'Family Missionary Strategic Plans' challenge parishes to work together to strengthen community, hone opportunities
SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Fr. Joe Mallia noticed parishioners weren’t returning to St. Kieran Parish in the same numbers they used to.
When the moderator of the North Macomb 1 Family of Parishes surveyed the two other parishes in his Family — St. Lawrence in Utica and St. Matthias in Sterling Heights — he found a similar reality: families were still missing from the pews.
“We realized we all needed to reconnect with families who had been part of the parish, but hadn’t been active since COVID,” Fr. Mallia told Detroit Catholic. “People haven’t returned, so how do we reach out to them? That’s really been the focus for us this year.”
So Fr. Mallia, along with the clergy and directors from the Family of Parishes, got to work making a plan. First, a parish staff member would compile a list of families who hadn’t been heard from in a while. Next, each family on the list would receive a personal phone call inviting them to return for fall parish events. Finally, families that still didn’t respond would receive a personal letter in the mail — a friendly reminder that their Catholic family still loves and cares about them.
“If families haven't started coming back to Mass, this serves as a personal invitation to them to start connecting again with their parish community, and that we're longing for that,” Fr. Mallia said.
It wasn’t by accident that the North Macomb 1 Family of Parishes decided to put pen to paper; instead, it was part of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s “Family Missionary Strategic Plan” initiative, which calls on every Family of Parishes to develop concrete, actionable steps toward becoming more vibrant, evangelizing communities of faith.
The archdiocese-wide initiative is a revival of a process that had begun just before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Deacon Dave Casnovsky, a missionary strategic planning coach with the Archdiocese of Detroit.
In late 2019, nine individual parishes had begun to create missionary strategic plans — called MSPs, for short — as a response to Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. Those plans, like much else in the Catholic world, were put on hold as the Church grappled with the new reality of the pandemic.
“Initially, it was going to be parish by parish,” Deacon Casnovsky said, but when the archbishop announced Families of Parishes in May 2020 as a path forward for the Archdiocese of Detroit in the wake of the challenges brought on by the pandemic and a looming priest shortage, “now it’s Family by Family.”
When the first wave of Families of Parishes launched in July 2021, the idea of Family Missionary Strategic Plans resurfaced as a way to encourage new families to collaborate and grow together in a spirit of evangelization, Deacon Casnovsky said.
“The MSPs are pretty flexible. I mean, we've got general guidelines, but really a lot of it depends on the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Casnovsky said. “It’s about helping these families to try and be more missionary.”
In some ways, the pandemic provided an opportunity to re-evaluate the MSP process itself, Deacon Casnovsky said. For instance, instead of a more rigid, nine-week development process that was used before the pandemic, Families of Parishes are now being given the flexibility to work at their own pace to develop a plan that’s right for each community.
Also gone from the original process is a fundraising requirement, said Wade Richards, another missionary strategic planning coach for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“The original plans (in 2019) had a mandatory fundraising element, but we learned from that that fundraising isn’t always necessary,” Richards said. “If a family’s goals require fundraising, they can work that in, but many families are realizing there’s a lot they can do just with their own resources.”
Currently, about a quarter of the archdiocese’s Families of Parishes have developed plans, Richards said, with more to come in the weeks and months ahead. Eventually, the goal is for all 51 Families of Parishes to develop plans.
Family Missionary Strategic Plans aren’t only concerned with fallen-away members, but touch on all aspects of parish life, such as hospitality, youth ministry, marriage preparation, catechesis and Sunday worship, said Fr. Rich Treml, pastor of the Northern Lapeer County Family of Parishes, which includes SS. Peter and Paul and St. Mary Burnside in North Branch, Sacred Heart Mission in Brown City and St. Patrick Chapel in Clifford.
“We can always improve. When you say you’re static, you start dying,” said Fr. Treml, 78, who has been pastor of all four communities since the early 2000s. “So we’re trying to have different activities and get people involved, and (the MSP) has continued to rejuvenate and bring life to our parishes.”
Fr. Treml credits John Moll, a parish volunteer, and Deacon Peter Lynch with driving the development of the plan, which he says is bringing a renewed sense of hope to the community.
One area where the Northern Lapeer Family of Parishes is placing a particular emphasis is youth and family involvement, Fr. Treml said. Part of the plan involves recruiting a dedicated part-time youth minister to implement regular activities such as faith-based mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools and service opportunities to keep young people and their parents engaged and involved in parish life.
“It seems like when parents have young children, they’re really interested, but once the children grow up, graduate and move on, no one wants to be a youth minister anymore,” Fr. Treml said. “Our challenge is to find someone to fill that role.”
The parishes also plan to be more active in reaching out to families who bring their children to be baptized, with the hope of encouraging them to remain active in parish life, Fr. Treml added.
“After they’re baptized, we want to keep in touch with them on a regular basis,” Fr. Treml said. “It’s also a good opportunity for evangelization. Some couples who are away from the Church still bring their babies to be baptized, and we want to make it a good experience for them. We want them to come back every Sunday, not just on Christmas and Easter.”
At St. Kieran, St. Matthias and St. Lawrence, Fr. Mallia said parish leaders have also identified improved hospitality as a key component of the Family Missionary Strategic Plan.
"We're going to be doing a workshop on what hospitality is really about and how to do that," Fr. Mallia said. "It's not just coffee and doughnuts, but in all areas; whether you're an usher or greeter, Eucharistic minister, whatever the case may be, how are we being truly hospitable to people?"
Different parishes bring different strengths to the community, Fr. Mallia added. For instance, St. Matthias has a strong and growing Hispanic ministry. To supplement that, the Family of Parishes decided to launch religious education programs to bolster formation for families, especially in Spanish. The parishes also are aiming to bolster marriage preparation by recruiting "mentor couples" who can walk with those who are preparing for the sacrament.
"I think really, overall, the process has been fairly smooth. And I'm encouraged by what I've seen in all of it. I think the staffs have been more than open to it," Fr. Mallia said.
Families of Parishes is still a relatively new concept, even for priests and parish staffs, Fr. Mallia added, and it's going to take time for the new communities to gel together.
"We're really just starting the planning process. We're at the 10,000-foot level," Fr. Mallia said. "We need to allow parishes to adjust to this concept. We want to help build those relationships first before we really forge ahead with other programming. Things that are comfortable, yet foundational — that's really what we're looking for."