by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A pastoral plan for the Nemaha-Marshall Region has been approved. But the plan is a flexible one, designed to help guide the region through a range of scenarios it might face in the future.
In a letter distributed after Masses on Nov. 22 and 23, parishioners learned that Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann had accepted their region’s pastoral plan.
The plan, which had been written by a pastoral planning task force comprised of pastors and laypeople from the region, was submitted to the archbishop and the Presbyteral Council in July.
The plan has four recommendations: the adoption of “signs of parish vitality” as a standard to determine pastoral priorities; the establishment of a regional council; the initiation of a number of collaborative efforts, such as region-wide coordination of catechist training; and the consideration of possible courses of actions should the region’s circumstances change.
The primary variable in the different scenarios the region faces is the future availability of priests to serve the 17 parishes in the region.
Currently, only nine priests are assigned to the region. Three are diocesan priests, four are foreign-born priests on loan from other dioceses, and two are priests from religious orders. Of the nine, at least a couple are at or near retirement age.
Another, a priest from Nigeria, had to return home to fulfill visa requirements and it is not known when he will return.
One major concern in the drafting of the plan was stability, said Father Jim Shaughnessy, pastor of Annunciation Parish in Frankfort, St. Monica-St. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids, and St. Joseph Parish in Lillis.
Since the plan calls for increased collaboration between parishes, there was a strong desire on the part of planners, he said, to group parishes in a logical manner, and then to retain those groupings — not to shift them at some later date based on declining numbers of priests or parishioners.
The hope, he said, would be that “we would try to keep [a cluster] of parishes together without too much shifting.”
In addition to the decline in the number of available priests to serve the region, the Nemaha-Marshall region also faces a declining population.
“One [challenge], which is not going to change so far as anyone can see, is the changing demographics [of the region], which is true of most of our rural areas,“ said Mike Maude, a consultant hired by the archdiocese to facilitate the process.
“The population has declined, although that seems to be leveling out, and [it is] an aging population,” said Maude, who is with the Lawrence-based firm of Partners in Philanthropy. “Obviously, this will have an impact on parishes in terms of the capability of people to volunteer, and as the aging population dies, an economic impact as well.”
Other considerations mentioned by Father Shaughnessy and Maude were aging facilities and the lack of trained staff for ministry and religious education.
The only way to address those effectively is with inter-parish cooperation, planners agreed. But that will be a challenge as well.
The parishioners of this heavily Catholic part of the state are heirs to a tradition of strong parishes and faithful families. How to hold on to what is the best from the past and, at the same time, steer a path toward a newer and broader vision of regional cooperation will be the question.
And how to get parishes to work together better, admitted Father Shaughnessy, who is also regional pastoral leader, will be another.
“Individuality has been stressed for so many years. People all say they would like to work together more, but when it gets down to it, it’s not so easy,” he said.
“They’re concerned, but they’re determined to try to keep things going as long as possible,” said Father Shaughnessy. “They see the value of the individual communities that have been held together by their hard work and tradition for so many years.”
“They don’t want to lose that,” he continued. “They see that as something very important, but they also realize that changes are happening.”
Change sometimes presents opportunities, according to Father Shaughnessy. The planners hope that broader regional cooperation called for in the new pastoral plan will help strengthen individual parishes and meet the inevitable changes to come.