The social concerns subcommittee for Cohort 16 had its eye on growth over the summer, coming together for the “one more row” campaign to help the hungry.  Courtesy photo
The social concerns subcommittee for Cohort 16 had its eye on growth over the summer, coming together for the “one more row” campaign to help the hungry. Courtesy photo
With the many profound changes that have confronted the Catholic Church in recent decades, one constant that remains is its mission to evangelize and advance the Kingdom of God. The challenge that has driven the local Church is how best to serve the mission amidst the flow of changes that significantly impact nearly every aspect of parish life and Church ministry.

The Diocese of Trenton has taken proactive steps since 2005 to respond to this challenge, conducting parish planning initiatives on a project-by-project basis in order to establish fewer, stronger and more dynamic parishes. As implementation of the most recent initiative, Faith in Our Future, nears completion, the Diocese is taking steps to ensure that effective and collaborative pastoral planning becomes a regular, mainstream part of parish administration going forward.

That was the message recently delivered to pastors and parish administrators by Terry Ginther, the Diocese’s chancellor and executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission. Ginther explained that the infrastructure of parish Cohorts, on which the Faith in Our Future initiative was based, will now be realigned to one that observes the ordinary existing structures of the Diocese – parishes, deaneries and county vicariates, all under the leadership of the Bishop.

History of Parish Planning

It was Advent 2015 when Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., first announced the Faith in Our Future initiative to help parishes address the stark realities of a changing Church of Trenton, including declining numbers of Catholics and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The aim was for the parishes across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties to undergo consultation and restructuring where appropriate, but also to initiate collaborative relationships among parishes so that they would plan and work together in an ongoing way to ensure the best possible future.

This latest initiative helped to organize 107 parishes into 25 Cohorts, groups of three to five neighboring parishes that were asked to develop an action plan in support of the Bishop’s pastoral priorities. Hundreds of parishioners across the Diocese participated in the consultation through town hall meetings, surveys and other means. 

FIOF was the third major initiative in a 15-year period, which first saw the Trenton Ward Study and other deanery studies (2005-2009) that led to parish consolidations.  From 2009 to 2014, the Diocese conducted the Led by the Spirit initiative that introduced parishes to pastoral planning for their individual missions. Through closures and mergers, the number of parishes has been reduced by several dozen, with additional parishes being linked under the administration of one pastor.  Collaboration within the Cohorts has also resulted in shared ministry and personnel, and joint events and projects, such as hosting nationally-recognized speakers on evangelization to conduct local missions or presentations.

In her Oct. 24 presentation to the pastors, Ginther offered an assessment of the successes and the remaining challenges of FIOF.  She cited a reduction in the number of parishes (now at 99) and pastorates (now at 92); designation of parishes as centers for Hispanic ministry, and the development of planning skills among parish leaders. She also indicated that the collaboration among parishes has helped to improve stewardship, to establish new evangelization strategies and to raise up ministry leaders among the laity.

Ginther also pointed to struggles that persisted throughout the FIOF initiative, including a lack of buy-in from some pastors and parish teams; Cohorts that were not well-matched and a sense of frustration where Cohort work didn’t match up with collaborative efforts already underway in a given deanery.

Shared Planning

Placing the ongoing function of planning within the ordinary structures that already exist in the parish and Diocese will provide organic support and accountability for this effort, Ginther observed. It also opens up the possibility of extended collaboration and integration for ministers and ministries already organized on the county level:  diaconate, religious educators, youth ministers, respect life representatives – to name a few.

Ginther explained that this new generation of parish planning calls for each of the Diocese’s 10 deaneries (with eight to 12 parishes from the same county) to engage in “common pastoral activity.” Within a given deanery, the parishes will be grouped into an average of three Cohorts.  The pastors together with a core team of parishioners and appropriate staff will strive to plan for more significant collaboration.   The Cohorts will typically consist of two to four parishes that can plan and work together to address local needs, diocesan priorities and mission.

This effort will still be dependent on a commitment from the pastors, not only of their time, but to a new way of doing things.  Ginther explained, “It requires finding lay men and women to serve on the Cohort teams with the energy and ‘know how’ to make things happen.  It is a challenge for all of these (and the parishioners in each parish) to put competition and parochialism aside, in order to make a better, more faith-filled, and more effective responsive to changing circumstances.” 

Toward that end, Ginther initiated a consultation with the pastors in July and has been pleased with the response. She reported that 77 of 92 pastors answered a simple questionnaire, and seven of the 10 deaneries met in November to discuss the realignment proposal and provide feedback.

“These numbers are important because they show the high level of interest and support of the pastors to ‘get this right,’” she said. 

According to Ginther, the consultation is focused on identifying the most natural planning partner or partners for each parish – for now and far into the future.  “In the process,” Ginther said, “we hope to strengthen Cohorts that are working together well, address any apparent ‘mismatches’ in the Cohort configuration, and also align the Cohorts within deaneries.” 

Ginther added that the dean will have a significant role to play in making sure that planning is taking place.

With further consultation to come, and some decisions to be made about accountability measures, the transition to the new model is expected to take place this July. 

The success of planning as an ordinary function of leadership will depend on where the motivation and accountability will be found. Ginther said, “Yes, there will still be priorities set by the Bishop, and an expectation of annual plans submitted to the Diocese.  Help will be available if needed, but parishes will need to work together of their own volition to plan and implement important collaborative efforts.”

Associate Editor Mary Stadnyk contributed to this report.