Parishes increase vitality through transformation project

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 1, 2012

It’s not just people who are called to transform their lives. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, parishes are being called to transformation as well.

“Parish Transformation is an initiative that helps to make good parishes better,” said Father Ron Lewinski, a member of the parish transformation team. “It has a double focus, on the mission and vision of the parish and on the financial side as well.”

The goal is to help parishes rejuvenate and reenergize themselves, said Betsy Bohlen, one of the parish transformation leaders.

Parish Transformation went through its first pilot with a full cohort of 24 parishes last year, Bohlen said. The parishes — four from each vicariate, selected by the episcopal vicars — were asked to take a look at themselves, identify their mission and visions of how to fulfill that mission, and bring resources to bear on the process.

Part of the success in those parishes has been bringing parishioners together in a new way, Bohlen said.

“You have people who have always been involved in the parish, and you might have some people who haven’t been involved to that extent,” she said. “In some parishes, you might have Polish leaders working with English leaders in a way they haven’t worked together before.”

Together, pastors and lay leaders figure out what their strengths are and how to develop them. Then they look at how they can better use their resources, or increase their financial resources, to support the mission, Bohlen said.

All will go through program

Bishop Francis Kane, episcopal vicar for Vicariate II, said he has more parishes asking to go through the process than space available, but all parishes will go through it eventually.

“There needs to be a clearer vision for pastors, what their parishes want to accomplish, what the valuable treasures of the parish are,” said Bishop Kane, who is the episcopal liaison to the Parish Transformation program. “It allows parishes to compare themselves to other parishes similar in size and economic makeup.”

The effort started as a project to match up parishes of similar demographics and socio-economic status to find out why some were thriving and others had trouble making ends meet. The archdiocese took what it learned about best practices and what’s possible from those parishes to create a set of tools to be used by parishes throughout the archdiocese.

While the emphasis is on using resources to further the mission, Bishop Kane said it’s noteable that if parishes were able to reduce costs to the average level, the archdiocese could save more than $19 million a year.

‘The ace card’

It’s important for everyone to understand that the parishes that go through the process have not been tagged by anyone as being “in trouble,” Lewinski said. Rather, they are parishes that seem to have great potential, but might need a change of focus or of tactics to meet that potential, he said.

“The first thing we do is look at what’s right with a parish,” Lewinski said. “What’s their ace card? A lot of times that gets overlooked. And that stirs up a lot of pride in the parish, and a lot of enthusiasm for getting back to the wellspring of parish life, the mission of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Each parish works with a committee of 30-40 people attending meetings over several weeks, and the parishes participating in each vicariate meet together three times. As parishes look at their strengths and their needs, they can get help from various archdiocesan offices. Each parish is asked to come up with three areas to focus on as they move forward.

Claretian Father Carl Quebedeaux, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in South Chicago, participated in the first group of parishes. He said the process helped his parish narrow its focus from the seven values articulated in its own efforts to three areas to work on in the immediate future. Those three areas include receiving the Word of God that transforms listeners into disciples; emphasizing social justice, peace, education and work on behalf of immigrants; and building a fraternal community.

About 50 lay leaders came out for the initial meetings; that number did drop somewhat, Quebedeaux said.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “There’s a lot to ask.”

Changing situations

Part of the process is helping parishes realize that they must adjust to changing situations. Maybe their community is aging; maybe the neighborhood around the parish has gentrified.

“We clearly recognize that times have changed and people are not coming to church like we used to see,” Lewinski said. “Secularism is taking its toll, and the economy is not helping matters.”

One thing parishes can do is reallocate the money they do have, spending more money on the areas they want to emphasize, Bohlen said. “This is about giving parishes a process and a set of tools so they can help themselves.”

Indeed, the economy has hurt nearly all parishes, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, Quebedeaux said.

“It’s going to be a lot of work to integrate our mission with our finances,” he said. “We believe in our mission, and that gives us hope.”