Catholic Schools: “Foundational” to the Parish

Almost every year, one hears of a few faith-based schools that are closing or merging in their community. Most of these news stories center around Catholic schools. Rather than examine all the issues that surround the reasons for these actions, let’s just say that some of them are understandable – declines in the general population, declines in the number of the faithful in a certain area, fewer children in families, the deterioration of historical school buildings, insufficient funding for new and technologically advanced facilities, and, the one everyone seems to point, the economy (read, “We can’t afford the tuition).  Teachers today need to be compensated, and the utility, maintenance, technology and materials bills need to be paid.  If tuition isn’t paid, then something doesn’t get paid.  Back in the day, the men and women religious that taught in the schools weren’t paid, and, as a result, Catholic schools thrived during the mid to late-mid 20th century.

More and more today, however, one hears of a Catholic parish merging or closing. Usually, if structural instability isn’t the culprit, parish closings are part of a Diocesan or Archdiocesan strategic plan. As one who has experienced the workings of a Diocese, these processes are painful, because the recommended, approved, and implemented changes will impact the weekly, if not daily, life of the faithful in the community, and not just students and parents.

Sometimes, physically and emotionally difficult decisions must be made in order for the Church to be good stewards of the funds and gifts entrusted to it. Just as a gardener must make the difficult decision to prune a branch of a tree (even though a branch might sprout a couple of healthy leaves), the decision is made so that the whole tree can continue to grow.

If you take a look at a parish and a school together, however, usually a parish that has a school doesn’t close. If it did, that would mean that parents would have to find not only a new place to enroll their child, but they would also have to find a new place to worship. A parish with a vibrant school is a vibrant parish. Parishes that have parents with young children provide a sign to others that life will continue at the parish. Parishes that don’t have many young children may have quiet and reverent worship events, but as the average age of the parishioner rises, and there are fewer and fewer with each passing year, these parishes need to realize that a self-assessment will show the worship needs of the community may be fulfilled at another worship site.

The unspoken truth about the closing of a Catholic school means that the future of the continuance of that parish is at risk, and many times, the identity of the parish is also diminished. Such an event could be seen as the first potential step toward the parish’s own merger or closure.

Please note, however, that a Diocesan or Archdiocesan strategic plan is, as previously stated, so that the Church (capital C) can be good stewards of the funds and gifts entrusted to it.  Moving forward, the question becomes, “How can we ensure that our parish remains a vibrant part of the community-at-large?”  If you’ve read articles on this SchoolAdvancement site, you may be familiar with the DREAM (Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management, and Marketing) framework which supports the “business side” of the school.  A parish has a similar arrangement of elements, namely Fellowship, Initiation, Revenue Management, Evangelization and Stewardship, which creates the FIRES framework, as in to be “on fire” for Christ. Visit the blog at http://www.parishadvancement.com which speaks to how these elements work together as a system.

An easy start, however, would be to speak about our parishes as they really are, calling things by their right names. I visit many schools every year, working in 20 Arch/Dioceses over the past 9 years, and speaking in 2 other Archdioceses, and sometimes, I get to see a bulletin from the parish they’re affiliated with.  These bulletins are from St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception Church, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, etc.  with the name used as a title across the top of the bulletin as well as the title of the parish’s Web site.  This could be where the confusion begins.  The difficulty is that the building is called a church (small c), which is the worship site of the parish.  The Church (capital C) is the people of God with the geographical boundary known as a Diocese or an Archdiocese (from the Greek word meaning “administration”), the district under the supervision of a Bishop or Archbishop.  After 40 or so years, week after week, seeing St. Patrick Church on the bulletin’s masthead, a parishioner may begin to think that their church is the Church instead of their parish.  Remember, the people are called parishioners.  This can help up realize the Church is a much larger organization, commissioned by Christ to transform the world through love, sacrifice and service.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2016