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Does Wichita's 'stewardship model' really work?

While Catholic schools in some parts of the U.S. face declining enrollments and shrinking budgets, Catholics in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, say their schools are full, and if not well-funded, at least sufficiently funded for the mission of Catholic education.

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Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Wichita, Kansas. Credit: Chris Riggs/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

Wichita Catholics say a unique approach to giving in their diocese, the “stewardship model,” has been a boon for Catholic education, and led to other good fruit in the diocese as well. But whether the model is built to work in a Church of growing institutional disaffiliation is not yet clear, and whether it could work in other parts of the country, with other approaches to mission and ministry, is also an open question.

‘The Number One Mission of the Church’

The wisdom of the “stewardship model,” diocesan officials in Wichita told The Pillar, is that it’s not a funding model. It’s a way of living the Christian life.

“It’s a spirituality first, not just a way of funding your schools,” Diocese of Wichita associate school superintendent Jamie Finkeldei told The Pillar.

“Everything is a gift from God…Everything belongs to God and everything goes back to God,” Finkeldei says. With this sort of spirituality as a foundation, he explains, “stewardship is natural.”

Since the 1980s, the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas has encouraged parishioners to make an annual commitment to contribute “time, talent, and treasure,” — a portion of income, alongside a commitment to both volunteer hours and prayer for the mission of the Church.

In concrete terms that means asking Catholics to commit to coming to Church each Sunday; volunteering in Church programs, and tithing 10% of their income -  giving eight percent of income to the parish, and two percent to charities of their choosing.

Finkeldei notes that actual tithing amount committed to the parish is closer to four percent of income for many parishioners. But the money does a lot. Especially for Catholic education.

Parishes in the Wichita diocese use 75-85% of revenue to fund Catholic education, a much higher share of income than parishes spend on Catholic schools in most dioceses. Children whose families make stewardship commitments receive tuition-free education, and other programs at parishes, like religious education, are also offered free of charge.

The system works, Finkeldei says, because the diocese as a whole maintains the view that “education is the number one mission of the Church.”

Lincoln Snyder, president of the National Catholic Education Association, told The Pillar he thinks the model is laudable.

“Wichita operates in the model of the Catechism,” Snyder said — understanding that while parents are the primary educators of their children, “the community has a moral stake in the game for the catechesis of our young people.”

The history

In Wichita, the “stewardship model” was first floated in the 1960s, Finkeldei told The Pillar.

Monsignor Thomas McGread introduced the idea of stewardship to Wichita’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where he was assigned in 1968.

A parish history describes the priest’s message: “Strive to share our gifts of time, talent and treasure for the service of God and all of His people. Do this out of thanksgiving to God for all that He has given us.”

The model proved effective at St. Francis of Assisi. In the early 1980s, Bishop Eugene Gerber held a series of listening sessions and consultations, asking what Catholics thought about adopting the model across the Kansas diocese.

In 1985, the Diocese of Wichita formally adopted “stewardship” as its financial model, and by 1990 every parish was expected to implement a stewardship plan. Three bishops have led the Wichita diocese since Gerber retired in 2001, but the model has remained intact.

What a ‘stewardship culture’ actually means

After more than 25 years of stewardship in Wichita, one fruit is obvious - Catholic education is freely available to all students whose families commit to supporting the Church. Finkeldei says that commitment is now an ingrained element of the Diocese of Wichita’s ecclesial culture, and that it is broadly favored among the Catholics in the diocese.

Wichita school parent and alumnus Erin Madden told The Pillar that her family returned to Wichita, her hometown, partly because, “We wanted a large Catholic family, and sending all of our kids to Catholic education K through 12 just wasn't financially feasible given the high tuition rates in the Washington D.C. area.”

Karyn Shorter, another Wichita Catholic school parent and graduate, told The Pillar that “stewardship-based Catholic education is a no-brainer for me and my husband.”

The family’s tithing commitment is “the first thing paid, and we don’t consider it as part of our income,” Shorter explained.

“There have been times when it would have been easier not to tithe, but we have always regarded our tithe as not belonging to us, and an investment in our children’s future.”

Wichita Catholics said the stewardship model had fruits beyond Catholic schools.

Finkeldei noted Wichita’s high number of diocesan seminarians, which he attributed in part to the spirituality of stewardship

Catholics also mentioned the fruit of stewardship for local charities.

Finkeldei mentioned The Lord’s Diner, a restaurant next door to the Wichita Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception which provides free dinner to anyone who wants to come and has two satellite locations, and food trucks.

Madden said she believes stewardship culture offers a spirituality that is tangibly handed on to children.

Each month, Catholic children receive small offertory envelopes with the words, “Time, Talent, Treasure” written on them. They are encouraged to fill out one of the lines next to one of the words and put it in the offertory basket at Mass.

“I love this because it encourages kids - at the earliest ages - to think about what unique God-given gifts they can offer,” Madden told The Pillar.

The costs of stewardship

Wichita Catholics schools are almost always full to capacity, diocesan administrators told The Pillar, while data shows that Catholic school enrollment across the country has been declining steadily for the last 60 years.

But the stewardship model means that almost all Catholic schoolchildren come from families of active Catholics — leaving little room for non-Catholics to be exposed to the faith.

