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Kerry WeberApril 18, 2024

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

When Mary Ellen Mitchell first heard about Beacons of Light—a plan by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to arrange its 208 parishes into 57 “families of parishes”—she felt confident that Bellarmine Chapel, her own parish of 13 years, would not be affected. The family parish model combines previously independent parishes together under one pastor with the eventual goal of becoming a single canonical parish. She assumed the plan mostly would apply to struggling parishes.

Bellarmine Chapel, a Jesuit-run parish in Cincinnati, is a vibrant faith community where approximately 1,000 people attend Mass each weekend, so Ms. Mitchell was surprised when she learned that under the new plan, Bellarmine would be sharing a pastor with St. Xavier Church, another Jesuit parish. Still, she assumed the alliance would be mostly on paper.

In August 2023, Paul Lickteig, S.J., was made responsible for the administration of both parishes, and the changes began. Rather than two part-time business managers, the parish family has one, full-time business director. A staff member who previously worked on social mission at one parish was made responsible for sustainability and social mission at both parishes, and an assistant staff member was hired to work on social mission at each parish. The parishes began co-advertising events, and the parish councils began holding joint meetings.

As the reality of the changes unfolded, Ms. Mitchell became more enthusiastic. “It just made sense,” she said. “This was an opportunity to restructure.” She said the staff changes have allowed for new opportunities for parishioners, too. Ms. Mitchell recently brought a group of high school students to a Saturday evening Mass at Xavier—at a time not offered at Bellarmine—and to a Eucharistic adoration evening there, an event she wouldn’t have been aware of before the parishes joined forces.

The parish family structure has “given us wider breadth to participate in things and still feel like we’re not leaving our parish,” Ms. Mitchell said. “The fact is this is all our parish now, and we have two locations. If you think of it like that, your church is suddenly offering a lot more.”

The desire to use church resources responsibly—including buildings, parish funds, staff and priests—has caused many dioceses and archdioceses across the county to embark on similar initiatives to reimagine church structures, both physical and administrative. These strategic planning processes are attempts to address the fact that the resources available to many of those communities have begun to dwindle.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, the number of active diocesan priests has dropped from 180 in 2013 to 138 last year. The diocese expects another 22 diocesan and religious order priests to leave active duty in the next five years. Beacons of Light is meant to prepare the archdiocese for this future but also to offer some hope.

In Phase Zero of what the archdiocese calls the Pastoral Planning Pathway, the archdiocese suggested the groupings for 57 families of parishes. In the fall of 2021, it sought feedback about the families of parishes from parishioners and received more than 8,000 online comments. Jeremy Helmes, director of the center for parish vitality in the archdiocese, said every comment was considered, and the feedback resulted in more than 20 changes to how parishes were grouped.

In the winter of 2022, the final parish families were announced. Eight parishes remained solo parishes, and the rest were made into families of between two and eight parishes.

Each family of parishes is now responsible for jointly making the decisions around the buildings, Mass times, staff and ministries at their group. The archdiocese offered six principles (Eucharist, church, leadership, stewardship, evangelization, love in action) and 31 parameters (the musts and must-nots) to guide the process.

Similar efforts to seek feedback are taking place in dioceses across the United States. In mid-April, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced a proposal to go from 61 parishes at 59 worship sites to 21 parishes at 26 worship sites in Baltimore City and some surrounding areas. According to the archdiocese, only 9 percent of the city’s pews were occupied each weekend in 2022. The archdiocese estimates more than 3,800 people have offered input throughout the planning process, called Seek the City to Come, and further opportunities for feedback will be available.

Although the levels of input and the structures may differ, many diocesan strategic plans today involve a concerted effort by the institutional church to provide a deliberate, transparent, multiyear process that relies on relevant data and assistance from trained consultants and professionals, as well as the opinions of the people in the pews. Although these plans may eventually involve combining, merging or closing parishes, their focus is on how the church can best use its resources to serve people today.

A Changing Church

Not every change in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has been welcomed. One area mother told local television reporters that she feared that St. Martin of Tours, her childhood parish that was grouped into a five-parish family, would close. “I will chain myself up to that church,” she said. “I will protest that all day long.” Two local organizations have been created to help guide parishioners seeking to appeal the decisions.

