Monday, July 13, 2009

State of the Church

Earlier this year, Archbishop Nienstedt began a Planning Process for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A Strategic Task Force for Parish and School Planning was created:

Its purpose is to listen, study, evaluate, discuss, and only then propose, how the Archdiocese can best serve the spiritual and community life of its people and the faith and educational development needs of its children now and in the future. The planning process will focus on both parishes and schools, seeking to build a sustainable way of organizing to effectively do the mission of the Church.

Although that's worded a bit awkwardly (do the mission of the Church?), essentially what the Archbishop is looking for is a strategic plan for how the Archdiocese is going to realize its mission in the coming years. Too often in the past, the Church has neglected to engage in such strategic and forward looking thinking. Usually to its detriment. I applaud Archbishop Nienstedt's action in this area and look forward to seeing the results that the task force comes up with.

Progress in this planning process has been communicated through a series of parish bulletin articles. The latest included a wealth of data on the demographic makeup of the Archdiocese, the financial situation at parishes and schools, and the state of Catholic education. Here are a few highlights that caught my eye:

* The total number of Catholics registered at parishes is estimated to be 650,000. The historical growth rate for registered Catholics is approximately 7.0%. By 2016 the number of Catholics registered at parishes will be approximately 695,000.

For a state known for its Scandinavian Lutheran roots, the Catholic population in the Twin Cities is impressive.

* Current Mass attendance is reported to be estimated on Saturday evening and Sundays to average a total of 223,275 people in this Archdiocese. This represents 34% of registered Catholics. This Archdiocese is aligned with the national estimate.

While that figure is not surprising, it is still distressing. Only one-third of registered Catholics attend Mass weekly?

* There is one Korean parish, two Vietnamese parishes, one Hmong parish and Mass is offered in French each Sunday for West African parishioners. Two priests serve approximately 10,000 Filipino Catholics spread across the Archdiocese.

I had no idea there were that many Filipinos in the Twin Cities.

* The growing diversity of the Catholic population is creating an increasing number of parishioners who do not register at a parish, but who regularly attend Mass in their parish of choice.

* Parish membership is less defined by geography than in the past. The average number of zip codes represented in a parish of this Archdiocese is 36.

* Destination parishes defined by personal preference, a specific pastor or by convenience are becoming more common.

The fact that many Catholics no longer choose to follow the traditional practice of attending Mass and registering at their "neighborhood" parish is not a surprise. However, the average number of zip codes in a parish figure is higher than I would have thought.

The issue of "destination parishes" is one that the Church is going to have to address in the planning process. While I believe the official position is still that Catholics should attend their local church, the reality is that people are going to flock to those parishes that are meeting their spiritual needs and many will tend to shun those that don't. It's a thorny matter to be sure. On the one hand, the tradition that Catholics support their local parish helps build community and helps keep resources more evenly distributed throughout the Archdiocese. On the other hand, should parishioners have to put up with pastors and parishes who are ineffective or who stray from the Church's teaching just because they happen to live nearby?

* There are currently 217 parishes in the Archdiocese

* The Archdiocese now has ten less parishes than it had ten years ago.

* There are currently 182 priests eligible to be pastor and there will be a total of 163 priests eligible to be pastors in ten years time: a drop of 19 pastors.

Looking to the future, a key challenge will be how the Archdiocese copes with more parishioners (and hopefully more attending Mass) with fewer priests and almost certainly fewer parishes. Consolidation is not a question of "if" but of "how."

* In FY 2009 there are 55 parishes being monitored by the Archdiocese because of debt and operational budget issues. In 2003, there were 33 parishes being monitored.

* The financial condition of the Archdiocese as described existed prior to the current general economic downturn. The downturn exacerbated and exposed the existing problem.

So even before the economy tanked, more than a quarter of all the parishes were facing financial difficulties. That is a worrisome statistic.

* According to baptismal records, there were 82,948 infants baptized between 1993 through 1999. In 2004-05 most of these children should have been enrolled in Kindergarten through Grace 6 programs. Roughly 38% of those baptized between 1993 and 1999 are not served by any religious education program or Catholic school in the Archdiocese during this year of 2008-09.

* In 2008-09 most of these same (baptized 1993-1999) children should have been enrolled in Grades 4 through 10. Roughly 41% of the same group was not served by any religious education program in the Archdiocese during this year.

Another unfortunate trend that I only see continuing to go the wrong way.

* In 2003-04 enrollment in Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese was 38,186. In 2008-09 enrollment was only 5% less, at 35,335. This is consistent with changes in public school district enrollment change, and accurately reflects changes to the age structure of the population in the Twin Cities area.

From on overall perspective, that doesn't sound too bad.

* In the last five years 60 elementary schools lost 5% or more of their enrollment.

* In the last five years 32 elementary schools lost 20% or more of their enrollment.

* Growth in enrollment has been in new Catholic schools, schools targeted at niche populations and in suburban areas where there is significant population growth.

Building new schools in fast growing areas is obviously necessary and it's good to see the demand. However, you have to wonder about the sustainability of the schools that have lost more than 20% of their enrollment and whether a Catholic education option will be available in the future in those areas.

* 2.4% of school personnel are priests or religious.

* 97.6% of school personnel are lay people (not priests or religious).

That's a distribution that's definitely changed over the years. In grade school, I'd guess that close to half the teachers I had were nuns. The figures were lower in high school, but there were still a fair number of brothers and sisters in the classroom.

Tuition has increased 36% since 2003-04. The average tuition has gone from $2,251 in 2003 to $3,063 in 2008 for the first child in parish sponsored Catholic elementary schools.

That's a tough nut to make, especially for parents of larger families (which still seems to be at least somewhat correlated to Catholicism). Vouchers? Tax credits? Something needs to be done here.

Again, I've just touched on a few of the facts and figures contained in the article. There's a lot more to chew on and consider, which I'm sure is what thoughtful Catholics in the Archdiocese will be doing in the months ahead.

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