Leading the Flock: Prudent Intentional Planning for the Future

By Bishop Daniel E. Thomas

“Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

Do you remember the first time you had to make an important decision? Maybe it was whether or where to attend college. Perhaps it was discerning if you should get married, move to another state, or buy a house. When faced with an important decision, it is always prudent to be intentional: to look at the issue from every angle, study any data available, listen to trusted advisors, spend plenty of time in prayer asking the Lord for guidance, and then making a decision that is right for you and your family. And every person knows that every important decision always requires sacrifice.

Every day, we work together with our 122 parishes to make prudent intentional decisions that are best for the Catholics across the Diocese of Toledo. We want every parish to flourish and build a community of faith and love centered around the Eucharist. As a result of our 2019 Diocesan Strategic Plan, we started an Intentional Planning Ministry, which is part of our Department of Discipleship and Family Life. The ministry helps support parishes through an Intentional Planning Process that focuses on the future, on the pastoral and spiritual health and
development of the parish. For every parish “is envisioned as a response to a precise pastoral need, namely that of bringing the Gospel to the People through the proclamation of the faith and the celebration of the Sacraments.”

Many of our parishes have already engaged in this process with significant results, becoming healthier parishes that will maintain vibrancy into
the future. Some parishes have changed their Mass schedules, others have developed collaborations with nearby parishes to maximize use of
personnel and resources, and some have built strong strategic plans to focus efforts for growth into the future. Still others have “twinned” or become “tri-parish groupings” by establishing a collaboration of two or three separate parishes that share a pastor, parish priests and deacons. These collaborative groups of parishes can explore creative ways to maximize resources. The purpose of prudent intentional planning is not, as some would like to think, focused on closing parishes, but instead on assisting parishes, through the process, to become more vibrant, more evangelical, more missionary.

As in making any important decision, we consider carefully both diocese and parish data points when working through the Intentional Planning Process. On the diocesan side, we have fewer men being ordained to the priesthood each year than we have reaching retirement age. In the last ten years, the total number of active Toledo Diocesan priests has dropped from 92 to 76. Therefore, we are not only concerned about having a sufficient number of priests to serve our parishes, but conscious that many younger priests are asked to become pastors sooner than in the past; we are grateful to senior status (retired) priests who generously continue actively to exercise their priestly ministry; we realize that for our pastors the balance of time spent on administrative tasks versus ministry is a constant struggle. We continue to strive to involve our generous laity who exercise their vocation in close collaboration with their pastor and in valuable service to the parish. We also analyze data regarding demographics like population, now and with projections into the future; the proximity of parishes/churches to one another (drive time); and
the communities in which the parishes are located.

On the parish side, we consider data on the engagement of parishioners, Sunday Mass attendance, number of sacraments performed (baptisms, funerals, weddings), the structural integrity of buildings, financial health, etc. While some dioceses have used this data to make a unilateral decision to close a significant percentage of their parishes or assign a pastor to up to even eight parishes or more, with the support and
counsel of our consultative groups, I am convinced this is not the right approach for our diocese. Together, we want the parish and the community to provide feedback to help make the decision of what is right for them using the information and resources available and to look at ways to engage and grow the Catholic faith in their area. Not all the decisions reached will be popular with every member of the parish community, but those decisions are not lightly taken, and they are based on current diocesan data, current parish data, listening to the parishioners, and a desire to have vibrant, faithful and joy-filled parish communities.

So deeply grateful for all the parish communities that have already engaged in the Intentional Planning Process, I would ask that if your parish
goes through this process that you would proactively and productively participate with an open mind and heart, by thoughtfully considering
the information that is published about the process and providing feedback in the manner that it is requested. The parish “should put into action that ‘outgoing dynamism’ that, through collaboration among different parish communities, and a reinforced communion among clergy and laity, will orient it effectively toward an evangelizing mission, the task of the entire People of God, that walks through history as the ‘family of God’ and that, in the synergy of its diverse members, labors for the growth of the entire ecclesial body.”

Prudent intentional planning for the future means that with important decisions come sacrifices for the common good. We can no longer operate as in bygone years when parishioners of one ethnic group were vehement in not relating to parishioners of another ethnic group in the parish just down the block. We can no longer place our convenience as the highest good, as echoed in comments like “how dare they change my Mass time!” We can no longer operate in silos when parish ministries and catholic education programs will suffer unless parishes collaborate to offer the best possible pastoral service to the faithful. We can no longer presume that we’ll have enough parish priests, but instead must be actively praying for and encouraging vocations to the priesthood. What we can do is embrace the present with lively faith and
deep hope, trusting in the Lord and praying with Saint Paul: “Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

For more information about Intentional Planning, go to toledodiocese.org/intentional-planning.

+Most Rev. Daniel E. Thomas
Bishop of Toledo
March 20, 2023