the rural and regional church

BathurstEarlier this week I was privileged to join Bishop Michael McKenna, the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Bathurst for a day focused on pastoral planning. More and more dioceses are recognising the opportunity that pastoral plans represent, not merely to address immediate challenges but also, and more fundamentally, to translate the life of our parishes and dioceses into a new missionary key. While offering no kitbag of ‘silver bullets’ it was good to share what we have learned through achievement and mistakes in developing a pastoral plan in our own urban context in Parramatta.

In examining the foundations of Church planning I sought to emphasise that planning processes that begin from a bureaucratic or purely administrative perspective may well produce a document but they will not generate life, they will not foster a greater sense of God’s mission, discipleship or belonging among its people.

Authentic planning in the Church cannot be primarily a question of the right structures for a diocese, the right mix of policies or administrative concerns because if flesh-and-blood people and parishes are not growing spiritually in their discipleship, then any structural change a diocese might make is merely a postponement of ongoing decline rather than representing a pro-active and new footing for a 21st century mission.

Pastoral plans must focus on generating life and discipleship for mission. Planning processes, through consultation and a sober and public assessment of the facts, are a way of fostering participation, conversation and ownership of a common vision and practical wisdom that will bring about change. A planning process is a way by which Church leadership can ignite a conversation about the things that matter, challenge views of the Church that are too narrow or complacent, and awaken all people, ordained and lay, to the responsibility to live the change and faith that they would like to see. This primary focus on discipleship and mission is vital because dioceses and parishes do not grow if people don’t.

bathurstAs an outsider I spent some time reflecting on the Diocese of Bathurst as known through research and observation. The diocese was formally established in 1865 and today comprises 19 parishes with other, smaller Eucharistic communities dotted across a vast terrain. There are some 67,877 Catholics in the Diocese (30.7% of the general population) and the average size of parishes is 3,572 Catholics with the sizes ranging from 339 (Eugowra) to 13,709 (Orange).

The average percentage Mass attendance rate across the Bathurst Diocese is about 10.5% which is on par with many other dioceses across the country. With those other dioceses, the Mass attendance rate in Bathurst is likely to fall under 10% by 2016 which only increases the need for good planning in the years ahead. Distance, of course, is a distinguishing feature of the Bathurst Diocese with its faith communities spread across some 103,600 square kilometres. This is 24 times the size of the Parramatta Diocese which takes in a mere 4,289 square kilometres!

Hence, one of the issues that I explored was the response of rural and regional dioceses in Australia and the U.S. to smaller numbers of clergy and parishes, vast distances and limited resources. While not exhaustive, the list below provides some sense of how rural and regional dioceses have led the way in reforming pastoral life and ministries for mission. As Pope Francis has underscored so many times in his pontificate, the prophetic will emerge from the peripheries not the centres which can, in comparison, be rather more complacent and comfortable in the status quo of ecclesial life.

  • Diocesan reconfiguration is the obvious response for rural and regional dioceses to assume in the face of challenging conditions. Amalgamations, twinning and clustering of parishes is a response known to all Australian dioceses (excluding the eparchies and extra-territorial dioceses) though the pastoral fallout of such structural change tends to be less affiliation with the Church among some members as people are simply not willing or even able to travel to identify with a faith community outside their immediate locality.
  • Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest is an increasing practice and a legitimate response for many regional and rural dioceses across the world. It is often exercised on alternative weekends when the local priest cannot be present. The Australian norms for this form of worship, promulgated in 2004, are available here in PDF.
  • Accompanying this worship in the absence of a priest is the phenomenon of lay preaching which has developed with vigour in the U.S. Take for instance the rural diocese of Great Falls-Billings in Montana, in the Western United States. Coincidentally, this diocese is about three times the geographic size of Bathurst and contains three times the number of parishes as Bathurst (54 in total) but with the same number of Catholics as Bathurst (around 60,000). Hence Great Falls-Billings has fewer Catholics per parish. I did not endeavour to explore the complexities of Canon 766 which permits lay preaching in certain circumstances other than to say that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has authorised each diocesan bishop to decide if a lay person may preach in his or her own words when the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest is used. The uneven history of instructions and decrees from Rome on this subject leaves lay preaching as an exception in the Church, as an instruction or testimony at Eucharistic liturgies that is not to be confused with the homily, and altogether more appropriate at non-Eucharistic liturgies. As far as I am aware, no provision exists for such preaching under the mandate of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and none is envisaged at this time.
  • Reliance on clergy from the developing world is increasingly common and well known in rural and urban contexts, though this brings with it theological, ethical and pastoral issues, including issues pertaining to the inculturation of international priests and justice for the dioceses from which these clergy originate.
  • Deployment of women religious as parish leaders is also a common response both here and the U.S. In Canberra-Goulburn a group of parishes known as the ‘Western Mission’ has seen a parish priest reside in one faith community but with canonical appointment in another four small communities. The priest then delegates that jurisdiction to four ‘community leaders’ which have included among them women religious.
  • Lay leadership within parishes has been explored in a number of ways here and in the U.S., expressed in multi-parish team structures, coordinating teams of three people (as has been practiced in the dioceses of Ballarat and Sandhurst), deanery communities and the formal appointment of non-ordained pastoral leaders. However, lay leadership of parishes on a day-to-day basis, with the overarching governance and sacramental ministry of clergy, has not yet been systematically or strategically explored by dioceses in Australia.
  • Finally but significantly, in some instances, given that many rural parishes would not be viable without the presence of the school, the absence of a resident priest has seen school leadership exercise a role of spiritual leadership in the local community, with more pastoral significance and recognition of this role than a relatively distant parish priest.

