July 13, 2024

By Marcus Ashlock

Leading others through change can often be difficult for a myriad of reasons, but fear of the unknown is sometimes the hardest to accept. Whether the change is personal or organizational, it will always be emotional, and the familiar can sound like a siren’s song to keep us rooted in the perceived safety of the here and now.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses attempted to lead his people to the Promised Land, out of bondage and into a place of peace through God’s promise to the Israelites. No matter the rewards, it took 40 years for the old and familiar ways to die out before the new could be accepted enough to pass through the wilderness. Today, as it was then, we lack trust in God’s plan for our lives. We fight change; we harden our hearts.

While change (the event) and our emotional response to the change, called a transition period, can be filled with many emotions ranging from uncertainty to excitement, not everyone experiences the transition equally. For people who like and seek change, the transition period may be quick and almost uneventful, while others may never fully accept the new ways or cannot let go of the past.

No matter the situation, visionary leaders who allow their people to voice their concerns, ask as many questions as needed, and give them a voice are the leaders who manage change with wisdom and care. This process was easily seen these past two years as the Diocese of Sioux Falls engaged its congregation through a potentially difficult effort in the structural and pastoral planning process, Set Ablaze.

The goal of Set Ablaze is to discern how to best align the gifts of our priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful, along with our resources (human, physical and financial), so that we might see a resurgence of vibrant parishes, reenergized priests and leaders, and Catholics set ablaze with the love of God.

One milestone of the process was the town halls facilitated in many pastorates throughout the diocese. Trained facilitators were sent forth to assist each pastorate by engaging the voice of the people, hearing their concerns and thoughts regarding the future and the needed change.

“Sometimes people would almost be shocked because that’s not what a diocese usually does; they usually just send you an email telling people, ‘We’re rolling out a new program,’” facilitator Shane VanDiest said. “I think that’s part of the success; Bishop DeGrood didn’t make it a one-size-fits-all approach. He has empowered each pastorate to make these decisions on their own and to trust the people on the ground. Not all bishops think that way; not all bishops have that vision for subsidiary needs.”

Shane was a part of the two-person facilitator team for Queen of Peace Pastorate—St. Mary (Dell Rapids), St. Peter (Colman), St. Joseph the Workman (Huntimer) and SS. Simon and Jude (Flandreau). Each team met with the pastor and members of each parish chosen by him in each pastorate to determine the type of town hall schedule. In Queen of Peace Pastorate, that committee decided on a two-location town hall model, where two of the four parishes combined for one town hall. According to Shane, some parishes had a town hall for each parish in the pastorate.

“The beauty of this was that each pastorate had a lot of freedom to run the town halls and to organize them in the way that they saw best fit,” Shane said. “These pastors, these people on the ground, know their parish.”

The facilitators purposefully did not facilitate a town hall in their home parish. The bishop’s leadership team wanted an unbiased facilitator with no ties to the conversation, allowing the pastors to be part of the conversation and be with their congregation.

“I am a parishioner at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls, but the pastorate I was assigned to was in Dell Rapids and Coleman, number nine; I was chosen to go there because I have no ties to them,” Shane said. “Father Stevens got to be a part of that parish family. He got to advocate for his parishioners and be invested in his people, and I sort of play the role of speaking on behalf of the diocese.”

According to Shane, the facilitators were told to expect some push back and to prepare themselves to be ready in case of hurt feelings that sometimes occur during pastoral planning. People are fearful of possible closings and sudden changes. But Shane’s experience was the opposite.

“I was surprised with how receptive people were to Father Stevens and to myself; I found a lot of people excited to be together and to talk about their parishes and what they loved about it,” Shane said. “There would be a lot of questions that were still unanswered, but I was amazed at how strong the community was and how positive people were about this process going forward, about their parishes, about what they had built and about what they wanted to continue building. I was really braced for taking a lot of heat having to put out fires; what I found was quite the opposite.”

Shane heard many stories of how this new pastorate model could open up creativity and new ways to reach each parishioner. He said Bishop Degrood set the diocese on this path of pastoral planning in a proactive way to facilitate growth in areas of the church.

“The pastorate model is going to unlock some of these priestly gifts as well, which is a great hope,” Shane said. “For example, Father Jacob Doty at Christ the King and St. Mary is great with young families and he’s great in the school with the kids. Father Paul Rutten has given him a lot of freedom to do those things by taking on more of the administrative duties. I’m really excited in the next five to 10 years to see those priestly gifts come to the forefront.”

Shane feels particularly blessed to have been asked to assist in this process for the diocese—an event that will shape the future of the diocese for years to come, and an effort that came from the leadership and vision of Bishop DeGrood and his desire for all his flock to become missionary disciples.

“The best experience for me as a facilitator, if you had to summarize my biggest takeaway, was getting a front row seat to people sharing their hearts and what they love about the Catholic Church and their parish,” Shane said. “That’s very encouraging.”

 

Dr. Marcus Ashlock is a former professor of agricultural communications and journalism, and former owner/editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper. A freelance writer in his spare time, he is a member of Christ the King Parish in Sioux Falls and a periodic host on Real Presence Live for Real Presence Radio.