Sponsorship of Schools: Diocese of Wichita Has Winning Model

In the 30-plus years the program has been in place in the Wichita Diocese, it not only has provided for Catholic education, but contributed to the health of parishes through its emphasis on stewardship living.

Students enjoying class activities at Magdalen Catholic School.
Students enjoying class activities at Magdalen Catholic School. (photo: Courtesy photos / Magdalen Catholic School)

WICHITA, Kan. — When Kristin Schmitz and her husband were raising their four children, there were times they could have taken jobs elsewhere, but a program in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, kept them rooted here.

Schmitz, who also is principal of Magdalen Catholic School, said the diocese’s “Stewardship Way of Life” enabled her children to attend Catholic schools from kindergarten through Grade 12 tuition-free. Had they moved to another diocese, she said, the family would not have been able to afford a Catholic education for all four children. 

As a principal, Schmitz sees other families benefiting as hers did. “I know there are children in school who would not be here and not receiving a Catholic education without stewardship. And I could not see the school without one of them.”

In the 30-plus years the program has been in place in the Wichita Diocese, it not only has provided for Catholic education, but contributed to the health of parishes through its emphasis on stewardship living. But although the program involves financial giving by all parishioners, regardless of whether they have children in school, Schools Superintendent Janet Eaton said the overarching theme is one of being a steward. “That means time, talent and treasure. For all of us, the biggest part we want for families is that they go to Mass, and so that’s the first point on the list.” 

Besides agreeing to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, parishioners pledge to actively take part in parish ministries and give 8% of their income to the parish and 2% to other charities. 

For Father John Jirak, diocesan stewardship director and pastor of Church of the Magdalen, stewardship serves as the main trunk of the tree feeding all the branches of ministry in the diocese. As a result, he said, “We have incredible schools, Adoration chapels — probably 12 in the city — and the Lord’s Diner [soup kitchen]. Our vocations are incredible, and we have a Mass attendance of around 50%, which is relatively high.” 

In addition, although Wichita is the 116th-largest diocese in the United States, it ranks around 60th in Catholic-school enrollment, with 9,877 students. Enrollment increased by 1% between 2000 and 2020, compared with a 28% decline nationally. Also, since 2000, the diocese has opened three new schools, in contrast to the closure of 14.3% of Catholic schools across the U.S. during that period. Nationally, the average percentage of baptized students enrolled in Catholic schools is about 15%, but in Wichita it is about 35%. 

Father John Fogliasso, pastor of St. Jude parish, said he likes the stewardship program because it makes faith a practical matter. “Sometimes living the faith can be more challenging because it’s less tangible. [Stewardship] is a very easily understandable concept of ‘Am I participating in the life of the Church by being generous with my time, talent and treasure?’”

Furthermore, he said, “Stewardship requires a lot of effort and trust in God’s providence, but its impact is phenomenal in how much stronger it makes our parishioners in practicing their faith.”

Eaton said when asked by colleagues in other dioceses about the stewardship program, she tells them, “It didn’t come overnight, and you have to keep working at it every day. You can’t just sit on your laurels.”

She also stressed that the commitment families make is not easy. “It is that great pull of response to God’s gift to you that you learn to give back. As a product of this diocese, I saw this in my parents, and I want my own children to see that, as well.”

Karen Miller, whose two children attended St. Anne School and are now students at Bishop Carroll High School, began moving toward the 8% recommended giving level gradually, adding a little more each year. “When you’re starting out as a young person or a young family, you can give what you can. As life progresses and you’re able, you can work your way up to 8%. And you get there.” Miller said before reaching the 8% level, where she has been for about 10 years, she would try to make up what she couldn’t give financially by volunteering more of her time. A cantor in the parish music ministry, she also has served as middle-school athletic director, room mother and parent volunteer for the after-prom committee at the high school. 

Although her husband is not Catholic and initially was reluctant to participate in stewardship, Miller said he now sees the value of the program and the Catholic education their children are receiving as part of it. He also volunteers his time to the parish and school and encourages their children to do the same. 

Father Jirak said despite the emphasis often placed on the aspect of “free tuition,” the diocese prefers not to call the educational benefit by that name. “It’s sponsorship. As the bishop says, Catholic schools are not free. You practice the stewardship way of life and you get sponsorship. We don’t use the word ‘tuition’ at all.” 

He added that there is a danger in looking at the program as “getting free schools.” 

“Well, that’s not the way it works ... because it really has to be people in prayer coming together and stepping out to live faith in a more radical way.”

Achieving this, he said, takes an investment by parishes to accompany parishioners, awaken them to the stewardship way of life and to coach and encourage them to live it.

The stewardship way of life is a way of faith, he added. “You don’t have a superabundance, and you find out most of the time at the end of the day that you made it, but it was scary [to trust all financial obligations will be met]. ... Stewardship requires risk. No risk, no faith. No faith, no fruit. You really have to step out and trust in God, not wait for the resources to do that.” 

Among the challenges the program is now facing, Father Jirak said, is that it began during a different time, when parishioners were motivated to give by a sense of duty. “What motivated them does not motivate people to the degree it does now. So we’ve been focusing less on time, talent and treasure and more on the motivation to live the stewardship way of life, which begins with discipleship. If you don’t have a disciple, you can’t have stewardship.”

The program now focuses more on building up disciples and living the Christian life with intensity in a personal way. “We’re getting to the heart of ‘Why am I doing this?’” Father Jirak said. “People want to connect with their passions, so we have to get to a level that’s deeper than what motivated their parents and grandparents.” 

Ideally, under stewardship, with each parishioner contributing 8%, parishes have enough to fund their ministries, including schools. This does not include, however, extraordinary expenditures like building projects. For parishes in lower-income areas where many parishioners cannot meet the 8% level of giving, supplemental help is available from the St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School Fund, which raises funds independently of the stewardship program. 

Because of stewardship, the diocese also is able to do without an annual appeal and takes up no special collections apart from two annually: one for seminarians and retired priests and the one for the Propagation of the Faith. Additionally, schools do very little of the kind of fundraising seen at Catholic schools in other dioceses. Eaton said a few schools have long traditions of selling things and only continue because of the popularity of the items sold, and some parishes and parish and school organizations still hold events for specific causes.

Overall, though, added Schmitz, “We really limit any kind of fundraising and ask people to focus on their tithe to the parish. If everyone did that, we would never have to ask for extraordinary funds again. That said, our Parent-Teacher Organization does host an annual event, meant to provide a community and social experience.” The money from that, she said, goes into the organization’s account, not the school, and funds specific needs throughout the year. 

The freedom from fundraising and managing tuition afforded her by the stewardship program, Principal Schmitz said, gives her more opportunities to be with students and teachers. 

“What a gift and blessing it is. At the end of the day, our Catholic schools should be about children, and what is more about children than being able to focus on mission and being able to welcome anyone who wants to be here?”