In concluding my time with the clergy and lay leaders of Bathurst, I conveyed that while many hours could be spent exploring the pros and cons of these models employed in other dioceses, it would be to a certain extent in vain for what is of greater importance than the actual solution or response that might be decided upon is the process by which such decisions might be arrived at in this local church at this time in its history.

consultationGood and effective pastoral plans come into being by a collective exploration of realities and potential, not by a process of map-reading. That is, a pastoral plan will never be truly owned, accepted or generate life among the people of a diocese if it is picked out of the handbook of another diocese or parish altogether different from our own. There is no map or pre-ordained model for the future of our dioceses, including Bathurst. A map can only be drawn or outlined after the local community of faith has wrestled with and chewed over the pastoral realities, personnel and unique features of its context.

Regional dioceses in Australia may well arrive at solutions similar to the ones outlined above but if there is a well-designed, consultative process at work, they will have arrived at those same solutions with the support, practical advice and commitment of all rather than the best conjectures of the few.

I concluded this privileged time with the Diocese of Bathurst with the encouragement that once people are fully engaged in a local sense of mission, once they have had a wide and unvarnished conversation about the changing needs of clergy and parishes, once there is inspired animation of practicing Catholics through a specific and targeted consultation process on core issues, and once a diocesan vision is agreed upon, then in fact the right or most fitting solutions will begin to suggest themselves.

I have no doubt that it is rural and regional dioceses such as Bathurst that will lead the rest of us into new ways of living the perennial Gospel. We will learn much from them and be evangelised by their missionary spirit.


structural change


Photo: Chris Ehler

A conference is always richer than the sum of its parts and the biennial gathering of the National Pastoral Planners’ Network proved the rule. Held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, in late May 2013, the conference brought together those working in the area of church planning across Australia as well as in New Zealand.

Also part of the mix were representatives of the Pastoral Research Office, a Catholic agency which assists Australian dioceses to make sense of internal and Census data, and a number of bishops, vicars general, laypersons and priests seeking to exchange ideas on various levels. (You can find a blog about the conference keynote addresses on the Parramatta pastoral planning website here).

What struck me was the emphasis on structural change that was thread throughout the conversations, most notably the workshops I attended. In many dioceses in Australia there has been the need to twin or cluster parishes (communities share a priest while retaining their identity as separate parishes) or even amalgamate parishes on account of various factors. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the financial realities of church life, shifting populations, the need to redistribute parish priests to serve in greater areas of need, and then there is the desire to minimise duplication and to make the most of opportunities for increased collaboration.


Photo: Chris Ehler

The whole business of parish reconfiguration, amendments to parish boundaries, even changes in models of parish leadership, and the re-allocation of resources is complex business, far more complex than popular accounts and external commentary on these changes convey. Structural change is always a controversial issue because people, quite rightly, have a deep attachment to their parish which is more than an administrative unit but, indeed, a spiritual home.

