Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger sat down with Mike Matvey, editor of The Evangelist, to talk about the idea of Pastoral Networks in which parishes in the Diocese of Albany will work together to better share resources and ideas all to further the diocesan plan of evangelization and mission

TE: Can you talk about the concept of Pastoral Networks?

BE: We have been thinking for some time — this is not a new initiative — some way in which we could re-energize our parishes, particularly the sense of mission that every person has. I hesitate to use the word parishioner; it is a term we use sometimes, but not everybody feels connected to a parish. The point is, within our parishes, our parish families, there has to be a sense that every person counts, every person is important, every person has a mission and is called by Jesus. This is an attempt to try to put some actual meat on those bones, and in July 20, 2020, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a document called “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community” to become an evangelizing community, putting the emphasis particularly on mission. It just seemed to coincide with the direction we were going in.

Now, we thought if we do this, if we start trying to delve into what this document challenges us to do, do we need to have some sort of slogan or moniker to say what we are doing? And initially we thought of “Family of Families,” because that is my favorite definition of a parish. Then we discovered that there were some other dioceses that had used (that phrase) already, and what happened was people were going on their websites and finding out what they were doing in Detroit and Toronto and saying, “Are we going to do that?” They were all different, but some of (the dioceses) had synods where they got people together and were making big plans. I didn’t see this from the start as a program or even a pastoral-planning exercise. Pastoral planning has its place, but what I was looking for is something that would energize people to discover what their mission is and how they fit into the Christian community. And, of course, we can’t do this on our own; we have to help one another. So one of the primary goals of pastoral leadership — and when I say pastoral leadership, I mean collaborative leadership, not only the priest, who is very important in calling the community together in prayer, but other clerics, deacons, brothers, sisters, lay people — is to call out in everybody a deeper sense that they have a mission and then to help one another discover that. Ultimately, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit helps us to put things together. But that’s what I want to put the emphasis on and then as we do this, since our mission is outward, it is going to call us to look toward our neighbor, look toward our other families and say, “How can we work together? How can the gifts that we have and the gifts that you have, how can we share them and make them come together in a richer tapestry?” And that means looking outside the box. It might mean looking at the parish next door. It might mean a few parishes coming together and saying, “We could perhaps collaborate on one of our missions better by doing it together.”

TE: Some people ask why are you implementing this now coming out of COVID?

BE:  It is a valid question, particularly when we were going through COVID and we had no idea what was going to happen and we said why take on some project? What I suggested was that this is precisely the time we have to do this because right now during COVID, people are feeling isolated, people are missing those connections. People are starving in many, many ways, and we all know what that means. People are looking for connection, for communion and to be fed by God’s word. So this is what this is all about. In a way, it almost makes that case because it says that we are not going to do this just by changing structures because all we really had was Zoom and streaming and phones and texts. So obviously the emphasis was on relationship and, precisely because those relationships were compromised, that was the reason why we needed to start talking about this now.

TE: So your vision would be evangelization and mission?

BE:  Absolutely. The Church exists to evangelize. Sometimes when we hear the word “evangelize,” we think of Bible-thumping and there is a place for that. People have been converted by good, solid storefront preachers, but evangelizing basically means “Gospeling.” And Gospel means Good News, and it means accepting the Good News. The Good News is that guess what? Jesus loves you. You are loved enough for him to die for you, and this transforms our whole being, the way we look at ourselves. We tend to define ourselves in terms of our limitations and there really is no limitation to the development of the human person. We have an eternal destiny and we are going to be glorified and transformed and all of those things that are broken in us, all those things we feel that are lacking, will all be fulfilled. You hear so many stories of the frog that turns into a prince or the “Beauty and the Beast,” these folk stories about the ugly duckling. There is a little bit of that in each and every one of us. There is an undeveloped broken part, and the Gospel liberates us to be who we truly are. That’s the message of the Good News. 

When I myself begin to get even a glimpse of that, I tend to want to tell other people about it. You can see my enthusiasm talking about this, and I want everyone to feel that their story counts. How many times have we been in a situation where we really blew it or we really thought it was all over and then something happens, somebody came into our lives, we said a prayer, and all off a sudden we woke up the next day and we saw that life was not coming to an end; it was only beginning. It is like they say, “The measure of success is not how many times we have fallen, but how many times we get up again.” We realize the strength that we have really didn’t come from us, that it came from a source outside of ourselves. That’s what Jesus reminds us: He is here for us, and he wants us to know that we are saved. He wants us to help one another, to lift one another up. And that’s what Gospeling is all about too: to receive that truth, and it is the truth, that I am called to a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ultimate glorification in heaven. That begins right here on earth, transforming the earth and all its brokenness and to recognize that there are other people, all of us are part of that, and to support one another in that mission. That’s what a parish is, that’s what a family does.

TE: How will this shape the future of the Diocese and build up those faith communities with a renewed sense of faith?

