Parish plans focus on 'changing DNA' of local communities to be mission-focused in light of Unleash the Gospel

DETROIT — Nine parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit have completed “missionary strategic plans,” the next chapter of the archdiocese’s Unleash the Gospel movement, and 28 more parishes will begin writing their plans this spring.

The plans — which ask parishes to “think big” by re-imagining their inward and outward activities in light of the new evangelization — reflect parishes’ recognition that saving souls is the Church’s top priority, said Deacon Mike Houghton, director of missionary strategic planning for the archdiocese.

In July 2019, nine “partner parishes” began the pilot phase of discerning and developing their missionary strategic plans — known as MSPs — paving the way for the rest of the archdiocese’s 218 parishes, which will complete the process in the months and years ahead.

With the next wave of parishes getting set to tackle the task, Deacon Houghton said the same process will be used, with slight modifications.

“The nine parishes went through the process very well,” Deacon Houghton said. “We had very positive feedback (and affirmation) that the way we are approaching this is the right way to go about it.”

The key, Deacon Houghton said, is that the archdiocese is not telling parishes what to include in the plans, but rather inviting them to dream about what their parish could look like if given the resources — a tailored plan suited to their unique circumstances.

“We didn’t come in with a specific program, and we didn’t tell them to implement this or that,” Deacon Houghton said. “Take family evangelization, for example. We know it’s important, necessary, but how does a particular parish respond to that part of Unleash the Gospel? What is the Holy Spirit telling us to do?”

The nine parishes — 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; Our Lady Star of the Sea in Grosse Pointe Woods; and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit — then discerned, with guidance, plans to address areas of parish life the team felt the Holy Spirit was calling them to consider, Deacon Houghton said.

“There was a lot of focus around adoration, which is not surprising,” Deacon Houghton said. “Another common theme was apologetics and opportunities to learn the faith better. We’ve slipped in our catechesis; people who have been coming to church every week maybe don’t understand the truths of the faith.”

From there, some unique ideas began to surface, from opening a popup storefront on Woodward Avenue where people can learn more about Catholicism to Mass in a public park, Deacon Houghton said.

Lessons from the pilot phase

While Deacon Houghton praised the nine parishes, he said the lessons learned from the pilot phase will be used to refine the process moving forward.

Those lessons and adjustments were used in November, when pastors and leadership teams from the 28 Wave 1 parishes were invited to Sacred Heart Major Seminary for a primer on the MSP process.

A mother and young boy attend Mass at St. Clare of Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park, one of nine “partner parishes” that recently completed a strategic plan.

One particular area of focus was encouraging parishes to use examples of positive change from other parishes and dioceses as inspiration for the type of real, substantive “DNA change” that’s necessary to transform a parish from “maintenance to mission,” as Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron has put it.

While parishes weren’t encouraged to copy other parishes’ plans, the idea, Deacon Houghton said, is to encourage people to own their identities as bearers of the message of Jesus Christ.

Another change, Deacon Houghton said, was the realization that real, bold transformation happens organically — a spark that starts with spiritual formation.

For the next wave of 28 parishes, Deacon Houghton said, a greater emphasis will be placed on spiritual formation of the parish leadership teams.

“For four months, before they write the MSP, we’ll take the leadership team off site, establishing why they exist, how to handle conflict and dispute, how to pray together and listen to the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Houghton said. “By the time they get to creating the (plan), they’re working as a team, changing the DNA already. And when they are done forming the plan, the team is still going.”

While each parish’s leadership team is charged with writing the plans, Deacon Houghton clarified that at the end of the day, it’s still the pastor who drives the parish’s direction.

People leave St. Roch Parish in Flat Rock after Mass. The parish is one of nine who recently completed a “missionary strategic plan.”

“The pastor is always in charge; that is the Catholic model of how we run a parish,” Deacon Houghton said. “The leadership team is there to support the pastor. I think, as any of our pastors will say, as the number of priests is declining, it is impossible to keep up with the tasks at hand. So we have to look at different ways of doing things, and the leadership team is one way of doing that.”

The road ahead

If MSPs are the roadmap to re-founding parishes as centers of evangelization, then Deacon Houghton recognizes there are some tight turns and tricky intersections on the road ahead.

After each parish has developed its MSP, the next task at hand will be raising money to turn that vision into reality.  

To do that, the nine partner parishes are in the process of working with a fundraising consulting firm, CCS Fundraising, which works with nonprofit organizations to help fund their missions.

“In reality, if we’re going to be bold and move forward as a diocese, it’s going to take money,” Deacon Houghton said.

Deacon Houghton said he is confident the nine partner parishes will hit their fundraising goal, but emphasized it is the parishes themselves — not the archdiocese — who are setting the vision and driving their own future.

“MSPs are 'top-down,' but the one at the top is the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Houghton said. “It’s not the archbishop or me or anyone else. The Holy Spirit has asked for these things in our diocese, and it’s the Holy Spirit who is inspiring how we approach this process. We want to empower our pastors and leadership teams to get things done.”

Missionary Strategic Planning: Wave 1

The following 28 parishes have begun the missionary strategic planning process, which will last until the summer. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included three parishes incorrectly listed. Detroit Catholic apologizes for the error.)

  • Christ the King Parish, Detroit
  • Holy Family Parish, Memphis
  • Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, Temperance
  • Our Lady of Refuge Parish, Orchard Lake
  • Our Lady on the River Parish, Marine City
  • Prince of Peace Parish, West Bloomfield
  • SS. Andrew and Benedict Parish, Detroit
  • SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Parish, Detroit
  • St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish, Detroit
  • St. Joseph Parish, Erie
  • St. Aidan Parish, Livonia
  • St. Aloysius Parish, Romulus
  • St. Andrew Bessette Parish, Ecorse
  • St. Augustine Parish, Richmond
  • St. Damien of Molokai Parish, Pontiac
  • St. Fabian Parish, Farmington Hills
  • St. Frances Cabrini Parish, Allen Park
  • St. Gabriel Parish, Detroit
  • St. Hugo of the Hills Parish, Bloomfield Hills
  • St. John Neumann Parish, Canton
  • St. Lucy Parish, St. Clair Shores
  • St. Mary Magdalen Parish, Melvindale
  • St. Mary of the Hills Parish, Rochester Hills
  • St. Rene Goupil Parish, Sterling Heights
  • St. Scholastica Parish, Detroit
  • St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish, Detroit
  • St. Thecla Parish, Clinton Township
  • St. Vincent Ferrer Parish, Madison Heights