Nonetheless, the responsibilities of dioceses go well beyond a single parish and, as communities of communities, they are challenged to take into account distinct parish needs and circumstances right across their region all at once. The tensions between the parts and ‘the whole’, the particular and the universal, the needs of the parish and that of the greater diocese, manifest themselves for all those involved in this important work. (I’ve discussed some of the responsibilities of dioceses in a previous post).

In my experience, one of the reasons that the planning of a diocese can seem confounding or rather abstract for the average parishioner (if there is one) is that very few parishes themselves have had an experience of planning at a parish level. Without this commitment in a local context, the rationale of planning for an entire diocese can appear foreign, be viewed with scepticism or even considered unnecessary.


Photo: Chris Ehler

When parishes do plan, it tends to be rather piecemeal, initiated for a particular event or else confined to planning for liturgy or the raising of parish funds. Meanwhile, the broader life of the community and the totality of its ministries are left to unfold year after year without a clear direction or a unifying vision. As just one example, a lack of succession planning for parish ministries often leads these groups in a bind when long-established leaders move on or retire while a more concerted effort to plan for ministries over the long term might help a parish community meet such changes with confidence.

(A helpful example of a parish pastoral plan was shown to us at the NPPN Conference, in the form of Surfers Paradise Parish whose pastoral plan is available here in PDF; 540KB).

So . . .  as a parish or a ministry group it may be well worth having a look at what dioceses and parishes are doing right across Australia and abroad in the area of planning as a potential inspiration for your own community. There are varying approaches – some may be paradigms of good process while others may be models of what not to do!

At this most recent conference I was delighted to join the Executive of the National Pastoral Planners’ Network. One of the commitments of the network is to share and communicate news of church planning across Australia and across the Tasman as well. So as a nod in that direction, here are some links to planning initiatives from the Church in Australia and NZ that I’ve been able to find and that might inspire action in your part of the world:

Parramatta Diocese

My own diocese launched its planning process in February 2012. This was followed by eight months of in-person consultation across 49 parish communities, an interim report (PDF; 1.2MB) that shared the responses from that process, and, more recently, a further call for feedback on draft parish goals (PDF; 1MB) which have been developed.

The final pastoral plan, entitled Faith in Our Future, is due to be released in February 2014. It will outline the future directions of Parramatta’s church agencies (CatholicCare Social Services, Catholic Youth Parramatta, and the like) as well as practical or grassroots recommendations for parishes to take up in their communities. Click here for the website which contains more information and regular updates.

Maitland-Newcastle Diocese

A leadership forum was held by the bishop of the diocese, Bp Bill Wright, in January 2013. From this flowed fourteen key areas of priority for the Diocese as well as the assignment of strategic actions for the immediate future. Click here for the website which provides an overview. The Pastoral Plan launched by the previous Ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Michael Malone, was to extend to 2014, and can be found here (PDF; 2.21MB).

Broken Bay Diocese

This diocese has some history of pastoral planning, with the previous plan entitled Pastoral Care for Evangelisation (2006-2010). In 2011, a diocesan synod was held. Interestingly, much of the synodal process was facilitated by external consultants who specialise in the area of leadership and management services. The diocese approached the synod primarily through a survey (I remember sighting them in the pews while on retreat at the Benedictine Abbey at Arcadia). A timeline is available here (PDF; 8KB) which could be used as the basis of a parish planning process, albeit on a smaller scale. The final statements and resources flowing from the Synod are available at this website.

Wollongong Diocese

This diocese launched its impressive pastoral plan, Bearers of Christ’s Love, in 2011 and it extends to 2015. A summary version can be downloaded here (PDF; 1.8MB). Wollongong is currently working towards achieving one of its key goals contained in its plan, which is to ensure its community structures respond to current and emerging needs. This link contains some excellent resources for a diocesan conversation about community change, resources that could well be applied to your own parish planning with some adjustment.

Sydney Archdiocese

The pastoral plan of the Sydney Archdiocese, Starting Afresh with Christ, was launched in late 2007 and extended from 2008 to 2011. The document can be accessed here (PDF; 2.8MB). The reason I make mention of this older plan is that the May 2013 edition of the Catholic Weekly alluded to an ‘iteration’ of the Pastoral Plan in one of its articles though the meaning of this is not yet clear.