BE: There are some people, they are called prophets of doom, because they say the sky is falling just because they felt an acorn. And I don’t want to do the opposite of that and say just because I see a couple of flowers coming up that we have a whole garden that’s all in order. But I will say this much, from everything that I am seeing, for any number of reasons — maybe people were stir-crazy, maybe it was cabin fever, maybe it was just pent up desire to reach out — but there is a real desire to connect. There is a real desire to reconnect with the Church community and also to re-envision it. In other words, we are not going to go back to the way it was. Sometimes I hear, “We are going to go back to normal.” We are not going back to normal. I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal is not a place to be if it boxes us in, if it locks us within our own safe parameters. We have to take the risk of going out. I think that, without being premature, we may end up opening rather than closing churches at some point in the future. I would just challenge us to envision that possibility. We may close some churches, but that is not going to come because I say, “You have to close.” Folks are going to say, “You know what? We could do much better if we get together with the people around us and form maybe one community that will be bigger and stronger and healthier because we are together.” I think the Lord is opening up doors for us, not closing them.

TE: Are there places in the Diocese where churches are collaborating ­together and using the pastoral networks ­concept?

BE: Yes. As I had mentioned earlier, it has been going on always. Sort of like when you see sometimes at the end of summer, one leaf starts turning brown and all of a sudden everything turns into beautiful colors. There were signs of this going on in the Amsterdam community, for example. Before my tenure here, there was a need because of the demographics, finances and a number of things, to bring four parishes together under two pastors. This was a new model: four parishes, two pastors, one deacon, a business administrator and a catechetical coordinator, who was able to work with a school in the area, and there was also catechetical formation. So that was done there. And we actually have places that are working on that array right now in the Albany Diocese, too.

TE: So this is not necessarily a new concept?

BE:  It really isn’t. Some of the things that we are doing are like an awakening to the seeds that have been planted already. It is what the Church has always done. They say that the Catholic Church bought the Holy Roman Empire in a going-out-of-business sale, so many of the structures that we have, even dioceses and parishes, Diocletian started that structure in third century Rome and we just borrowed it because it worked. So we are going to see what our culture best has to offer in terms of the resources that we have, what we learned from business, what we can profit from because of our technology. We are going to work with that and see how we can use it to our good.

TE: Can you speak to the uncertainty that some people may be feeling when it comes to the future of their parish?

BE: Change is difficult. None of us like change, even change out of a bad thing sometimes. You get out of a bad bed that gives you a headache, but it is still my bed. Even an improvement sometimes is not welcomed right away. Sometimes a pessimist is a frustrated idealist. Sometimes people lapse into pessimism because they have been hurt too often, they have been disappointed too often. Sometimes when some proposal is made of a new way of thinking, it may sound like an old way of thinking, like a same-old, same old. I think that some of that is happening right now, and there is also an exhaustion factor. There is no question that many priests, I can’t say how many but a good number, are exhausted. Now, it is an interesting thing to notice that the exhaustion is not by any means age-specific because we would not be functioning pastorally were it not for the energy and service of our retired priests, many of whom are our most forward-looking, optimistic, upbeat people that you could possibly imagine. It is not a factor of age; it is not a factor of position in life; it is an attitudinal thing. I would only say to that: This is not my Church, this is not the pope’s Church, this is Jesus’ Church. Jesus came with a wonderful message that when we hear that message is life-transforming and energizing. If somehow or other we could keep our focus on that, anything that comes after that, any sacrifice, any change will seem like nothing compared to the joy of celebrating that faith. 

I think that’s exactly why, to go back to where we started, that little pep talk given to us by the Congregation for the Clergy: focus on parish mission and remember every word of that document is important. “Pastoral conversion of parish communities” — it doesn’t say “structural change” of parish communities. It says “pastoral conversion,” and that means it starts with a conversion of the heart. What is my relationship with Jesus like? Where is it going? Am I listening to the Lord? Am I encountering the Lord? The ways in which we do this as community, and ultimately our role as a Christian, is to introduce others to Jesus.

TE: How does the hiring of Bonni Shippee as COO of the Diocese fit into the pastoral networks plan?

BE:  I have always tried to encourage and promote collaboration between laity and clergy, and that means differentiation of roles. What are priests ordained for? What do lay professionals do best from their experience? Obviously we are all serving the same mission. This is another way of bringing together a deeper collaboration between lay professionals and clergy. So on a diocesan level, our Pastoral Center exists for one purpose and one purpose alone: to serve the parish communities. In order to do that, we have to listen. We have to listen to our parish families and we have to ask them, “How can we assist you?” At the same time, perhaps engaging in dialogue as to some of the things that we are seeing or hearing from others that we feel we can do. There are some things that can be done at a higher level of organization than a lower level, so we don’t reinvent the wheel. We can listen to and encourage best practices in parishes, but, primarily, I think we have to model them by our own example. We have to show how this works together, and bringing in a COO will help every person that works together in this common mission to understand their part in the mission that much more clearly. We all have a different role to play. It’s like organizing a big traffic pattern. We all have our lanes that we drive in. While I am interested in communications, for example, I can’t do all of the communications. While I am concerned about finances and have to be aware, I can’t be both planning our financial goals or managing or accounting for them. We have different people who have different areas of expertise. Our COO will help everybody to know their role better, to know how well they are doing, to continue to improve in what they are doing and to deliver the services that they do to one another and to our parishes. This will be a big boon for our parishes by clarifying what the mission of the Pastoral Center is and how it is that what we do can be of services to parishes. It will sharpen that vision; that is my goal.