Office grapples with archdiocese’s future challenges

BRAINTREE -- The archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning is charged with working with parishes and archdiocesan central ministries to address the challenges the future will present.

And those challenges aren’t likely to be small. Current information suggests those challenges will include an increasing shortage of priests, a decline in already low Mass attendance, and financial strains on parishes.

The director, Father David Couturier, OFM Cap., said the formation of the office stemmed from a May 2007 planning report by the archdiocese’s Pastoral Planning Committee, headed by Father George Evans.

That report called for a “culture of planned responsiveness” rather than a “culture of reactivity.”

In an interview with The Pilot this week, Father Couturier noted that the archdiocese has faced “significant crises” in the last decade: the sexual abuse crisis, the reconfiguration process, and a financial crisis.

“The cardinal wants us to move to a competency at every level that we’re preparing for the future instead of simply reacting when a new crisis emerges,” Father Couturier said.

“It’s about helping the archdiocese move from maintenance to mission,” said Joshua Phelps, the office’s associate director.

Father Couturier also addressed the realities of the current vocations shortage.

He said that currently there are 349 priests available to serve the archdiocese’s 290 parishes, adding that in 11 years, the number of available priests could shrink to 166.

Father Evans’ report predicts a similar trend. The document says that by 2015, there could only be 212 priests available for active parish ministry and religious orders could withdraw from staffing parishes.

“We need credentialed, degreed, qualified lay pastoral leaders,” Father Couturier said.

“The archdiocese has a great history of independent pastors, fiercely loyal parishioners, and great love for one’s parish. The challenge that we have is to think and act more collaboratively across parishes in the region for the sake of evangelization,” he said.

Phelps agreed, and said that a task of the office is to help parishes utilize economies of scale to engage in regional planning.

“It may mean shared staffing,” he said.

Both also acknowledge that church attendance has dropped drastically, and Phelps said that the vocations and financial crises are symptoms of declines in church attendance.

Father Couturier said that the office has worked with Cardinal O’Malley to identify strategic priorities for the next five to ten years and has developed a commission to study parish staffing needs.

He noted the increased role of the laity in today’s Church, but also said that parishes are not always able to pay the salaries of such credentialed employees.

Phelps added that the office is compiling demographic data so pastors and parish leaders can make informed ministry and structural decisions.

“Rather than deal with anecdotes, we can now give actionable, up-to-date data -- the same data that Starbucks and McDonald’s are using to serve the population that they want to serve,” Father Couturier added. “Why should Starbucks and McDonald’s have this data and the Church not?”

His office is also training pastoral councils in planning objectives, he said.

Father Couturier and Phelps bring different backgrounds to this ministry.

Father Couturier has a degree in clinical psychology of priests and religious. Prior to joining the archdiocese, he ran a consulting ministry for religious organizations and taught pastoral administration and parish leadership at St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore.

Phelps earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from Boston College. He served as a financial and market forecaster for a local consulting firm and then was the pastoral associate at St. Patrick Parish in Watertown where he oversaw faith formation and pastoral planning operations.

For this office, pastoral planning is about the future.

“We need to present the next generation of Catholics with a positive message and an enlivened experience of faith,” Father Couturier said. “That future orientation is what pastoral planning is all about.”