Task force examines impact of future with fewer active priests

A priest task force charged with making recommendations in light of an expected decline in the number of active priests between 2020 and 2030 reported on its progress at the diocesan Planning Council meeting Feb. 18 in St. Cloud.

Bishop Donald Kettler asked the eight-person committee, organized last fall and chaired by Father Matthew Crane, to offer its recommendations by the spring for a pastoral response to the projections. Currently, the diocese has 68 active priests serving 131 parishes. By 2030, the number of active priests is expected to be in the high 40s.

How parishes might be staffed and configured based on what the task force recommends and what the bishop ultimately approves will likely shape local people’s experience of the church for a generation or more, Father Crane said in an interview with The Visitor.

In general, two challenges have emerged as part of the task force’s work — one expected and one somewhat unexpected, Father Crane said.

“The expected challenge was the very real knowledge the group has of the discomfort caused by parish reorganization,” he said. “All the priests have experience pastoring clusters of parishes. Some have been involved in merging parishes, merging parish buildings, [and] have even had experience with parish closures. These things are difficult for many people, and therefore our first inclination is to simply turn and run away from such ideas. To give a balanced, objective consideration of all possibilities, though, we have to be able to give such options some thought and reflection.”

The unexpected challenge has been defining just what a parish is.

“We have consulted all sorts of sources — canon law, documents of the Second Vatican Council, the catechism,” Father Crane said. “We have examined our own experiences and the practical situation in various areas of the diocese. And, in all honesty, it is still a bit of a work in progress.”

In addition to reflecting on the notion of a parish, the task force is also focusing on the impact of current trends on priests’ health, the need to relieve the administrative burdens on pastors, and the need for more education for lay leaders to minister more effectively in their communities.

The task force plans further meetings over the next few months before presenting final recommendations to Bishop Kettler.

Members of the task force are: Father Crane; Father Virgil Helmin; Father Eugene Doyle; Father LeRoy Schik; Father Peter VanderWeyst; Jane Marrin, chancellor of the Diocese of St. Cloud; Franciscan Sister Clara Stang, a member of the Planning Council; Darrell Welle, a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council; and Deacon Mark Barder, director of the diocesan Planning Office.
In other planning-related news:

  • Council members reviewed their experiences with the parish vibrancy tool and recommended that Deacon Barder identify a few parishes that used it successfully and create a best-practices presentation or video that could be shown in deanery meetings and/or in parishes.
  • Two parish clusters and one individual parish will have a new arrangement starting July 1 based on a plan from the diocese’s priest personnel board done in consultation with the pastors of those parishes. Currently, the cluster arrangements include parishes in Holdingford, Opole, St. Anna and St. Wendel; and Bowlus, Elmdale, Upsala and St. Francis. St. Stephen in St. Stephen is a stand-alone parish. Its pastor, Father Robert Harren, is retiring July 1.

The new arrangement will feature three clusters of three parishes each: 1) Holdingford, St. Anna and Bowlus; 2) Elmdale, Upsala and St. Francis; and 3) St. Stephen, St. Wendel and Opole. The plan is to have one priest serve each cluster. Parish leadership has been informed of the plan, and the priests who oversee the current arrangement have announced the plan to their parishioners. The pastors who will serve the new clusters have not yet been chosen.

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The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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