Brisbane Archdiocese

A decade ago, the Archdiocese of Brisbane held a diocesan synod. Following the synod, nine priorities were formally promulgated by Bishop John Bathersby and the pastoral plan, Let Your Light Shine, soon followed which set out how the archdiocese would realise these priorities from 2004-2011. Click here for more website information.

Wellington Archdiocese

This diocese has developed a plan that appears to be focused on structural change, under Archbishop John Dew. Consultation was conducted through a number of focus groups, and the archdiocese is currently inviting responses to a series of proposals by the diocese. You can find the ‘proposal document’ here (PDF; 1.6MB). The final pages of the proposal document include templates for the response of individuals and parishes to potential changes. This seems a reasonable approach of inviting feedback for a diocese, given its scope. However, parishes may prefer to hold  in-person consultations when developing a pastoral plan, given their relatively smaller scale which tends to make the amount of feedback gathered more manageable.

Christchurch Diocese

Following the devastating earthquakes of 2011, the Diocese of Christchurch has, understandably, been focused on planning for the repair and rebuilding of not only churches but presbyteries, halls and parish centres as well. The latest diocesan documents on these plans are available here on their website. We wish them well in this complex but essential work.

we can all learn from Boston

That is not something we could have said in 2002. After all, it was in that Archdiocese that the scandal of the sexual abuse crisis, including serious maladministration, broke across the front pages of the Boston Globe, sending the American (and universal) Church into a crisis which continues to impact the life and morale of individuals, parishes, and religious communities today. At that time, Boston could not be said to have modelled anything for the Church.

disciplesinmissionMore than a decade later and the reform in Boston continues under the leadership of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, though now with a particular focus that lies in its future. This year has seen the commencement of the first phase of Boston’s pastoral plan, ‘Disciples in Mission’.

What’s the essence of the diocese’s plan and what is its relevance for the rest of us? Boston is focused on the positioning of parishes more solidly for ‘the New Evangelisation’, meaning renewed outreach to ‘our brothers and sisters and drawing them more fully to Jesus Christ’. This is pretty much the focus of the magisterium – a concentration on the baptised who have lost a living sense of faith, without denying the importance of the traditional mission ad gentes. 

(You can think of it this way: the mission ad gentes, ‘to the nations’, is for those who ‘Don’t Know, Don’t Care’,  the mission of the new evangelisation is for those who ‘Know, but Don’t Care’).

In the name of renewal, the Diocese is reorganising all of its 288 parishes into approximately 135 ‘collaboratives’. Most of these parishes will retain their own canonical identity and integrity, with their own name, assets, liabilities and financial obligations but will placed under the governance of a single priest (or ‘pastor’ as they prefer to say in the U.S.). This approach is described locally as ‘twinning’ or ‘clustering’ parishes.

So, why this radical restructure across the Diocese? Boston is reorganising its life in the pursuit of one goal: to enhance its mission of evangelisation.

By introducing ‘collaboratives’, Boston notes the following gains:

  • parishes can unite to work together in pastoral actions based on a common vision;
  • the resources of parishes can be shared for the mutual benefit of all;
  • a greater shared consciousness can be fostered of the need to bring people back to an active practice of the faith;
  • a renewed focus on outreach to others will be supported by resources and training in the theology and practice of evangelisation, training in parish leadership and sound management (for both priests and lay ministers who will now work in two-parish or multi-parish groups).

evangelizationIn my experience the greatest obstacle to this type of bold renewal of pastoral life is neither finance or facility but a failure to recognise the mission of evangelisation as the central purpose for which all of our communities exist.

In other words, a lack of focus on our Christian mission leads to complacency and the isolation of our ministries and communities, one from another. Communities that are settled in an ‘exclusive unity’ will not grow, spiritually or numerically. This is because they will have neglected the central Gospel imperative to ‘go and make disciples’, a mission that calls for the uniting of gifts and combined witness.

The urgent need to focus beyond what we have, beyond ourselves and beyond even our own preferences, could be put this way: ‘If your parish or community closed today, would anyone but its members notice?’

We must recognise our existence is not for ourselves and organise our life and our structures accordingly. We exist for mission, for the making of new disciples and promoting growth in all those who follow Jesus. We can all learn from Boston and be challenged by its bold renewal. If we do, we have the opportunity to offer stronger, combined witness in faith, better manifest our identity as a communion, and realise a more effective mission than that which could be achieved on our own.