What is a small parish? Why is it important in the Diocese of New Ulm?
Parish Vitality Index provides quantifiable assessment, encourages dialogue among parishes

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  Angela Tanata, a parishioner at the Church of St. Boniface in Stewart, poses for a photo in her classroom at Kids Depot, the preschool and daycare program at St. Anastasia’s Catholic School in Hutchinson. She’s been teaching there since 2008.    (Photo by Sam Patet)

Angela Tanata, a parishioner at the Church of St. Boniface in Stewart, poses for a photo in her classroom at Kids Depot, the preschool and daycare program at St. Anastasia’s Catholic School in Hutchinson. She’s been teaching there since 2008. (Photo by Sam Patet)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / April 2014

NEW ULM – Five days a week you’ll find preschool teacher Angela Tanata at Kids Depot, the preschool and daycare program at St. Anastasia’s Catholic School in Hutchinson. She loves every minute she gets to spend with her students, whether she’s reading them a book or helping them with an art project.

“I love seeing the excitement of discovery in their eyes as we explore a new idea, process, or concept,” she said. “I take joy in what may seem like very small accomplishments: zipping a coat, recognizing one’s name, pouring a cup of milk.”

Tanata is able to do what she loves thanks to St. Anastasia Parish. Its size and financial resources make the program possible and provide jobs for her and her coworkers.

Not only does Tanata get to experience life at a large parish (St. Anastasia has 1,054 households), she also gets to experience it at a small one. She and her husband Josh are parishioners at the Parish of St. Boniface in Stewart, 14 miles southwest of St. Anastasia. At 126 families, it’s just the right size for the Swanville, Minn., native.

“I grew up in a small town,” Tanata said. “When I first went to Mass with Josh at St. Boniface, I think I commented to him that it felt a lot like my parish that I’d grown up in. The church was similar, the size is very similar. It’s very home-like to me.”

While she didn’t know anyone when she first started attending seven years ago, she quickly got to know them through her involvement with the CCW. Those relationships have continued to grow, so much so that she and her husband were practically superstars when their daughter Elizabeth was born in 2011.

“People in the parish were waiting for us to have her,” she said. “They all knew I was expecting and they were excited to hear how things went and see her when we first brought her to Mass in Stewart. … I just appreciate that people were interested and excited for us.”

While Tanata wouldn’t trade St. Boniface’s small size for anything, she knows that feature brings with it its own set of challenges. To start, the parish only has one Mass on the weekend – 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning – whereas St. Anastasia has two. While this arrangement makes sense, it only leaves her family with one option on the weekend if they want to attend St. Boniface.

St. Anastasia’s size also enables it to host more activities than St. Boniface does, she said, such as perpetual Eucharistic adoration, reconciliation services, and CCW events. Parish leaders at St. Anastasia also have a larger number of people they can call on as they organize activities, she said.

“Since there’s a smaller number of us (at St. Boniface), we have to be more active in the roles in the church,” she said. On Sunday, for example, people oftentimes perform multiple ministries at the same Mass, she said, whether it’s the choir member who helps distribute the Body of Christ or the lector who also brings up the gifts.

“If we want things to happen in our parish in Stewart … we have to take on those roles more readily. Otherwise it’s just not going to be done because there’s nobody else to do it,” she said.

New tool for pastoral planning

Like Tanata, most Catholics in the Diocese of New Ulm know that parishes vary in size. Some, like St. Anastasia, are large, while others, like St. Boniface, are small. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.

But as the “Fourth Plan for Parishes” points out, both types of parishes will have to undergo some type of change in the years ahead. That’s because the number of Catholics and the number of priests are both on the decline.

Before the “Fourth Plan” outlines what some of these changes might look like, it first introduces a tool to help parishes assess objectively how they are doing. That tool is the Parish Vitality Index, or PVI.

“Among the various topics in the ‘Fourth Plan,’ the Committee on Parishes discussed the PVI more than any other that I can remember,” said Dan Rossini, coordinator of staff for the diocese and a member of the Committee on Parishes, the group that developed the “Fourth Plan.” “The PVI is a way of gauging differences in parishes according to certain characteristics that are particularly important for pastoral planning.”

