This month, priests began taking attendance to make sure parents of students enrolled in Springfield's Catholic schools are attending worship services – and the families who aren't regularly attending could lose tuition breaks worth thousands of dollars.
Perhaps not surprisingly, attendance at Catholic Masses has soared since the new policy went into effect.
"We've noticed that a lot of our parish or school families were not showing up in church, which is kind of normal across the country," said Father Dan Bergbower, priest for St. Agnes parish. "Anywhere from maybe 20% to 30% at most have been showing up at church. But they're obviously showing up at school."
"Five (priests) with the Catholic schools got together and said, 'Well, how can we encourage our people to be back at Mass?"
The plan developed by the pastors from Little Flower, Christ the King, St. Aloysius, Blessed Sacrament and St. Agnes parishes requires parents to attend at least 51% of church services in order to receive the subsidy, or scholarship, provided by the local congregation.
"It's just helping people to do what they already know they're supposed to do," Bergbower said. "Part and parcel of a Catholic education is our Catholic faith. Our intention is to try to gently encourage them to come back to Mass. Obviously, what we've been doing for the last 20 or 30 years is not working. So, we decided to try something a little different."
Since the new policy went into effect, church attendance has spiked. For example, Bergbower said at St. Agnes Church, attendance has risen from about 600 people a weekend to 800.
"We're hearing crying children again. We're seeing young families at Mass," he said.
Tuition varies a bit among the city's Catholic schools but Bergbower explained the math behind the situation this way:
A practicing Catholic with one student pays an annual tuition of about $4,500, but the actual cost of educating the child is $7,500. The local congregation pays the difference, which is $3,000. For families with more than one student enrolled, tuition per child goes down and the subsidy from the parish goes up. And with lower-income families, the subsidy may be even greater.
"A family may end up paying $9,000, which sounds like a lot of money, because it is. But it's a lot of money for the parish, too," he said.
However, Berghower said the goal of the new policy is not to cut parish expenses but to increase Mass attendance.
"It's not about a money thing. It's just about a faith thing," he said.
The new policy does not affect Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, president Bill Moredock said. Financial aid at the Catholic high school, which is partially funded by the Dominican Sisters, is provided based on need, but not religious affiliation, he said.
At Lutheran High School, students whose families are active in one of the area's Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations receive a $1,000 discount on their tuition, said Principal Zack Klug. Each year, a pastor from the church a family attends must write a letter to the school affirming that they remain "active."
It's left to individual congregations to define what "active" means, Klug said.
Pastor Matt Schneider, of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sherman, said he considers how involved a family is in the church's ministries and how regularly they attend services when determining whether they have "active" status. But he added he does not have a specific rule for how many Sunday services a family must attend.
Calvary Academy gives a 10% tuition discount to students whose families are active in Calvary Church, superintendent Jay Hinckley said.
"We call it an active member discount," Hinckley said. "What that constitutes is a little open-ended. We look at attendance, whether they are involved in ministries and whether they have gone through membership class."
Jeremiah Auble, superintendent of Springfield Christian School, did not immediately respond to interview requests from Illinois Times.
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].