Initiative begun to form leaders in rural areas

Categories: Around the Diocese

Jan. 3, 2014, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

An initiative underway in the eastern part of the St. Cloud Diocese might become a national model for helping rural communities thrive.

Members of several parishes in Benton, Kanabec, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Sherburne counties are in the midst of training for the Rural Life Leadership Development Initiative, which is designed to address issues faced by people in rural areas. The program, organized by Catholic Charities’ department of social concerns, will especially focus on evangelization, charity and justice and parish social ministry.

In addition to the nine-month training, the initiative will include parish listening sessions, forming or strengthening parish social ministry teams and community conversations.

“The hope is it becomes a living, breathing sign of the Catholic Church’s involvement in rural areas, a sign of faith alive,” said Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the St. Cloud Diocese.

The initiative is partially sponsored by the Catholic Rural Life conference, which views it as a pilot project. If proven successful, the model might be used in other areas around the country.

“If we can show that it is something that works locally, and if it would work in parishes around the country, then the social ministry effort would be strengthened,” said Doug Scott, a rural life coordinator in the St. Cloud Diocese. “I think that’s what parishioners and churches need: a stronger presence outside the church — in the community and in the world.”

Monthly training sessions

About 30 people from parishes in Foreston, Milaca, Morrill, Brennyville, Gilman, Mora, Ogilvie, Onamia, Becker and Big Lake began monthly training for the program in September.

Members of St. Joseph Parish in St. Joseph are also participating in the training but are not part of the initiative for the eastern part of the diocese.

So far participants learned about prayer, Catholic Church teachings, servant leadership and discernment. They attended the diocesan parish social ministry gathering in which they heard speakers on topics like Christian-Muslim dialogue, strategic planning, senior housing and human trafficking.

During their latest training, Dec. 12, they discussed justice and charity, assembled gift bags for pastors to distribute and learned about food shelves.

Future trainings will address community efforts to reduce poverty and promote human dignity, global efforts, legislative action and discernment. In their last session, they will prepare for discussions of the needs and actions for their own parish or cluster.

“We hope we can have a broader sense of how we can help the community at large,” said Jen Honek, a participant in the training and a member of Holy Cross Parish in Onamia.

“The ultimate goal is to help people find ways to solve their problems. We hope to not just know the needs but also prevent the problems.”

Participants in the trainings bring what they learned back to their parish and social ministry teams. The parish social ministry teams will plan how they can help their community and beyond in light of Catholic social teaching. Participants will also work with other civic, community and religious leaders in their area to tackle problems on a larger level.

Stronger parishes, communities

Scott is assisting in leading the trainings along with Langer and intern Ruth Knowles. He has already been talking to community leaders to gain a better understanding of the needs of the areas, and will continue to assist the eastern parishes as they assemble or strengthen their parish social ministry teams and help and encourage them as they move forward.

“There is not any intention the efforts would only stay in the parish; it’s almost inevitable that they would spill out to the community,” Scott said.

Langer began to design the Rural Life Initiative when she realized that the needs of rural areas can best be identified and addressed by the people who live there and are passionate and determined to make a difference.

The first phase of the initiative began in last January with the hiring of Scott, a parishioner of St. Louis Parish in Foreston as a rural life coordinator, Langer said. Scott was chosen because he lived in a rural area and was already familiar with it and its needs.

Langer hopes to hire two more rural life coordinators, funding permitting, to coordinate similar processes in the central part of the diocese in 2014 and in the western counties in 2015.