activities of its constituent parishes. The loss of a priest or the loss of a significant portion of the population in one or more of its parishes will likely be responsible for the situation. This is when changes to the structure of their organizations may come into play” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 141).

So in an effort to help the diocese and her parishes provide first-rate pastoral care for years to come, the “Fourth Plan” outlines what these structural changes might look like and encourages all the faithful – bishop, pastors, parish leaders, and laity – to work together in deciding the best course of action, just like the faithful in Taunton did six years ago.

Fr. Tony Stubeda, pastor of the parishes in Glencoe, Silver Lake, and Winsted (which make up the St. John Paul II Area Faith Community) and a member of the Committee on Parishes, knows these planning efforts can be difficult for everyone involved. He emphasized, though, that God is in the midst of these decisions.

“If God is guiding the Church, then we can do this with trust, as hard as it might be,” he said. “We just have to pray that God makes us courageous in facing our fears.”

Two types of mergers

One type of structural change that some parishes will have to undergo is a merger, which is when two or more parishes are united. Depending on the circumstances, one of two different types could be used: a consolidation or an amalgamation.

In a consolidation, “two or more parishes are joined in a way that each loses its own identity and a new parish, with its own unique legal identity, is constituted in their stead” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 120). In an amalgamation, on the other hand, “one or more parishes are absorbed or assimilated into another parish,” such that the receiving parish retains its identity and name throughout the process (“Fourth Plan,” p. 120).

For both consolidations and amalgamations, the assets of the merged parish – such as its church building, its cemetery (if it has one), and other financial resources – become the responsibility of the receiving parish (“Fourth Plan,” pp. 122-123). In addition, the administrative council of the merged parish ceases to exist, as there can only be one administrative council for each parish.

It is not true that the church building of a merged parish automatically shuts down once a merger takes place. Not only can Sunday Masses, baptisms, funerals, weddings, and other forms of divine worship still occur there, but at least one weekday Mass should still be celebrated there as long as it is open (“Fourth Plan,” pp. 122-123).

‘Fourth Plan’ emphasizes discernment, dialogue

While the diocese’s previous pastoral plans specified parishes that would need to merge or change their status in another way, the “Fourth Plan” doesn’t. Instead, it simply outlines the steps that could be involved in a merger, many of which involve dialogue among pastoral leaders, diocesan officials, and Catholics in the pews.

This focus was intentional, Bishop LeVoir said. While he as the bishop has the ability to merge parishes and close churches (a fact specified by canon law), he doesn’t want to make this decision in isolation. The lay faithful, he insisted, have an important role to play. Through Baptism, they are enabled to imitate Christ in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices. Through their prayers and input, they truly can help him discern what the Holy Spirit wants to have happen.

“It might appear that I have something already planned, but I don’t,” Bishop LeVoir said. “I think it’s just a matter of people trusting that I don’t and that I’m interested in what they have to say.”

Consultation required

Even if Bishop LeVoir wanted to merge a parish or close a church without consultation, canon law wouldn’t let him, explained Aldean Hendrickson, director of the diocesan Tribunal. Canon 515 of the Code of Canon Law states that a bishop cannot alter a parish until after he has heard the advice of the presbyteral council (known as the Priests’ Council in the Diocese of New Ulm). The Code also specifies in Canon 50 that the bishop must receive input from those “whose rights can be injured” when he issues a decree. Since a decree is issued for both mergers and closures, he needs to consult the faithful at the affected parishes.

“Any parish reconfiguration is a major event that will significantly affect the lived experience of the faith for those involved for generations to come,” Hendrickson said. “No one in the Church thinks that is something that can be decided easily or lightly.”

Steps in a merger or closure

The “Fourth Plan” summarizes the steps that could take place in a parish merger or church closure on pages 141 to 142. These steps include both what is required by canon law and Bishop LeVoir’s vision.

 – An initial consultation occurs between pastoral leaders and diocesan pastoral planning officials, in which the possibility and reasons for a merger or closure are discussed.
– Pastoral leaders discuss the possibility of a merger or closure with members of the Area Pastoral Council and members of the parish Administrative Councils.

– At the invitation of pastoral leaders, diocesan officials meet with parishioners of the affected parishes. These and any subsequent follow-up meetings allow facts to be shared and both parties to voice their opinions, as well as for diocesan officials to gather information about the parishes. The bishop will also be present at some of these meetings.
– If after these meetings pastoral leaders still think a merger or closure is the best way to proceed, they will contact the diocese. With input from these leaders, diocesan officials write a proposal explaining why the merger or closure should take place and a date for its implementation. If both a merger and a closure are being recommended, they each must be addressed in a separate proposal.
– The written proposal is reviewed by the bishop and the Committee on Parishes. If both parties have no objections, it is sent to the Priests’ Council for review.
– If, having listened to the Priests’ Council, the bishop approves of the merger or closure, he issues a written decree. The decree states his decision and summarizes his reasons for it.

– Special events marking the change take place. In a closure, for example, a final Mass could be celebrated at the church building.

Longer, but better road

While Fr. Stubeda appreciates how the “Fourth Plan” encourages all the Catholic faithful to be involved, he knows it has its challenges. People can keep discussing an issue as a way to delay making a concrete decision, he said.

“Sometimes I think that we think that we’ll come up with solutions that allow us to ignore the realities of where we’re at,” he said. “But what pastoral planning says is, ‘Given the set of realities we have, what is the best way for us to accomplish the mission of the Church?’”

Bishop LeVoir admitted that this process will take longer. In the end, though, he thinks it will yield better results for everyone involved.

“My idea is to go to the meetings and talk about whatever needs to be talked about,” he said. “The pastor has to have the smell of the sheep. That means the bishop has to be with them and understand why they think the way they do and the issues that they’re dealing with.”

Swedinski couldn’t agree more. He’ll always miss Ss. Cyril and Methodius. But because Fr. Kucera and others took the time to listen, he’s at peace.

“It’s always emotional for me yet, thinking about it,” he said. “It was a big thing we did. And it’s very good.”