Overcoming challenges to build a vibrant Church
On April 16, 2019, Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne released Christ our Hope: Declaration of the 2018 Synod of the Diocese of Burlington. This declaration was the result of a two-year process that gathered input from thousands of parishioners from throughout the state.
In 2017 Bishop Coyne had announced plans to convene the first Diocesan Synod in Vermont since 1962. Its purpose was to establish a pastoral plan for the immediate future of the Catholic Church in Vermont and to establish laws and policies to do so.
After 64 listening sessions in local parishes and regional meetings with input from 1,431 parishioners (and another 195 online), delegates and pastors representing every parish met four times to review the input and provide guidance to the bishop for the final planning process to enact the policies, laws and directives to carry out that plan in Vermont.
From the synodal deliberations three key pastoral priorities emerged, each of them related to the mission of the Church:
- Evangelization — call people to faith;
- Building and supporting vibrant parishes — give people a place where faith lives; and
- Communications — proclaim a message that can be heard, received, understood and accepted.
The Synod Declaration listed detailed guidance in each of these key areas. Find it at vermontcatholic.org/vermont/christ-our-hope.
Representatives of Catholic Leadership Institute began working with parishes after the conclusion of the Diocesan Synod to implement the synod’s focus on vibrant parishes.
The first task of CLI’s work was the distribution of The Disciple Maker Index Survey. Parishioners throughout the state were asked to complete this questionnaire on paper or online between Feb. 23 and March 31, 2019, to rate their parish:
- Spiritual maturity and growth of parishioners. This is an opportunity to help parishioners — who are in different stages of spiritual growth — move forward on their discipleship journey.
- A shared culture of leadership. This relates to the pastor’s engagement and collaboration with lay leaders in the parish and the lay leaders’ collaboration with one another. It also relates to the parish’s vision and direction for the future.
- Celebration of the Sunday Eucharist with excellence. This element relates to such things as preaching and hospitality and looks to the future to help Sunday worship be the best it can be.
- Missionary impulse. This element deals with the understanding of a parish’s responsibility to care for those that attend Sunday Masses and to search for those who do not come. Bishop Coyne said the goal of the survey was to provide a “snapshot” of each parish as it exists today.
In March 2019, Action Plan Writing Teams from each parish attended one of three Parish Leadership Team Trainings to learn how to use the results of their parish surveys to develop goals for their parish to improve
vibrancy. Plans were completed in the fall, and the next step was focused on raising the resources necessary to implement these plans through the first-ever capital campaign focused on the synod priorities and the Catholic Church’s mission to support the most vulnerable.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, plans were delayed until the fall as churches closed due to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order. Now, as we begin to open our churches and welcome the faith community back to the celebration of Mass, our Church is faced with new challenges that need to be addressed so we can move forward with our pastoral plan to build a vibrant Church for the future.
Compared to 30 years ago, the Diocese now has about one-third the number of priests and nearly the same number of churches.
“While this is a challenging time, it is also an opportunity now for us to address these challenges in new and creative ways,” said Msgr. John McDermott, vicar general. “Over the next several months, as clergy work with their planning teams to revisit the goals and pastoral plans they created based on the synod priorities and Disciple Index Survey results, we need to be open to new ideas such as trained parish administrators who can manage the daily operations of the parish with visiting clergy to perform the celebration of the liturgy and sacraments and parish mergers where it makes sense. We will need the involvement and support of the lay community like never before.”