Nine parishes begin missionary strategic planning process with eyes toward heaven, hearts for missionary evangelization

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — As the evening twilight beamed in through a stained-glass window above the sanctuary, Msgr. Gary Smetanka led approximately 50 people in prayer.

“Holy Spirit,” the pastor prayed, “we so desperately want and need to change our culture. We want people to have a personal encounter with Jesus — an encounter that permeates every aspect of what we do in this parish.”

“Holy Spirit, inspire us,” Msgr. Smetanka prayed. “Help us to rebuild our church. What more can we do?”

It was a warm Monday night in July — not the sort of setting that typically draws a crowd at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish.

But this evening was different. Two and a half years removed from the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Synod 16, parishioners at Star of the Sea know the reality: the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

One of nine “partner parishes” in the archdiocese’s missionary strategic planning process, Our Lady Star of the Sea parishioners gathered July 1 for a “parish visioning day” — a chance for young and old to dream, pray and discern how their parish can become a beacon of hope with a focus on missionary evangelism.

Sr. Kathleen Matz, CDP, one of the parish “missionaries” for Our Lady Star of the Sea, smiles during a meeting of the parish visioning team.

The archdiocese-wide initiative, called “Sent on Mission,” was announced at Pentecost as Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron introduced the “next phase of Unleash the Gospel,” which will focus on the renewal of the archdiocese’s 218 parishes through the creation of “missionary strategic plans.”

While each parish eventually will create a plan, the nine “partner parishes” are leading the way, with more waves of parishes beginning in early 2020 and continuing over the next three years.

Besides Our Lady Star of the Sea, the other parishes in the initial phase are St. Roch in Flat Rock; St. Michael the Archangel in Monroe; St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Sterling Heights; St. Lawrence in Utica; St. Clare of Montefalco in Grosse Pointe Park; Holy Name in Birmingham; St. Mary in Royal Oak; and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.

‘Next phase’ of Unleash the Gospel

Described as a “mini-synod” process, the parish visioning day was an opportunity for parishioners to offer input to Our Lady Star of the Sea’s “parish visioning team,” a small group of individuals tasked with creating a plan to guide the missionary transformation prescribed in Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel.

When fully developed, the partner parishes’ “missionary strategic plans” will address six areas of focus: families, parish leadership, parish culture, parish functions, Catholic schools, and communications and technology.

Deacon Mike Houghton, the archdiocese’s project manager for the missionary strategic planning process, told Detroit Catholic the plans are a way for parishes to play an active role in Unleash the Gospel.

Our Lady Star of the Sea parishioners gather at “The Pointe,” during a “parish visioning day” event July 1. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

“Sometimes as a Church, we get comfortable in coming every week and doing what we always do,” Deacon Houghton said. “That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re called to do more. The Lord asks us to make disciples, and Unleash the Gospel and the MSPs are all about helping us to find ways to better do that.”

Each parish’s visioning team — chosen by the pastor from among the parish leadership team, staff and lay volunteers — has met weekly since early June, spending time in reflection and prayer while developing a “skeletal vision” for the parish that was presented during the parish visioning day.

“Sometimes as a Church, we get comfortable in coming every week and doing what we always do,” Deacon Houghton said. “That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re called to do more. The Lord asks us to make disciples, and Unleash the Gospel and the MSPs are all about helping us to find ways to better do that.”

Guiding the process at each parish are two parish “missionaries” — archdiocesan representatives who help facilitate discussion, answer questions and serve as sounding boards for the parish visioning teams.

Deacon David Casnovsky, one of two “missionaries” for Our Lady Star of the Sea, was impressed by parishioners’ energy and enthusiasm for evangelization.

“It think it was pretty creative, the stuff they were coming up with,” Deacon Casnovsky said. “One woman said she was a fourth-generation parishioner. Her parents founded this parish, and she was very fired up and had a lot of good ideas.”

Camille Watson, a parishioner for 12 years at Our Lady Star of the Sea, was glad to see the parish taking steps to listen to parishioners’ input in the process.

“I thought it was really good,” Watson said. “I’m glad we did it. It was basically a brainstorming session. We all contributed our ideas on the various topics, and nobody said, ‘Oh, that won’t work,’ or anything like that.”

The “skeletal vision” of the parish’s plan is just a starting point, Msgr. Smetanka said.

Prayer cards and strategy booklets line the tables during a parish visioning day event.

“The skeletal vision is basically us saying, ‘If we had unrestricted funds, here’s what we’d like to do,’” Msgr. Smetanka said. “We want to get the inspiration and the vision, and then we move to the next step of how to clothe the skeleton.”

