Priest shortage is big concern for Diocesan Planning Commission

Father Theodore Borger lays hands on Father Joseph Sia during the ordination Mass of Fr. Sia and Father Hai Dinh in 2008. Also pictured is Father Robert Busher, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport.

By Barb Arland-Fye

The Diocese of Davenport has 102 priests, 28 of whom are retired. Within 11 years, 36 of the 74 non-retired priests will have reached age 70 and qualify for retirement. While some priests choose to continue in ministry beyond age 70, the swiftly vanishing number of priests — and the shortfall of new ones to succeed them — is creating a sense of urgency for a new diocesan advisory group helping to plan for the future.

The Diocesan Planning Commission, comprised of 14 lay and clergy members from throughout the diocese, met for the first time last month to begin the work Bishop Martin Amos appointed it to do — recommend changes and plan for the future of the diocese through 2020. The advisory commission reports to the Davenport Pastoral Council.

Among the commission’s responsibilities:

• Study and build upon the existing plan of Living the Faith Task Force


• Develop an updated plan for parish and deanery (regional) structuring

• Consider the appointments of priests in the diocese over the next 10 years in relation to the sacramental needs of parishioners, the use of parish life administrators and the wellness document for clergy

• Consult with deans and deaneries for their input

• Consider possible new clustering, consolidating or closing of parishes

• Report to and consult with parish, deanery and diocesan leaders throughout the planning process

• Meet with and listen to input from diocesan groups, councils and commissions, especially the Diocesan Pastoral Council and Presbyteral (Priests’ Council)

• Report to Bishop Amos on a regular basis and submit to him a recommended plan of action that prepares the diocese for changes expected to occur by the year 2020

“This planning process is going to create a sense of urgency about the need for vocations,” says Dan Ebener, the diocese’s stewardship director. As part of the strategic planning process the commission must ask, “How can we develop leaders and develop leadership in our diocese in order to be more prepared for a church that is going to have fewer priests?”

The commission’s starting point is reviewing and updating the 2005 report by the Living the Faith Task Force, which among other things, created a scenario for each parish in each of the diocese’s six deaneries (regions). The scenarios were based on projected numbers of priests available for parish work, ordination rates and other factors.

“The planning projections and assumption used by Living the Faith Task Force were overly optimistic,” says Ebener, who was a part of that planning process and the new one.

“We need to promote vocations. Father Marty Goetz, our full-time vocations director, is doing a wonderful job,” says Msgr. John Hyland, the diocese’s vicar general. But, “we also need to be proactive in looking at how we will begin to map out our future with fewer priests to serve and in what areas of the diocese would priests be most needed.”

Both Msgr. Hyland and Ebener, who serve on the advisory commission, believe its membership is well suited for the planning process.

“Part of it is to understand the facts, but to also look at how to do what’s best in a way that affects the diocese and the Catholics in the diocese in the most optimal way possible,” says Marie Ware. A member of St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa, she co-chairs the advisory commission with Father James Vrba, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Wilton.

She describes the commission as a “microcosm of the diocese — we have people from all of the deaneries, people bringing their perspectives from the smallest and largest of the parishes; then, too is the priests’ perspective, the deacons’ perspective, the lay person’s perspective. It’s a great group of people.

“Each brings a strong faith and commitment to the future of the diocese,” she says, noting that Fr. Vrba began and ended the first meeting with a prayer service. “That’s the center of what we’re doing — it’s our faith; we’re creating a plan, but it’s really God’s plan. That’s who needs to guide us and open our hearts to what his plan is.”

Fr. Vrba praised that task force for its groundbreaking work.

“They did a tremendous amount of work, compiling facts, information, statistics, trying to predict where we’d be down the road. Their scenario talked about having an average of 1-1/2 men ordained as priests each year. That’s where the urgency is coming right now. We’re not ordaining 1-1/2 priests each year. We have eight men in the seminary right now.”

Studying and updating the task force’s report will help the advisory commission in its efforts to “figure out how we can keep as many parishes open as we possibly can. I think we have to take a look at the viability of parishes, as the former study did. And maybe we need to expand on that — if we recommend several parishes clustering together we need to take a look at the viability factor of those parishes linked together — how they can be sharing resources together if we would recommend clustering.”

The concept of stewardship also plays a role in the commission’s work. “Several parishes in the diocese have developed some really solid stewardship models for their parishes. I think we need to encourage that for all the parishes in the diocese,” he said. Parishioners ought to be encouraged to use their gifts — given to them by God at baptism — to benefit their parish community. “I think that has to be a very integral part as far as how we see, how we understand parish today, and particularly down the road,” Fr. Vrba said.

“Nobody likes change, but undoubtedly as we look at the future and look at the present, change is an everyday part of our life,” Msgr. Hyland says. “As we move toward the future, there will be some changes that have to take place and perhaps won’t be totally accepted. We have to be realistic about the whole situation.”

Diocesan Planning Commission members:

• Bishop Martin Amos, bishop, Diocese of Davenport, ex officio

• Deacon Joe Dvorak, parish life administrator, Immaculate Conception Parish, Colfax

• Dan Ebener, stewardship director, Diocese of Davenport, staff

• Sister Laura Goedken, OP, Sisters Consortium, Diocese of Davenport

• Merlin Hellman, Keokuk Deanery representative, Fort Madison

• Father Tony Herold, Clinton Deanery representative, Clinton

• Msgr. John Hyland, vicar general, Diocese of Davenport, ex officio

• Betty Kaalberg, Iowa City Deanery representative, Riverside

• Ted Taylor, Davenport Deanery representative, Davenport

• Kay Temple, Davenport Deanery representative, Muscatine

• Father Jim Vrba, chair, Presbyteral Council, Wilton, co-chair, Diocesan Planning Commission.

• Marie Ware, Grinnell Deanery representative, Oskaloosa, co-chair Diocesan Planning Commission.

• Joe Welsh, Ottumwa Deanery representative, Lovilia

• Jude West, Iowa City]]>

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