National Catholic Reporter
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Catholic Education
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Wichita bishop took 'leap of faith' for stewardship

The stewardship process that Bishop Eugene Gerber initiated diocese-wide in Wichita, Kan., in 1985 calls for parishioners to give freely of their time, their talents and their money. Its success in Wichita has attracted wide interest in many other U.S dioceses.

Retired since 2001, Gerber said his personal conversion began in a second-grade classroom when he was serving as bishop of Dodge City, Kan. He told NCR: “A second grader asked me, ‘What does a bishop do?’ and I asked, ‘What do you think he does?’ and he said, ‘Well he writes letters asking for money.’ That was when it first struck me that things have to change.”

In 1982, when Gerber was transferred to head the Wichita diocese, he began thinking of ways to change how the diocese was governed. Gerber, who had served as a priest in the Wichita diocese before becoming bishop of Dodge City in 1976, knew of one parish where changes had already occurred.

Msgr. Tom McGread

Msgr. Tom McGread told NCR he first began considering a new model in 1959, after he read an article by two Mobile, Ala., priests who were trying to “come up with a Catholic idea of the Protestant practice of tithing.”

He explained that when he introduced the model to his Wichita parish, St. Francis of Assisi, in 1969 his “emphasis was getting the people involved in the parish, with their time and their talents. Once they became involved, they got a sense of belonging. Once they got a sense of belonging, then they got a sense of ownership.”

McGread asked his parishioners to work out a percentage of giving, “according to what the Bible told us,” he said. “I advised them to start with a lower percentage and work up and see if they missed it. One of the promises I made to them was if they were worse off financially at the end of the year after tithing, they could come back and we’d give them all their money back. In 40 years I never had anyone do that.”

Gerber was encouraged by St. Francis’ success. He began to hold meetings around the diocese asking three questions: “What are the qualities of a good parish? What are the obstacles? What would you do if you had unlimited resources?” He also began studying ways to meet the increasing challenges of providing Catholic education.

He said the findings “converged into one,” and out of that emerged United Catholic Stewardship.

Following the new model, parishes began tithing 10 percent of their donations to the diocese each month, replacing the annual bishop’s appeal and special collections.

All parishes agreed to pay for Catholic education for the children of active parishioners. According to Daniel Loughman, diocesan director of stewardship and finance, between 60 and 70 percent of parish budgets are devoted to paying for Catholic education. The great majority of that money goes to schools, but religious education classes and other education ministries also figure in.

Gerber said that the parables in the Gospels are full of references to stewardship. He said that in order to succeed, the model must be “centered on the Eucharist.” That focus on Eucharist is why “probably about 70 percent of our people, somewhere in there, are attending Mass on the Lord’s Day. We have perpetual adoration here that I suspect, relatively speaking is unequaled.” Currently, perpetual adoration continues in 18 parishes in the diocese. In some parishes it has been ongoing for nearly 20 years.

-- Gill Donovan

The Wichita diocese sponsors a free diner for poor and homeless people.

While free tuition to the schools is one of the fruits of Wichita’s stewardship process, it is not the only one. The diocese built The Lord’s Diner, a free diner for poor and homeless people, and supports the Guadalupe Clinic, which provides free health care for working poor people.

The conversion to the stewardship model has not always been easy. According to McGread, one of the biggest difficulties has been converting priests, rather than parishioners. Priests, he said, are often afraid that the stewardship process won’t be “successful for them.”

Gerber said some older priests may have “been schooled more in fundraising than in stewardship. As a consequence, they trust their longtime experience. That doesn’t mean their ministry is less for it, but it is not something that I say meets the challenges of our time.”

He said that stewardship “very much meets with [the approval of] the younger set of priests because it is a part of their theology, they know the scriptures, and they haven’t been a part of any other models.”

Gerber said he’s been asked by bishops how to get started, and he tells them, “Well, just go start. Just go begin preaching it, go begin learning about it. If nothing else, get a cluster of parishes and start. If it takes one parish, start with one parish.”

He said, “Some dioceses have decided they want to do it incrementally. We did it as one fell swoop. It takes a leap of faith to do that.”

-- Gill Donovan

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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