Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Church's Appeal Becoming More Selective?

Big news over the weekend about the announcement from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis detailing church closures, consolidations, and mergers (sadly no acquisitions this time around). This news has generated a great deal of buzz among local Catholics both in regards for what it means for our particular parishes and the future of the archdiocese as a whole.

While it's easy to look upon the news as just the latest confirmation on the decline of the Catholic Church in America, I prefer to take a more optimistic view of the release of the Strategic Plan (you might call me a pews half-full sort of guy). While it might be comforting to imagine that the church could continue to maintain its local operations in the same way it has in the past, the reality is that as things change (especially demographics) the church must not change with them. The mission of the Catholic Church has not changed. That mission continues the two-thousand plus year tradition of teaching the Truth, but that tradition is not tied to physical properties. While individual church buildings may come or go, the Catholic Church itself and its community of believers will continue to fulfill its core mission.

And the changes that will take place as part of the Archdiocese's Strategic Plan will allow the local Catholic Church to become a stronger and more committed faith community. The current organizational structure of the Archdiocese had become untenable. Some local churches were holdovers from the days of the ethnic segregation driven by immigration. Long ago, there was a Polish church, a German church, an Italian church, an Irish church, a Liechtenstenian church all in relative proximity. Those days are well behind us and while the church still has strong immigrant communities they are now more likely to be Hispanic, African, or Southeast Asian. The demographic distribution of the Archdiocese has also changed over the years. In the years following World War II, most of the population growth was concentrated in the core cities or Minneapolis and St. Paul and the inner ring suburbs. Now, the areas that are growing are the farther flung exurbs. The church needs to be where the people are and they aren't where they were fifty years ago.

Then there's the money. According to what our padre passed on to us last Sunday, over a quarter of the parishes in the archdiocese are in arrears financially. Many of those that are behind are so to a significant extent. Running up debt and incurring costs that you have no ability to pay is not sustainable. Parishes that didn't have their financial houses in order were straining the bank for the entire archdiocese. The church cannot ignore fiscal realities any more than can a business or government agency (heh, heh). This means that that parishioners need to support their church when the hat is passed and that parishes need to be financially sound with their money. These expectations have not always been clearly staked out in the past and ensuring that they are met will be crucial to the future of the archdiocese.

If all this sounds like the kind of strategic planning a company might engage in, it's because the archdiocese finds itself in a situation which many businesses also face: how to best serve a shifting customer base with limited resources while leveraging your core competencies. The fact that the archdiocese has recognized these resource limitations--money, number of priests, etc.--and gone through a thorough and well-thought out process to address them while still fulfilling its critical mission is commendable (imagine if government--at any level--went through a similar exercise). It gives me hope for a future Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis that may be smaller in terms of number of buildings, but will be stronger in spirit and faith.