These characteristics, such as the parish demographics and the parish’s finances, have always been used by the diocese in its pastoral planning efforts. In the “Second Plan for Parishes,” for example, a parish was classified as a small parish or as a mission based on its number of parishioners, its total revenues, and its number of professional staff persons (see The Prairie Catholic, June 1995, p. 10). And in the “Third Plan,” parishes were classified as small parishes or as oratories using many of the same criteria.

But in these cases, the diocese didn’t have a way of quantifying its observations. It wasn’t able to compare one parish to another in a measurable way. Thanks to the PVI, that’s no longer the case.

Numbers speak for themselves

In the “Fourth Plan,” each parish in the diocese is assigned a PVI score. These scores, which range from 0 to 100, are calculated using nine criteria. The criteria are:

– Number of households
– Number of parishioners
– Total number of baptisms, people entering into full communion through the RCIA, confirmations, and weddings
– Full-time equivalency of all pastoral leader and professional parish positions
– Number of youth to age 18

– Number of youth receiving religious education in or from the parish
– Parish revenues
– Parish savings
– Parish maintenance and utilities

Each of the nine criteria has a maximum value, all of which add up to 100. Criteria related to a parish’s population, such as its number of households and parishioners, receive the most weight, while criteria related to a parish’s financial status receive the least (“Fourth Plan,” p. 116).

When Fr. Tony Stubeda, pastor at the parishes in Glencoe, Silver Lake, and Winsted and a member of the committees that have written all four pastoral plans over the last 26 years, saw the PVI scores for the diocese’s 76 parishes, he wasn’t surprised.

“I don’t think there’s anything there (in the PVI scores) that surprises me,” he said. The scores are “pretty much what I have understood to be the reality, or the situation, for a while.”

One thing that becomes immediately apparent from the PVI is the smallness of many of the diocese’s parishes. Nearly two-thirds of them – 47 of the 76 – have scores below 30, and the 19 smallest have scores below 15. On the other end of the spectrum, only nine parishes scored in the 80s and 90s (“Fourth Plan,” p. 117).

The “Fourth Plan” emphasizes that one shouldn’t read the scores like a report card. It isn’t the case that a parish with a PVI score of 95 is an “A” parish, while those parishes with scores below 60 are “F” parishes. Rather, the scores are simply meant to compare parishes to one another. The 100-point scale was chosen so that enough points could be available to make meaningful measurements and comparisons. (“Fourth Plan,” p. 116).

“We’re not putting the PVI forward in order to say that some parishes ‘pass’ our test and that other parishes ‘flunk,’” Rossini said. “There is no magic score that would enable a parish to avoid a merger or opt out of conversations about pastoral planning.”

PVI meant to encourage dialogue

The “Fourth Plan” classifies the 19 parishes with the lowest PVI scores as small parishes and encourages them to begin having discussions about their future. While this may mean that a parish will have to merge with another, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its church building will have to close, nor that Mass will cease to be celebrated there on the weekend. As the “Fourth Plan” makes clear, merging a parish is different from closing a church building. (For more information on this distinction, see “What is a parish? What is a church?” in the March 2014 issue of The Prairie Catholic, pages 6-7.)

It isn’t just small parishes that should be having these conversations, Fr. Stubeda said. All parishes need to be doing this.

“I hope nobody looks at those (scores) and says, ‘Well, we don’t have anything to talk about. We’re good. We don’t have to worry,’” Fr. Stubeda said. “Then you’re misreading what the chart’s about. All of us have to have the discussion; it just becomes a little more urgent in some other communities.”

Bishop John M. LeVoir made this point in his March 2014 column of The Prairie Catholic, Rossini said. “I think he did an excellent job pointing out that larger parishes will be affected by pastoral planning decisions, just like smaller ones. In many cases, smaller parishes will be merged with larger ones, and larger ones must be ready to welcome their members as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Most likely, small parishes will have to undergo greater changes than their larger counterparts in the immediate future, in large part due to the declining number of priests and the number of Masses they are allowed to celebrate each day. This doesn’t mean that small parishes are less worthy than large ones to have access to a full-time priest, Fr. Stubeda said. It simply is acknowledging the reality the diocese is facing.

“We have the opportunity in this process to give to the future a Church that is strong, and alive, and vibrant in the same way that our ancestors gave us the strong, vibrant, and alive Church,” he said. “Our dialogues will be at times painful, at times uncomfortable, at times contentious or frustrating, but always, I think, hopeful, and always filled with a sense of the presence of God.”