A Case for Parish Consolidations
In many dioceses throughout the United States, parishes are being consolidated or combined in groups of two, three and even four. The rationale for doing this seems to be the desire to improve efficiencies and to better leverage our priests, both of which make sense. But if consolidation is not implemented wisely, it will only exacerbate the current situation, drive people away from the Church and hurt the credibility of our bishops. Before getting into the right and wrong ways to go about consolidation, it’s important to step back and understand the real issue we are trying to address as a Church. If we begin with the wrong assumption, we won’t be able to see the situation clearly.
The challenge parishes are facing is not primarily a financial one, no matter what accountants will tell you. Finances are downstream symptoms of our deeper problem: leadership. That’s not a blanket criticism of bishops or the Church hierarchy, but something much more tactical. See, while the Church in the U.S. may have a shortage of priests, what we lack even more are pastors, priests who can lead. Which is not a criticism of priests. Not at all. The fact is, not all priests are meant to be pastors. Some of our most wonderful, devout priests simply do not have a charism for leadership. They are amazing confessors, preachers, counselors and prayer warriors. They were drawn to their vocation for beautiful reasons, and thank God for these men!
Unfortunately, the Church, like so many other organizations, came to see “pastorship” as the default career path of so many priests. This was understandable given the need to cover the more than fifteen thousand parishes in the U.S. But it led to a situation in which many wonderful priests, without any real training, were forced to spend much of their time running meetings, managing people and raising money. Most of them weren’t good at it, or worse yet, stopped doing it altogether. And so the Church was left with priests, as well as parishes, who suffered unnecessarily. That is where we are today.
Thankfully, Church leaders have recognized this, and some are moving toward creating clusters of parishes that have a single pastor. The big question that must be answered, prayerfully, is how does this actually work on a daily, weekly and monthly basis? There are two basic approaches that can be considered.
The first approach I would call the “Campus Model”. It would view parishes as different satellite campuses of a single parish. Regardless of whether each campus keeps its name and is still called a parish, that campus would be a physical outpost of the main parish campus, and it would take its direction from a central leadership team. That campus would not have its own DRE or finance manager or liturgy coordinator, but would most likely be limited to a priest who focuses on sacramental duties, and perhaps an administrative resource and a facilities manager. The central leadership team would be comprised of a pastor and various leaders of programs, ministries and administrative functions that would implement their programs utilizing each of the campuses in their larger “parish”.
The second approach I would call the “Shared Pastor Model”. It would allow each parish to maintain its own finances, programs and ministries, while “sharing” a single pastor who oversees multiple parishes. That pastor would then need to lead each parish separately, delegating much of the day-to-day management to the local leadership team, but providing regular leadership and oversight to each. This approach would allow for the least amount of initial disruption in the parishes, but would put quite an additional burden on the pastor.
One could debate the merits of the “Campus Model” vs. the “Shared Pastor Model,” understanding that each has its pros and cons. However, there is another approach, which I will call the “Cake-And-Eat-It-Too-Model,” which will be as tempting for dioceses as it would be disastrous.
Here’s how it works. The combined “parish” will have a single leadership team, but each individual parish will maintain its own finances, ministries, programs and liturgies. This approach would reduce local leadership without decreasing responsibility there, resulting in greater chaos, frustration and resentment.
Why would any dioceses consider this approach? Most likely because they want to avoid having to deal with the short-term disappointment that will be inevitable among parishes that do not relish the idea of losing autonomy. Bishops may be tempted to justify this approach based on the theoretical financial savings that could come about in having fewer pastors. But in reality, the “Cake-And-Eat-It-Too Model” will only speed the deterioration of each local parish and leave parishioners and parish employees more frustrated as attendance, participation and morale decline. On top of that, finances would not actually improve.
Dioceses must pray for wisdom and courage in making the best decision possible in consolidating parishes. They must face the reality that synergy, cost savings and most importantly, renewal, require clarity and boldness, not half-measures or compromise. This is not an easy situation, but it is a glorious time for the Church because it is exactly what God has given us to do at this time. With the wisdom and courage He gives us, and with the willingness to suffer in the midst of necessary change, we can make these challenging times a source of revitalization. Isn’t that how God always works in the world?
Pat Lencioni | Co-founder
The Amazing Parish
One thought on “A Case for Parish Consolidations”
I have read and re-read your article on the future of parishes and your thoughts on consolidations. It’s something that touches my ministry each week as I celebrate the Eucharist and interact with members of the two congregations that the archbishop has assigned me to as administrator.
My direction has been to listen and learn about their needs, anxieties about identity issues, and respect the 150 years of traditions that both congregations have as part of their history.
If the future direction of the local Catholic Communities were as clear as you imply in your article, there might be an equally clear direction toward consolidation. But this is not the case. I was raised in a city with 5 Catholic parishes and 5 Catholic schools. After a consolidation of all these entities, the
participation and identification of Catholics with the new mega-church saw a huge decline in attendance and membership. The community has still not recovered.
There are many reasons that consolidation is not an answer. The primary considerations should not be finances. The focus needs to be on the amount of participation and ownership will be lost in the process of consolidations. I consider the Catholic Church to be a successful witness to Christ in many ways, but it has also, institutionally, brought about much pain and disillusionment. Add to that the closing or consolidation of their parish to finance lawsuits or financial difficulties of other parishes, it becomes a very personal injury to smaller but sustainable Catholic communities.
There is little sense of direction among our bishops. The “elephant in the room” is the shortage of priests. When I was ordained, parishes of less than 100 families were common. Large parish had 3 or
4 priests. The congregations that I serve now as the only priest had 4 priests.
In a society and culture that is beginning to once again value neighborhood grocery stores, locally sourced food, and a desire to know the members of their parish with whom and among whom they live should be a warning, The problem is not financial, not one of resources, but one of a priest shortage. That is the dynamic driving the loss of local parish families. The solution that needs to be taken seriously is not down-sizing (a very poor business model) but admitting that the Church needs to take seriously a broader pool of candidates for the priesthood, certainly beginning with married men who are called by God to be priests. Parish consolidations are damage control for a failure to take the priestly vocation crisis seriously. The communities in small parishes know this, and it’s not surprising that they resent the fear of loosing their churches, generations of family membership, and the failure of leadership to recognize the tremendous burden that is being placed on priests who want to retire and those of us who are active, to faithfully care for all our local parishes. Many of us see ourselves as guardians of these congregations, as well as feeling disappointed by the lack of actions which could greatly lessen the shortage of priests.