Finkeldei noted one inner city school, where only 45% of students are Catholic, as an exception, but he explained that the primary mission of Wichita schools is catechesis of Catholic students, rather than evangelization.

Kevin Baxter, director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame, told The Pillar the stewardship model might not be a fit for Catholic schools with a different sense of mission or identity.

Baxter noted the that Catholic Church in the U.S. has a long history of serving inner cities and minorities through Catholic education. In places where evangelization and serving the marginalized are a school’s focus, stewardship would not likely be a realistic funding model.

Lincoln Snyder of the NCEA mentioned the “Cristo Rey” Catholic school network as an example of schools with a different sort of mission.

This Cristo Rey network aims to serve families with demonstrated financial need, providing a college prep education alongside practical work-study experience.

While integrating Catholicism in their educational model, Cristo Rey schools intentionally serve students of various faiths and backgrounds. Parents pay a small tuition amount, and the rest of the operating income comes from corporate subsidies, vouchers, tax credits, investments and fundraising.

The mission at “Cristo Rey” schools would likely not align with a parent-based stewardship model, Snyder explained.

There are trade-offs to the stewardship model in Wichita, too.

When education is prioritized to the tune of 75 to 85% of parish income, other potential ministries have a small funding pool from which to draw.

Finkeldei said most Wichita parishes do not have lay employees who focus on religious education, youth ministry, or adult programs. Instead, he said, ministries and activities are volunteer-based, relying on the volunteering commitments asked of parishioners.

It is an intentional decision to fund Catholic education even when other ministries are not financially prioritized, Finkeldei said. This decision stems from a belief that Catholic education is a uniquely effective way to pass on the Catholic faith.

There is data to support that idea: a recent Pillar study shows that 77% of adults who went to Catholic schools still consider themselves Catholic, while only 69% of those who went to public school do.

Can Wichita be replicated?

Wichita’s diocesan administrators told The Pillar that the diocese gets questions from other dioceses about the stewardship model often. Some dioceses have implemented elements of the stewardship approach, but no diocese has integrated the idea into diocesan life to the degree that Wichita has

“We get a lot of inquiries from parishes,” Finkeldei said. “Taking anything to a diocesan level is a huge undertaking, even if you have a few pastors interested. What you tend to see in a diocese is ‘that’s a great model for them’ but ‘We have other priorities besides replicating this.’”

There are parishes, though, which have adopted the approach.

St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School in Augusta, Georgia, is a part of a “stewardship parish.”

Students are eligible for stewardship benefits if their families have been active parishioners for at least a year, participating in the parish through the sacraments, involvement in ministry, and financial commitment. There is an ordinary tuition model for non-parishioners.

Baxter told The Pillar that even dioceses not pursuing a “stewardship” model recognize that tuition is not enough to fund Catholic education, because a broader base of support is needed to keep schools afloat.

Many Catholic school districts see the need to create “some sort of support system that doesn’t rely on families.” That support system could come from major donors, fundraising initiatives, scholarship funds, or grants, he said, among other possibilities.

At the NCEA, Lincoln Snyder said the stewardship approach works when a culture of giving is presented as a holistic part of Catholic life.

“If it's viewed as a transactional relationship, it's going to fail,” he explained.

Baxter concurred.

“You need to do a ton of the spiritual investment work to get everyone to commit to all of the ministries of the parish - time, talent, and treasure,” he said. “Don’t do this if you just want to fund your Catholic schools.”

There has to be an “ongoing conversation between the leadership and the community,” explained Snyder, rooted in transparency, so that parishioners can become fully vested in the stewardship mission, for the long-term.

The times, they are a-changin’

Snyder told The Pillar that the stewardship approach would not likely work at the current levels of Catholic giving in many parts of the United States.

According to The Pillar’s recent Survey on Religious Attitudes and Practices, 70% of weekly Massgoing Catholics donate less than four of their income and 53% donate less than two percent.

For now, Wichita has largely defied that trend. A 2020 diocesan financial report in Wichita shows steady increases in stewardship giving between 2015 to 2019, with only a slight dip in the first half of 2020.

But Finkeldei acknowledged the model may not always be sustainable in Wichita.

“Even if our giving percentage hasn’t decreased, the number of givers has. We can look into the future and see there will be a breaking point,” he told The Pillar.

The associate superintendent said there may come a point when parents are so used to the unique benefits of the Wichita model they begin to take it for granted, decreasing family giving commitments.

Finkeldei also sees a shift in generational attitudes towards giving.

“People of the World War II generation were duty bound;” they gave because they were supposed to, he said. “What we see now is that people don’t give out of duty.”

To address that, the diocese has made a shift in the way it appeals to parishioners. Stewardship appeals in Wichita today emphasize missionary discipleship, rather than obligation to support institutions. That approach seems, for the moment, to be working.

Stewardship has worked in Wichita, and may well continue to work, Finkeldei said.

But is it the right move for other dioceses?

Baxter said he thinks the stewardship model is possible when bishops lead the way, saying in effect: “This is who we are as followers of Christ, based upon what we believe.”

A fundamental question for all Catholics, he said — whether or not they live in a “stewardship diocese” —  is how they use what God has given them.

It’s important for all Catholics to ask themselves, Baxter said: “What’s my obligation as a financial steward” to support the mission and work of the Church?

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