Terry Ginther, standing left, speaks with members of the  Implementation Commission during a small group discussion during a 2017 Faith in Our Future working retreat in Lawrenceville. The FIOF process will conclude with the July 1 merger of Lakewood's St. Mary of the Lake and St. Anthony Claret Parishes. Joe Moore photo
Terry Ginther, standing left, speaks with members of the Implementation Commission during a small group discussion during a 2017 Faith in Our Future working retreat in Lawrenceville. The FIOF process will conclude with the July 1 merger of Lakewood's St. Mary of the Lake and St. Anthony Claret Parishes. Joe Moore photo
While the July 1 merger of St. Mary of the Lake and St. Anthony Claret Parishes marks a “milestone on a long journey,” for Lakewood’s two Catholic parishes, the date is also significant on a diocesan level as it brings the implementation phase of the Faith in Our Future process to a close. 

Planning Process

Faith In Our Future was an eight-step pastoral planning process that was commissioned by Bishop O’Connell in 2015 and designed to strengthen and enliven parishes of the Diocese. Over many months, parishes met individually for self-study and as Cohorts to present to the Diocesan Planning Commission suggested ministry models and rationale. Recommendations for parish restructuring and development were presented to the Bishop by the Planning Commission in November 2016. After consultation with several diocesan bodies and the presbyterate, Bishop O’Connell announced his decisions in January 2017. The Bishop’s decisions were then implemented in the past three years during which parishes worked toward addressing the Bishop’s call for: 1) Ongoing collaboration among all of the parishes of the Diocese, particularly within the 25 Cohorts into which they were grouped; 2) Seven linkages – 15 parishes sharing pastor with at least one other parish with possibility of additional linkages to occur in the future, and 3) Nine mergers, encompassing 17 parishes to be consolidated into eight new their parishes.

Ginther noted that the Diocese has had a variety of planning efforts over the years and most were focused on helping individual parishes to plan, then added that between 2005 and 2014, the Diocese facilitated studies in various areas within the four counties aimed at consolidating parishes. These efforts brought the number of parishes from 127 to 107 over 10 years and largely addressed parishes that were actively struggling.

Faith In Our Future, under Bishop O’Connell’s leadership, was the first planning process that engaged all of the parishes of the Diocese at the same time in Cohorts in order to make progress on the five diocesan goals: strengthen and enliven parishes; explore new models of pastoral leadership; improve stewardship of resources; collaborate for the New Evangelization; improve pastoral care of Hispanic Catholics.

“In this process, the ability of parishes to plan for their own mission was presumed,” Ginther said, citing that highlights of the process began with parish surveys to assist the parish in naming its own strengths and weaknesses, along with areas in which the parish desired to improve. Parishes were then asked to work with its neighbors in a Cohorts to use their strengths to address the local needs and diocesan goals. The emphasis was placed on collaboration between parishes. Consolidation was not a goal in this process; rather linkage and merger were two of the six models of leadership that could be explored in order to strengthen parishes or improve stewardship. Bishop O’Connell made a series of decisions based on the recommendations of Cohorts and refine by a Diocesan Planning Commission were published in January 2017.

The primary result of three years of implementation is an increased capacity for collaboration between Cohort parishes, which now share events and programs, ministry initiatives and training, outreach and charitable efforts and possibly share staff members and facilities. Ginther also noted that during the past three years, the number of parishes had declined from 107 to 98 through parish mergers. In addition, a number of parish linkages have been created, which means they remain separate parishes but share a pastor.

Future Considerations

Ginther said there are a few decisions from FIOF that remain to be implemented and will be acted upon when circumstances require. They include the periodic review of Holy Family Parish, Union Beach; St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Long Beach Township, and the potential for a linkage between St. Ann Parish, Keansburg, and St. Catherine Laboure Parish, Middletown. Also, the linkage between St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown, and St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Yardville, has been delayed indefinitely.

With the Diocesan Implementation Commission completing its work this summer with the review of Cohort Progress Reports and some recommendations to consider as Cohorts create collaborative plans for 2020-2021, Ginther said their final tasks have been delayed by the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on parishes and cohorts, but are expected to wrap up in the fall.

“The two groups of people that have served on the Commission during Faith In Our Future were invaluable to the process,” Ginther said, adding that she and Bishop O’Connell have discussed the re-establishment of a Diocesan Pastoral Council and “that the Diocese may continue to benefit from the wisdom and the advice that the men and women who served on this Commission have shared during Faith In Our Future.”