Our Approach to Strategic Pastoral Planning  

Can I write to you today about a very important project we have been calling “Making All Things New” these past three-and-a-half years? A good way to approach this is like a reporter. The topic?: Strategic Pastoral Planning. The method?: What? How? Why? When? Where? Who?

Let’s go!

What? I worry that “pastoral planning” is yet another term joining a lexicon of words we use so often that everybody wonders what they really mean, so they really end up signifying next to nothing anymore! I think of other terms such as “evangelization,” “discipleship,” “ministry,” “witness,” “solidarity,” all crucially significant terms that have been overused and lost their tang.

We’ve talked about pastoral planning so long and so often that I’m afraid there has set in a “planning fatigue,” and a skepticism about its seriousness. We’ve been through waves of “planning fever” over the past quarter-century, and, some observe, nothing much has changed.

So, what is pastoral planning? It’s really our assessment of the call of Jesus, and the needs of His Church, and His people right now, “how we are meeting them,” and how we best ought to shepherd our resources to further His Person, message, and invitation to salvation.

In a way, then, we have been doing pastoral planning since Pentecost, as His first disciples prayed and considered His imperative to “Go, teach all nations!”

Just a couple of weeks ago, we completed the Easter season, where so often we heard at Mass God’s Word from the Acts of the Apostles. There we see our first Christian generation plan to preach the Gospel, asking how best to organize, what were the essentials of the faith, what’s working best, how we pray and worship, where we go to preach, who leads us, how we care for the poor, how we engage culture, how we apply the saving teaching of Jesus to the now. The apostles were into it all of that planning.

This planning has certainly characterized these acres of the Lord’s vineyard we call the Archdiocese of New York for the last 205 years, as, from the start, my predecessors and yours have deliberated how best to serve Jesus, His Church, His people.

They, too, asked questions like where our parishes, schools, buildings, programs, personnel, charities, ministries, and services should be? What are we doing well, and how can we do it even better? What are we missing? What do God’s People and our culture ask of us that we’re not responding to? That’s the what of pastoral planning. “Making All Things New” is, in a way, not new at all. We’ve been opening, moving, closing, expanding, or rearranging resources and priorities from the start.

What pastoral planning is not is a euphemism for just closing parishes or only changing addresses and canonical names. No! It’s our honest effort to bring people together to see how we can more effectively serve Jesus, His Church, His people, as we accept the mandate the Lord once gave Peter and Paul, Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis Xavier Cabrini, John Dubois or John Hughes, and now Pope Francis, you and me, “Build”—or “rebuild”—“my Church!”

That’s what pastoral planning is. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote of it 15 centuries ago: “The Church is fittingly styled as daybreak, or dawn. While she is led from the night…she is opened gradually to brightness…This dawn is aptly shown to be an ongoing process…”

That “ongoing process,” from darkness to light, from night to dawn, is the what of pastoral planning.

Why do we need this pastoral planning? Well, for starters, the virtue of prudence requires that we appropriately plan; Jesus exhorts us to be shrewd, clever, and even calculating in our discipleship; the biblical virtue of stewardship requires us to wisely husband our time, talent, treasures; and the Gospel call to humility urges us constantly to examine our consciences to make sure we’re caring effectively for our own souls and those of the folks entrusted to us effectively. There’s the spiritual why of planning.

Then there’s a more pragmatic answer to the why. We’re not using our resources well. A few instances:

• while we, unlike most dioceses, have not yet reached a crisis in the number of priests—due, mainly, to the generous willingness of some of our priests to stay on in pastoral assignments after 75; to the gift of international priests; and to the blessing of religious order clergy—we still do need to get ready for that day, not too far away, when such a shortage will indeed face us, and not wait until it’s way too late;

• we have too many parishes! The parish setup Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Egan, and I inherited is the result of a post-World War II boom, when, thank God, wise shepherds such as Cardinal Spellman exercised sound pastoral planning in meeting the boom in Catholic population, and an abundance of clergy and religious, with a neighborhood-parish or ethnic-parish paradigm still credible. Now that model and those numbers are changing. We no longer need 385 parishes!

• we devote a lopsided amount of money to maintaining parishes and buildings we no longer need. Simply put, we can no longer put out $48 million a year to keep on life support parishes, buildings, and schools we no longer need. Hear me out: pastoral planning is not about money! And we will always want to devote money to poorer parishes and schools that can’t make it on their own. But, we can’t keep doing it to the extent that we have been. Why? Because we don’t have the money; and because other critical pastoral needs you and your people have told us about are not being met.

Enough examples, and there are indeed more, to provide an adequate rationale as to the pragmatic reasons offered to answer the why of pastoral planning.

But, let’s give another answer to the why, namely, the call to the new evangelization.

The new evangelization tells us that the pastoral urgencies of today’s Church call for a mission mode, not a maintenance model.

