Economist to discuss challenges, opportunities for today’s parishes

St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary will host Charles Zech Feb. 9 at St. John’s University in Collegeville. Zech is an economics and research professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Zech recently published a book, “Catholic parishes of the 21st Century,” after years of research with the university’s Center for Church Management and Business Ethics and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, commonly known as CARA.

Charles Zech, an economics and research professor at Villanova University, will speak Feb. 9 at St. John’s University in Collegeville. (Photo courtesy of Charles Zech)

The presentation is geared toward all those serving in ministry, especially pastors, pastoral leadership, members of finance and pastoral councils, stewardship committees, catechists and diocesan staff. Everyone is invited to attend (see box). Zech’s seminar is particularly timely as discussions regarding a new pastoral plan are underway across the Diocese of St. Cloud.

“I’m hoping my talk will help people start thinking about things in a different way,” Zech said. “If you look at things through a different prism, sometimes you see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. I’m hoping they will awaken to the possibilities.”

The presentation is funded by a grant: Economic Challenges Facing Future Church Ministers.

“The invitation [to Zech] comes because this is groundbreaking research on Catholic parishes,” said Barbara Sutton, director of ministerial formation and field education at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary. “It is an effort of the School of Theology to partner with the Diocese of St. Cloud to assist the church and our parish leadership as they discern the reshaping of parish life.”

The day begins at 9 a.m. Zech will provide context and background information and will then engage the audience in an interactive process. In light of his upcoming visit, The Visitor asked Zech about the message he will share.

Q: What can participants expect from the day?

Zech: I’m hoping to set the context and then let participants discuss what that context means in their own setting. My book is about the national situation of the Catholic Church and, obviously, each diocese and parish is a little different. I’m hoping that once I set the context for the nation, that the people will be able to apply this to their own [setting].

Q: In your book, you talk about a geographic shift where the densest populations of Catholics are moving toward the South and West. What does that mean for a rural diocese like St. Cloud in Minnesota? Does that change the opportunities?

Zech: It means you have to close parishes and do other kinds of reconfigurations of parish administrative structures to adjust for the fact that the church can’t afford to have a lot of big empty churches. People have moved, so we have to make some adjustments in the way we deal with resources. We have to recognize the reality that this is not the 1950s where all the churches are going to be full, and we have to recognize that a lot of Catholics have moved away.

Q: One obstacle that has been named in our diocese is how to get people to look beyond the “me” and “my church” mentality and to look more broadly at the needs of the greater church. Is this a common concern?

Zech: This is very common. Parishioners tend to view the “church” as their own parish and their parish is like family. To think that “I” have to give up “my” parish and go somewhere else is a real loss for parishioners.

This is very real to them. To be successful, the solution really has to come from the parishioners; they have to be on board, and they have to recognize the needs and the opportunities.

Q: As you may know, our diocese is currently working on a pastoral plan. Are there any similarities in the challenges and/or opportunities that dioceses are facing nationwide?

Zech: There are a lot of opportunities. In my mind, the most important one is that we finally have to recognize, that with the priest shortage, we have to rely more and more on the laity. We want the church to be the church of the past and the church we want it to be, but we can’t rely on the priests to do it all. We need the laity to step up and do the things that don’t require ordination. Right now we have priests doing too many things that do not require ordination, and that saps their energy and their strength to do the things that do require ordination.

Pope Benedict first started talking about this and since then, Pope Francis, too, has said that the model for the parish is no longer collaboration, which came out of Vatican II. Now it’s what they call coresponsibility.

Parishioners should feel a sense of co-responsibility with the pastor. Both pastors and parishioners are responsible for the success of the parish, and that requires them to work together in a way that is even beyond collaboration. This means each recognizes that they share this responsibility.

Q: In your book, you talk about the changing roles of leadership, something that has been a recurring theme during our diocese’s pastoral planning process. What are some of the challenges parishes might have in defining these roles?

Zech: I always say the priest is the pope of the parish. When you have total control, it’s hard to give that up.

It’s hard to imagine the parish succeeding without relying 100 percent on you. That’s part of the battle — getting the priest to recognize that it’s in his own longterm best interest to let the parishioners do the things that don’t require ordination.

On the flip side, parishioners also have to recognize that they, too, have responsibility. Back in the day, the saying was parishioners were expected to “pray, pay and obey” and do nothing beyond that. So it’s hard for both sides to imagine the opportunities available with their parish in the future. That’s what I hope we can talk about. It’s a great opportunity for us to grow as a church.

Read stories about the diocese’s current pastoral planning process at:


If you go

When: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9
Where: St. John’s University, Quad 264
Cost: $20
More information: Call 320-363-3052

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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