Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Diocese of Superior’s last strategic planning effort. To ensure the vitality of the local Church in decades to come, diocesan officials are working on a new planning initiative that will map out the next 10 to 20 years.

Priests and chancery staff are among those collaborating with Bishop James P. Powers on “A New Springtime Revisited,” including Administrative Services Director Dan Blank.

Blank, who replaced retiring administrator Richard Lyons in January 2017, said the Presbyteral Council was already talking about strategic planning when he attended his first meeting in February 2017.

In the ensuing months, members of the council discussed the graying diocesan priesthood, the need to emphasize vocations and the deanery- and cluster-based organizational system, among other topics.

Those conversations, together with input from chancery staff, comprised the planning stage of the initiative. It was time to begin the active phase.

Bishop Powers opened the public discussion with a letter to priests and parish leaders in June 2018. He asked them to participate in the process of planning for diocese’s future, and to share the information with parishioners.

“As we now approach the year 2020, I feel that it is time to reassess our strengths, opportunities and challenges,” he wrote.

Picking up where they left off

The last two major planning efforts in the diocese were in 1982 and 2001.

One of the first questions was whether information gleaned and structures put in place during the diocese’s last strategic planning effort, named “A New Springtime” after Pope St. John Paul II’s call for evangelization, could be applied nearly 20 years later.

Led by the late Bishop Raphael Fliss, A New Springtime’s guiding principles included maximizing opportunities for the faithful to receive sacraments; strengthening Catholic identity; respecting priests’ gifts; investing resources to strengthen and affirm the priesthood; respecting the gifts of laity; and investing resources in the affirmation, formation and involvement of the laity in the church’s mission.

Each of A New Springtime’s guiding principles included a list of strategies for achieving the goal. For example, among those possible strategies for strengthening Catholic identity were: Employing parish directors; implementing RCIA programs in every cluster; providing catechism classes for children and adults seeking sacraments; supporting Catholic schools; offering opportunities for socialization and fellowship; creating small groups in parishes; and the like.

As Blank explained, the question for Presbyteral Council members was, “Are these guiding principles … still relevant today?” or would they have to create a new system, reinvent the wheel and “jump onboard” with the latest strategic planning protocol?

To answer that question, council members reached into the pews. The first of five deanery meetings on A New Springtime Revisited was scheduled last September, and attendees were given worksheets with 40 questions listing the guiding principles and strategies for achieving them. Each person was asked to rate how successfully their parish had implemented those strategies.

The range of Catholic communities in the diocese – from large suburban-style parishes like St. Patrick, Hudson, to tiny rural churches clustered together – along with significant demographic differences means not all of the questions were relevant to all the people, Blank said, but primarily, diocesan officials were seeking to revisit the 2001 pastoral document and get feedback.

Slight detour

At any given time, the Diocese of Superior is responsible for a number of larger projects – umbrella projects that affect every parish – and they must also respond to immediate needs. Initially, the deanery meetings were all going to be scheduled last autumn, but a more pressing need cropped up.

Criminal cases involving theft and embezzlement from diocesan parishes compelled officials to turn their focus to financial controls.

“With the hiring of Larry French as our new finance officer, we turned our attention to the immediate need of looking at our internal parish controls, and establishing a common check-and-balance system,” Bishop Powers explained. “This effort provides for a greater transparency in regards to the gifts entrusted to the parishes by their members.”

Ten seminars on the topic, designed and presented by Department of Finance director Larry French, were held around the diocese to educate parish leaders, finance council members, volunteers and others about how to implement best practices to protect parishes’ financial integrity.

The deanery meetings for A New Springtime Revisited resumed in February, and the final meeting, held at St. Francis, Superior, was May 5.

Attendance was good at all the deanery meetings, with more than 100 attendees at each one, Blank said.

“The interest and turnout for the deanery meetings was overwhelming for as busy as everyone is,” the bishop added. “The input from all of those involved will be so valuable as we move forward.”

Since then, feedback from the meetings has been compiled into a report, a working group has been formed to study data, and they are tasked with charting the course as the diocese moves through the planning process.

Members of that working group – Bishop Powers, Fr. Jerry Harris, Fr. John Gerritts, Fr. Andrew Ricci, Sr. Marla Lang, Blank and Christine Newkirk – just had their first meeting July 30, Blank added.

“I am dedicated to a collaborative process, so the group will be seeking input from a very broad spectrum of parishioners,” Bishop Powers said. “I am also committed to keeping everyone informed of the progress.”

Neighboring dioceses – Green Bay and Duluth, to name a couple – have recently gone through strategic planning as well, so Blank hopes studying their process and conclusions will be enlightening.

“We’re going to try to gain some wisdom,” Blank added.

At this point, Blank doesn’t know the broader implications of strategic planning – whether individual programs will be studied for their effectiveness and cut, for example, if they aren’t proving successful.

He expects planning will be a slow-moving project, and he’s glad the bishop’s letter came out, the deanery meetings were well attended, and the working group is moving forward.

“It makes sense to celebrate the small successes,” Blank said. “People are committed to taking steps in the big picture of the diocese. I just think it’s off to a darn good start.”

“As always, I ask your prayers, patience and understanding as we move forward to address these very serious issues of the Diocese of Superior,” the bishop concluded, “especially the dwindling number of priests and the challenging demographics of our time.”