No longer can we presume our people will come; no longer can we wait for the folks to show up; no more can we be comfortable that people baptized and raised Catholic will live and die Catholic; no longer can we do business as usual; no longer can we spend all our energy and resources on maintaining structures that are no longer working; no more can we wring our hands over our problems and fret about just keeping our heads above water. Now we must “cast out to the deep!”

A final why: God’s people have told us their needs. Bishop Dennis Sullivan and his exploratory committee spent a year traveling all over the archdiocese listening to our people. Our people spoke up! They love their parishes and want them stronger, more stable, if, they, admit, fewer; they love their priests, deacons, and sisters, hope for more but want to share leadership; they want their schools not just to survive but to flourish; they want intense religious education and faith formation, not just for kids, but for our youth, young adults, and adults; they want attention to marriage and family; they want a Church much better equipped in communications and technology; they want a Church where Sunday Mass is celebrated with reverence, joy, a solid sermon, and full participation; they want a Church embracing our Latino, African, Caribbean, and Asian newcomers; they want a Church vigorous in the promotion of the culture of life, social justice, and care for the poor, sick, vulnerable, and our elders; they want a Chur
ch purified, positive, and transparent; they want a Church, not a museum; they want, in the words of our Holy father, a Church not confined to the sacristy—and we can’t let them down. They are proud that their archdiocese does all of this, and they want to do it even better.

That’s a big part of the why of pastoral planning.

How about the when. Well, how about now?

But, be careful. Yes, now…but, slowly, carefully, prudently, patiently. We cannot do this precipitously, impetuously, or arbitrarily. This is a when that starts now, but unfolds gradually for the next three to five years.

Actually, there are, as a matter of fact, some strategic decisions that are so obvious they can begin now. You’ll see some examples of that in the current round of clergy assignments, with generous priests willing to pastor two, or, in one case, three parishes that are very close and obviously ripe for this type of cooperation. And our vicars and pastors have identified some few parishes that can actually close, now that have been on the block for a number of years. We’ll see.

But, overwhelmingly, the planning will take time.

Where? All over the archdiocese. It will not surprise you to know that Manhattan and the Bronx will undergo especially intense scrutiny as we look to reduce the high concentration of parishes, while some parishes in the near upper counties will perhaps surface ideas for expansion or maybe even new parishes.

And the where of pastoral planning is hardly limited to parishes, but will lead to stock-taking of our pastoral solitude for prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, migrants, the unchurched and the “nones.” The where is not just about places, but mainly about people, as we look at demographic and future predictors in all regions.

How will we do our pastoral planning? Two “hows” are actually already happening.

One is what Bishop Sullivan termed “a culture of planning.” In all our discussions, meetings, and decisions, we now always ask, “Is this maintenance or mission? Is this just propping up something that needs fixing, or is this a prudent approach to the future? Is this just about today, or is it conscious of tomorrow? I see this “culture of planning,” for instance, in the discussions of the personnel board, in our school plan, in our seminary consolidation, in the upcoming strategic plan of Catholic Charities, in Archcare’s shifts and new projects, in expansion of care for our retired priests, even in proposals for a possible move of the Cardinal Cooke Center. We’re proactive, not reactive. That’s a “how.”

Two is in partnership. Many of you are already partnering in parish personnel, in religious education, in the regionalization of our schools, in better use of buildings, deacons and youth ministries, in our training of parish managers to serve a cluster of parishes, or in the cooperation among our religious women and men caring for their cherished elders. Partnership is a word we need to hear a lot about.

But the dramatic answer to how is that we now begin to mobilize our people to speak and to listen. I once heard the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin observe that, while there is no painless how in pastoral planning, we can indeed make it less painful if everyone feels he or she has been heard, has been consulted, has been part of the process, and is not surprised by the outcome, even if critical of it.

This how can be tedious, monotonous, and excruciatingly slow at times. But that sure beats the alternative. This how can actually be penitential.

Every parishioner, every parish council, every community leader, the archdiocesan pastoral council, the priests’ council, the deacon council, the council of religious women, the vicars, the college of consultors, our staffs, our priests—all must have a part in this. How? We’ll get to that.

That how kind of got to the last pronoun, the who, didn’t it?

I have immense trust in Father John O’Hara, our vicar for planning, and in the pastoral planning teams he is assembling to quarterback this effort.

And I’m not embarrassed to admit we need professional help! That’s why we’ve contracted a couple of pros, Dr. John Reid and Dr. Maureen Gallagher of the acclaimed Reid Group, who have a long pedigree of assisting dioceses— dozens of them—accomplished this. Thanks, Father O’Hara, Dr. Reid, Dr. Gallagher. Something tells me we’re going to see a lot of you!

I conclude by admitting that this is going to be hard work.

I finish by predicting there will be times we’ll all wish we had never gotten into it.

I come to an end by acknowledging that the naturally conservative part of me is at times scared by all of this.

I confess that this is no silver bullet, that the process and even outcome will be far from perfect.

I renew my gratitude to you, for your openness to necessary pastoral planning in the archdiocese.

I place all my trust in the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, whom we honor this month of June.