German pastors come to Chicago for inspiration

For the fourth time, a group of German pastors and associate pastors traveling to Chicago will share ideas with their counterparts here on how to revitalize parish life in order to stem declining church membership in Germany.

Twelve parishes across Chicago, including St. John Berchmans in Logan Square, will each host a visitor for one month, beginning Sept. 7.

“It is exciting because we can learn a great deal about how we can evaluate our daily work … where we can improve and where we are in a good position,” Stephan Dreyer said. The 49-year-old pastoral associate from Hamburg will live at St. John Berchmans, hosted by the Rev. Wayne Watts.

Dreyer said the idea behind the exchange was not to copy practices, but to take ideas back home that can make a difference there. For example, previous participants decided to expand office hours at parishes so that members can stop by any time they want.

He said his field of interest is church cooperation across denominations, called ecumenism. He wants to collect his findings from the visit in a research paper.

The program, called Crossing Over, is organized by the Ruhr-University Bochum in western Germany and Inspire, a partnership of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago. Chicagoans in the program have visited Germany three times.

Daniel Gast, director of Inspire, said the program offers benefits for both sides. “They [the German visitors] take ideas back to Germany, to their parishes, and many times they try to figure out ways to take the practices they saw here and translate them into their own parish setting.”

In turn, members of the Archdiocese of Chicago, he said, could learn from the pastoral training and youth parish work done in Germany.

The basic purpose of the visits is to “exchange ideas about how to make parishes more vibrant, more vital,” said Mark Bensano of Inspire.

In Germany, membership in the Roman-Catholic church has been declining for years, from 26.8 million members in 2000 to 25.4 million in 2007, according to the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gast said visitors are often impressed by how lively church services are here compared to what they are accustomed to in Germany. The small things going back to Germany “always seem to grow to something larger,” he said.

Possibilities for comparison are sometimes limited because the churches are organized very differently in the two countries. Dreyer, of Hamburg, said church fundraising is an example of these differences. In Germany, members pay church taxes that are collected through the government.

While this offers a solid funding base, it can drive  people to leave the church. “The pressure to introduce criteria to evaluate the quality of our work is not as strong,” Dreyer said. As a church worker, he said it is interesting to see how a church can evaluate its efforts.

Despite the differences in church organization, Chicago and the Midwest region share a similar social and economic background with German parishes, Gast said. The immigrants’ influence also connects the Catholic church in Chicago with its European counterpart.

In addition to spiritual inspiration, some very earthly German things have caught on with Chicagoans who visited there. “Everybody misses the schnitzel and even more the hard bread rolls,” Gast said.

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