ERIC HODGENS. Pastoral Planning – A Church Crisis.

Nov 22, 2019

Church Pastoral Planning languishes – ignored and unloved. Yet, with the church being in freefall, it is needed today more than ever. It’s time to bring it in from the cold.

Church affiliation is dropping throughout the whole of the developed world. This includes Australia, the USA, Britain and Ireland. Within twenty years, a third of Australia’s catholic parishes will be closed.

The world-wide shortage of clergy is obvious, as is the dearth of lay ministers. Celibacy of the clergy is not helping recruitment but is not the fundamental obstacle. People are simply not attracted to the package.

No leaders, no ministry – the show collapses.

We have accurate data on the relentless decline of church affiliation. No members – the show collapses.

Income will inevitably drop as a result. No money – the show collapses.

Other factors aggravate the situation. Firstly, many of the priests in charge of parishes are struggling in their role. Home-grown priests are aging. Bishops are extending retirement age or encouraging priests to stay on the job longer. Some priests agree to this request out of a mistaken sense of duty. The nettle must be grasped. Putting off the bigger decisions about ministry only makes it worse as a weakened church flounders for a solution. Old priests staying on longer only aggravates the problem.

The strategy of importing foreign priests has failed because of their inability to adapt to local culture as well as communication difficulties. Further, they are being recruited from areas where the priestly shortage is worse than ours. That is simply not fair.

Next, a preponderance of local seminary graduates sees their vocation as personal, clerical and ritualistic rather than communal, collaborative and pastoral. They lack the vision and skills necessary in pastors and leaders. Self-preoccupied, born-to-rule personalities will be dysfunctional in the hurly burley of declining parish life. This will do little good for their parishes or for them. Seminary rectors take note.

Thirdly, the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse crisis is getting worse. The bishops are at last acknowledging their bad handling of the issue. But they have lost all credibility. They can now look forward to dealing with a follow up tide of civil action cases. Pity the beleaguered bishops – but don’t expect a leadership they cannot give.

Parishes will close. Will it be a third within ten years? Nobody knows – because there is no forward planning. It’s a guess – and probably on the optimistic side.

Pastoral planning is needed today more than ever. Yet it has been missing in action throughout the western world as this crisis has grown into a monster over the last fifty years.

Beginnings of pastoral planning emerged during the eighties but stalled with time. In Australia, Melbourne established a Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning (CROPP) in the eighties. Its pastoral research component developed during the nineties. It stimulated the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to set up a pastoral research office. This is now called the National Centre for Pastoral Research. It is a mine of information and draws heavily on the national census and the ecumenical National Church Life Survey.

Pastoral research is strong in the USA instanced by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and some Catholic universities. St Mary’s University, Twickenham does research in England.

Pastoral research goes ahead at national level. It is its application in the form of pastoral planning in dioceses that research meets a dead end. Few dioceses have pastoral planning officers or departments. And yet this is where local data is gathered, and the wider research applied.

Currently the collapse is managed on an ad hoc basis. To avoid directionless confusion each diocese needs a planning group to manage the rationalisation.

The steps are simple (the old see, judge and act model):

1. Get the facts and work out what they mean in the light of wider research;

2. Elaborate the various options for responding;

3. Prioritise and implement them.

The diocesan planning group will need an experienced priest familiar with current diocesan personnel, culture and structures. But it must also include professional members who are able to understand demographics and planning, who are able to apply research information to the local scene. These, too, need to be familiar with the culture, structure and finances of the diocese. Such expertise is abundant in the professional world and is even close at hand in other church organizations.

Parish and diocesan life is declining and will never return to what it was. The question is what, if anything, will replace it and whether the collapse will just happen or be competently managed.

Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne Catholic Priest now living in retirement.

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