Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said he hopes the pastoral plans written in each parish and deanery and eventually by the Diocese of Little Rock will help the Catholic Church in Arkansas more effectively carry out its missions.
In addition to planning for the future, "we have to look at how effective have our efforts been," he said.
It is expected to be completed in 2012.
The pastoral planning process started in March in parishes and missions throughout the state. Over the next six to nine months, pastors, parish council members, parish staff and other lay leaders will be meeting to write a five-year plan.
"This is the most important part of the process," Bishop Taylor said. "What occurs in the parish is the work of the Church. This is where the rubber meets the road. It will only work if parishioners get energized about it and have a clear sense of what we can do to serve Christ more faithfully in our community and improve in areas where we know we weren't where we need to be."
Before the plan can be written, each church will gather input from its membership through a questionnaire, which is provided by the diocese and available in English and Spanish. Because the sample questionnaire is lengthy, Bishop Taylor said it will not be filled out during Masses. It will either be mailed to parishioners or completed during parish group meetings. In places where there are Spanish-speaking members, the questionnaire might be given orally, Bishop Taylor said.
The bishop said he hopes parishes make an effort to listen to a variety of members.
"If not you are going to get back skewed results because it will be the people most involved in the parish or who are angry about something. We need to hear how everybody sees things," he said.
Bishop Taylor said each church, regardless of its size, will study a document called "A Model Parish," taken from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City's Quest 2000 plan. Bishop Taylor was a priest of the archdiocese before he was ordained the bishop of Little Rock in 2008.
"A Model Parish" highlights eight areas:
According to the document, "The purpose ... is not to pass judgment on any parish or pastor..., but rather to reach a consensus regarding our usually unspoken assumptions of what the model parish would look like, if there ever were one."
The pastor and parish team will then fill out a 31-page document called a parish self-study based on what they read a "model parish" should do. The self-study analyzes the same eight areas. Each area of the self-study is summarized into its "greatest strengths" and "greatest needs/concerns" and will be shared with their deanery and diocese.
The questionnaire results and summaries will be used to write the five-year plan, ranking their priorities and how they will be implemented.
For example, "if music is a particular concern, what can we do in the first year to improve that? Provide training for our musicians? Get a new hymn book? What is the second year and the third year?" the bishop said. "If the issue is Spanish-speaking ministry in the area and we are falling short there, how can we tackle that?"
Another task of the parishes is to assess their building size, Mass attendance and local U.S. Census data.
"Where do we have buildings that are inadequate to the much larger congregation that now gathers there? It might not be handicapped accessible. Maybe they have too much deferred maintenance," the bishop said.
Bishop Taylor said this information will let the pastor and leaders know if they have too many or too few Masses. The census data can help the parish see what areas of their parish boundaries are growing and where demographic shifts are occurring.
"What areas are becoming much more Hispanic than they used to be, especially in places where we have no church right now?" the bishop said.
Once most of the parish pastoral planning is complete, the dean, or regional priest leader, will begin meeting with the local priests, religious superiors and select lay leaders to write five-year Deanery Pastoral Plans. The diocese is divided into seven regions called deaneries. One priest from each region was chosen by his fellow priests to be the dean and appointed by Bishop Taylor.
The deanery planning process will be done in 2010 and 2011.
"I want them to take the time needed to do it well," Bishop Taylor said. "If it goes too quickly, that tells me not enough people were involved."
Because Bishop Taylor meets with the seven deans each month, he said he will be able to monitor how the parish and deanery plans are going and whether anyone is falling behind.
Each parish will provide its summary sheets from the eight areas in order for the deanery plans to be written, the bishop said.
"They will look and see how we as a deanery can work together to better assist the parishes in accomplishing their five-year plan ... Are there things we can do together that are bigger than any one parish can do? If quite a few parishes say their training for Eucharistic ministers and natural family planning is a place where we are dropping the ball, but it is not in the cards for every single parish to have, maybe working together we can address that."
The deanery plans will not address the needs of a specific parish.
"An example might be a large number of parishes may have Mass in Spanish but their pastor cannot provide counseling or do marriage preparation. It may be that one parish can offer. Maybe there is a desire for a Latin Mass. Maybe that would happen in one of the parishes."
The last step, which will likely start in 2011, will be the diocesan pastoral plan. The diocese started a similar process in 2000 and worked on it through 2003, but it was never implemented. Bishop Taylor said this process will be different because it will start at the grassroots level with the parishes.
"Once the deaneries have worked on the five-year plan, they will have identified places," Bishop Taylor said. "What are the areas that parishes need help or support? Now we will look at the diocesan offices at how effective they are supporting the deaneries and the parishes. ..., how the offices take necessary steps to be more effective in the mission entrusted to them. It is not so much now like they (the diocesan offices) are the ones directing that ministry, but rather they are the ones offering resources and assistance to those who are doing the work on the deanery and parish level."
Bishop Taylor said the three-year process for him is not about closing parishes.
"In a time of clergy shortage, there is always a worry about how we will be able to keep all these places open," he said. "If there is a place that is really alive, there is no reason to close it even if it is small. A parish needs to assess its own vitality ... This is really more about the mission of the Church and how can we fulfill our mission more effectively. If a place is alive, we want to support the people."
"A Model Parish," the parish self-study and sample questionnaire are available in English and Spanish at www.dolr.org.
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