“Clothing” the skeleton will involve marrying the vision put forward by the parish visioning team with input from parishioners over the next several weeks to create the parish’s missionary strategic plan. Afterward, each parish’s plan will be reviewed by the archdiocese’s Unleash the Gospel Council, led by Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby. Once approved, the parishes will begin a fundraising phase to make the new vision a reality.

Turning the focus outward

Fr. Anthony Sulkowski, pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, was impressed with the work of his parish’s eight-member visioning team.

“The people who are on the team are always thinking ahead,” Fr. Sulkowski said. “They have good ideas and think things through. When this opportunity came about, I thought they all responded eagerly to be part of it. They’re all people who have vision. Some are older, some are younger; it’s a good mix of people.”

Fr. Sulkowski said the “Sent on Mission” experience has been an exciting challenge for the St. Jane community — a chance to turn the parish’s focus outward.

“It’s very easy to get insulated and just concentrate on your own people, but the whole Unleash the Gospel movement and the missionary strategic planning process reminds us that our mission is also to people who are in the community, but aren’t a part of our community at St. Jane,” Fr. Sulkowski said.

“It’s challenging, but it’s exciting,” Fr. Sulkowski said. “It’s trying to instill in people that some things have to change.”

Some of the ideas offered at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica involved reaching out to fallen-away Catholics and new parishioners, and making it easier for young families to get involved in parish and school activities, said Marie DeArment, a member of the parish’s visioning team.

Erik Coules, a parish “missionary” for St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Sterling Heights, guides the discussion during a meeting of the parish visioning team in June.

“How do you get people, no matter their stage in life, to come to some of these things?” DeArment said. “It’s not just formation events; it’s social events. We have a big AppleFest picnic. That social event is important for building friendships and relationships. One of the first things said in our parish visioning day was about the importance of relationships. I thought that was profound. That was the Holy Spirit speaking.”

With a vibrant downtown scene in Utica, including a new independent-league baseball stadium built in 2016, Jimmy John’s Field, St. Lawrence has plenty of opportunities for outreach, DeArment said.

“To me, it provides a lot of opportunity,” DeArment said. “We have to realize the Church goes beyond our walls. We can’t do it all by ourselves.”

Shepherds versus fishermen

For Msgr. Smetanka, re-envisioning how Our Lady Star of the Sea “does church” is both daunting and exhilarating.

On the one hand, he dreams of a day when the pews are filled with Catholics who know and love their faith, and who “practice that faith in a very lived way.”

On the other hand, he knows that won’t happen by accident.

“I’ve thought about my role as a shepherd to the people,” Msgr. Smetanka said. “It’s a very nice image. You turn around and you whistle, and you say, ‘Come on, sheep,’ and you take them to the next pasture. One or two stray away, and you go get them. But today, pastors need to be fishermen, which I think is far more difficult.”

Fr. Anthony Sulkowski, pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Sterling Heights, laughs with members of the parish visioning team.

To be a fisherman, Msgr. Smetanka said, involves knowing “what time of day and night to go out, what side of the boat to fish, and what type of bait to use.”

“That’s much more difficult, but I think that’s what we have to do now to reclaim people to the Church, to God and to their faith,” he said. “You have to go out in different ways.”

The missionary strategic planning process, then, is about teaching people to fish.

“I’ve thought about my role as a shepherd to the people,” Msgr. Smetanka said. “It’s a very nice image. You turn around and you whistle, and you say, ‘Come on, sheep,’ and you take them to the next pasture. One or two stray away, and you go get them. But today, pastors need to be fishermen, which I think is far more difficult.”

“The laity certainly need to be more involved in evangelization, but they need to have that encounter with Jesus, of being reconverted in their faith and having a deepening relationship with him,” Msgr. Smetanka said. “I think people forget about that.

“People think, ‘If I just do a few good deeds, I’m set,” Msgr. Smetanka continued. “That should get me into heaven. I don’t need to go to church. I can just talk to God on my deck with a cup of coffee.’”

In order to draw people back, parishes need to think differently about evangelization, said Kerry Vlahentones, a member of the parish visioning team at Our Lady Star of the Sea.

“The possibilities are endless because the crop is ripe,” said Vlahentones, a counselor at Our Lady Star of the Sea School and a mother of two young children enrolled there. “Bringing Christ to people is our No. 1 obligation and our call, and this is another way to do it. I think we’ve shied away from it for a long time, but now we’re moving forward.”

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