By Laura Melius
Opportunities for competition in our lives are not difficult to find. We may actively engage in an athletic competition or competition of another kind, or we may find ourselves competing within our careers or schools. We may even enter into a friendly competition with family or friends, with the winner getting “bragging rights.”
Competition is often good. When we want to be the best, it brings out the best in us. St. Paul recognized this when he likened our spiritual lives to a competition, encouraging the Corinthians, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor 9:24-25).
However, just as competition can encourage us in the spiritual life, it can also be a hindrance. It can hurt us personally and our parishes if it keeps us from answering God’s call to cooperate with one another. In our tendency to compete, it can be difficult to see and accept the opportunity for cooperation.
“We are made to take care of our own,” said Father Joe Vogel, pastor of St. Joseph, Elk Point, St. Peter, Jefferson, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, Dakota Dunes. “We protect the ones we love. Something is wrong if we don’t do that, but along the way, we have often learned that cooperation can be a gift.”
The initial decision to cooperate can be an obstacle to overcome because it requires a death to individual wants. “Our horizon gets broadened when we are invited to step outside of our comfort zone where we know everyone, and everyone knows us. This only happens when we pray together and ask the Lord for guidance,” he said.
Father Vogel recalled when he was faced with an opportunity, unwelcome at the time, to accept change and cooperate when he was in grade school in Turton.
“It was awful when we were forced to merge with Doland and other schools because we knew all those kids had ‘cooties.’ We thought it was the end of the world, but, much to our surprise, it wasn’t,” Father Vogel remembers, adding that the merger brought more resources and a greater variety of students and talents to the school.
In his years as a priest in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, Father Vogel has seen the parishes he serves embrace cooperation, and it has been a benefit to them all. In the three parishes he currently serves, each parish manages its own monetary resources and has its own finance council. In other ways, the parishes have combined their gifts and talents.
“We have one discipleship coordinator for grades 7-12 for all three parishes,” he explained. “At one time, there were five weekend Masses here and now there are three. That was a bit of a challenge, but now these three Masses are much more vibrant and are fairly full. God was so visible through them in this process.”
The new Mass schedule, which rotates every month, has brought parishioners from all three parishes together. “We always have people from all three parishes at all three Masses. In a sense, we have one parish with three different places to worship. It’s often very difficult to change, but there’s a lot that happens when we choose to cooperate,” he said.
Father Vogel has also seen growth emerge from cooperation in his home parish area, after the Frankfort, Conde and Doland parishes closed several years ago. Many of the people from those parishes chose to attend Mass in Turton.
“Needless to say, it was awful and a most difficult death,” he remembers. “It takes a lot of time and prayer to choose to move on. By the grace of God and cooperation of many wonderful people, things are quite a bit better.
“One member of my family, who is a parishioner there, said that before the change, it was like going to Mass in a nursing home, with a ‘bunch of old people falling asleep.’ Now the one Mass they have each weekend is much more vibrant, with lots of kids, weddings, more students in religious education and more families to share their talents and treasures,” Father Vogel said.
As our diocese approaches the implementation of Set Ablaze in the formation of new pastorates, our parishes will be given many opportunities to embrace cooperation over competition.
“We will have one pastor for our eight parishes. Obviously, that isn’t practical,” Father Vogel said. “That is part of the plan. More of you will be needed to do your part and live your life of discipleship. A big part of this process is to enable our lay people to live their life of discipleship every day in their parish. Be careful not to hang around negative people; be honest—most of us don’t like change.”
Just as St. Paul encouraged competition to strengthen our spiritual lives, he also saw the value in cooperation in building God’s kingdom as he taught, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Phil 2: 3-4).
Father Vogel offered some advice on how to be open to God’s call to cooperate with one another, “Pray a lot. Ask God what he wants you to do during this process and then listen.”
Competition and cooperation are both good and needed in our lives. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to discern God’s call as to what is needed in each of our parishes as
we look toward the future.