Three long-time stewardship employees at the Archdiocese of Seattle retire this month. Northwest Catholic sat down with each of them to discuss what their work for the church in Western Washington has meant.
Rick Fersch was the president and CEO of Eddie Bauer when he suffered a serious stroke in 2000, at the age of 50.
Lying in his hospital bed, he told God, “I’ll let go and let you, and if it’s time for me to die, then so be it, and if not, you’ll show me where I should go next.”
“For the first time in my life, I really meant it,” he said.
When he’d recovered, Rick retired from the high-stress world of retail, “because why would I keep doing what I was doing?”
In the fall of 2002, he got a call from Archbishop Alex J. Brunett — or “God, cleverly disguised as Archbishop Brunett” — who asked him to work for the Archdiocese of Seattle in stewardship and development. Rick was hesitant, but said he’d give it a try for a year.
“Fourteen years later, it really turned out great,” he said.
He started in January 2003 as executive director of development and co-director, with his wife Patti, of the Catholic Fund. The next year he was appointed executive director of stewardship and development, with responsibility for the Annual Catholic Appeal, parish stewardship, planned giving and the Crozier Society, which supports seminarian formation.
Early on, he met with pastors to discern best practices for the Annual Catholic Appeal and formulated his “Ten Commandments of fundraising.”
Under Rick’s leadership, the Office of Stewardship and Development has raised more than $200 million for the ministries of the archdiocese, according to a Nov. 10 letter from Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain announcing the Dec. 31 retirement of Rick, Patti and JoAnne Strom.
While he’s proud of the money he’s helped raise for the mission of the church, Rick said, “Where my heart is and where my ministry is, is in stewardship. You see, in fundraising you can do certain techniques — you could even call them gimmicks — and you’re going to get the results. Stewardship is a change of heart, it’s a conversion — much, much more difficult. There’s no silver bullet.”
He added, “Stewardship is a disciple’s response. In this circle of God’s goodness, a disciple, once they become a disciple of Jesus Christ, realizes … ‘Wow, this is all yours, and I’m called to take it, I’m called to increase it, and I’m called to give back.’”
It’s been a blessing to work side-by-side, 24-7 with his wife of 44 years, Rick said. And perhaps the “greatest gift” of his time at the archdiocese has been the opportunity to deepen his faith, especially through the mentorship of his former boss, the late Pat Sursely, who taught him about the practice of contemplative prayer.
“The next year, that’s where I really want to put my focus,” said Rick, a member of Seattle’s Christ Our Hope Parish.
He knows God has something new in store for Patti and himself. “We’re going to be quiet for a year and just try to listen to God.”
Patti Fersch says that her work at the Archdiocese of Seattle for the last 14 years has taught her about the diversity and dedication of Catholics throughout Western Washington.
Before coming to the chancery, her Catholic lens had mostly been focused on St. Monica Parish and School on Mercer Island, where she and her husband Rick had raised their three daughters and one son.
She’d been an active volunteer at the parish and school, a board of trustee at Seattle University, on the board of directors for the YWCA, and a co-chair with Rick of the United Way of King County’s annual campaign.
It was through her United Way work that she first began to realize that charity fundraising doesn’t have to be difficult if you’re passionate about the cause. “It’s not for you, you’re asking it,” she said. “And if it’s a cause you believe in, it’s easy to do.”
In 2003, Patti joined Rick as co-director of the Catholic Fund. They transformed it into today’s Crozier Society, which supports archdiocesan seminarians.
Patti became the society’s sole director in 2005 as Rick settled in as the archdiocese’s executive director of stewardship and development, under which the Crozier Society falls. Though Patti said wryly, “Let it be known, he’s not the boss of me.”
During Patti’s time with the Crozier Society, it has grown from 20 to 200 households and raised more than $6.2 million, according to a Nov. 10 letter from Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain announcing Patti and Rick’s retirement at the end of 2016.
Besides being co-workers, the Fersches and Strom are also good friends. Here the three are pictured in 2007 on a Crozier Society pilgrimage stop along the Danube in Budapest. Photo: Courtesy Patti Fersch
Social and spiritual events such as a Lenten day of reflection and overseas pilgrimages are Crozier Society hallmarks. A key fundraiser is the Archbishop’s Golf Tournament, which Patti says has taken up much of her annual workload. The tournament this August raised enough money to support five seminarians for a year.
In his letter announcing the Fersches’ retirement, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain noted Patti’s “contributions to the creation of community.”
“The Crozier Society, for example, is made up of a group of people who genuinely love each other and enjoy being together — they pray for one another, support one another, and grow in faith together,” he wrote.
Patti says she’s loved working with lay Crozier Society members but has especially cherished the friendships she’s formed with archdiocesan priests and seminarians.
“It has certainly advanced our faith and made us open to what the church is really made up of,” she said. “All kinds of really good people, who maybe don’t think exactly like me on everything but are just dedicated.
“These are priests that give their lives up for us.”
After retirement, Patti, a parishioner at Christ Our Hope in Seattle, says she’s looking forward to spending more time with her kids and grandkids, going to the Fersch home in Suncadia, cooking more, and watching Rick train a new yellow lab puppy that they plan to welcome post-retirement.
JoAnne Strom was working as a part-time school receptionist when she heard about a temporary position with the RENEW office at the Archdiocese of Seattle in 1987.
It had been a reconnection to her Catholic faith and finding a community at St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Bellevue that helped her feel at home in Western Washington after a move from California several years prior.
So she felt called to the chancery position. She’s been working there ever since, first as an administrative assistant in several offices, then as assistant director of planned giving, and finally as director of planned giving since 2003.
Strom retires at the end of this year along with her stewardship and development colleagues and friends, Rick and Patti Fersch. She says she won’t miss her commute in from Bellevue, but will miss her colleagues and those people she has worked with at parishes around the archdiocese.
Leading parish seminars on wills, estate planning and being “good stewards beyond their lifetime,” educating parish leaders, and establishing relationships with local Catholics have all been a part of her planned giving work, which she calls a blessing. She especially felt honored to listen to the life stories of donors.
“I got to use the best of me, my head and my heart,” she said.
“JoAnne’s enthusiasm for planned giving, as well as her good humor and unfailing kindness to all, have been critical components of the establishment of a Planned Giving Office for the Archdiocese and will no doubt ensure its future success,” wrote Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in a Nov. 10 letter announcing her and the Fersches’ retirements.
In just the last five years, the Planned Giving office has raised almost $3.1 million in unrestricted gifts to the archdiocese, $13.4 million for parishes, and $1.1 million for the priest pension and medical fund, according to the archbishop’s letter.
Strom said that she seeks purpose in all aspects of her life, even more so since her husband, Richard, passed away in 2006. So after retiring, she plans to volunteer as a public school aide for her daughter Sarah, who teaches second grade. There will also be travel and more time to spend with friends and on new hobbies such as tai chi and art classes.
Strom says she leaves the planned giving office “knowing that the work that we’ve done is going to make a difference in people’s lives.”