Cincinnati is not the only archdiocese in the United States making hard choices. Across the Midwest and Northeast, the Catholic population is shrinking, especially in urban areas that previously were home to many Catholics of white European heritage. Members of those communities have largely moved to the suburbs over the past several decades, and population growth more generally has shifted to the Southeast and the West, said Tom Gaunt, S.J., executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “Many areas simply do not need as many churches as they once did,” he said.

Some neighborhoods bear more of the burden than others in responding to these demographic shifts. Michal Kramarek, a research associate at CARA, was commissioned last year by FutureChurch to complete a demographic study of 50 years’ worth of data from 11 dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest. The study compared parish statistics with data from the Census Bureau and analyzed the differences between the parishes that closed and those that stayed open.

“Our overall takeaway was that the neighborhoods where parishes closed were neighborhoods where the share of people below poverty level and unemployment level was increasing and the numbers of Latinos and African Americans were increasing,” said Dr. Kramarek, though he noted that poverty played a bigger role than race.

Since the 1960s many parishes have relied upon subsidies from their diocese to cover operating costs, Father Gaunt said. Often the practice is well-intentioned—for example, when a diocese creates a subsidy in a lower-income neighborhood where it wants to provide services. But there comes a point where cash runs out, he said, noting that sometimes a bishop or parish or finance council delays a difficult decision and it may fall to their successors to provide a quick response. Years of financial assistance have also left many parishioners unaware of their parish or parochial school finances until they reach a crisis point.

In rural areas, Father Gaunt said, the reality of limited resources often is more obvious, as priests or women religious working alone minister to a small population of Catholics spread across large geographic areas. But in a large diocese, it is easy for parishioners to “get this sense that the bishop always has some money tucked away somewhere,” he said. The goal of a parish, Father Gaunt adds, is “they should be able to sustain themselves,” including having enough people to form a viable community.

In some ways, past mergers and closures have helped to bolster membership numbers at individual parishes. Dr. Kramarek said that between 1970 and 2020, the number of parishes nationwide decreased by 9 percent and the number of individual Catholics per parish increased by 60 percent. But, he said, starting around 2000 there has been “a notable decline in sacramental participation” that was accelerated by the pandemic.

Across the country, even the dioceses that show an increase in Catholic population do not always show an increase in the sacramental life of the parish. “If you measure parish life by sacramental engagement, the parishes have been declining over the last 20 years,” Dr. Kramarek said. “If a particular diocese ought to have 1,500 baptisms [based on the Catholic population], they’ve only recorded 500.”

All Things New

When Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski was assigned to the Archdiocese of St. Louis, he was told that some strategic planning needed to be done. The archdiocese consulted with the Catholic Leadership Institute, which advised that the most effective way to proceed would be for one person to be engaged with the process full-time. The Very Rev. Chris Martin was asked to fill the role of vicar for strategic planning.

As Archbishop Rozanski worked to get a sense of the needs of the archdiocese, one of the first groups he met with was young priests. “One of their biggest concerns was that they would spend their priesthood ministering to buildings instead of people, or buried in administration,” said Father Martin.

The archdiocese’s plan, All Things New, launched on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in 2022, with Father Martin at the helm. This strategic plan combined 178 parishes into 134 families of parishes. The archdiocese created a website, made prayer materials available and published an overview of what the process would include.

It also began small group conversations and more data gathering and hosted over 350 listening sessions across the archdiocese. While many people understood the status quo could not continue, Father Martin said there was also a strong resistance to change. “Everybody really hopes that there is a solution that happens around them, that benefits them, that doesn’t ask anything of them,” he said.

chris martin
The Very Rev. Chris Martin oversaw a strategic plan in the Archdiocese of St. Louis that combined 178 parishes into 134 families of parishes. (St. Louis Review/Jacob Wiegand)

Strong feelings are understandable, given the deep love many hold for their parishes, but parish loyalty can come at “the detriment of seeing themselves as part of a larger diocesan family,” Father Martin said.

But merging parishes or creating parish families can also help to create a stronger sense of community, said Michael Laughery, director of partner services for PartnersEdge, a Catholic consulting company that has worked with many dioceses, archdioceses and religious orders. Even the simple act of praying in a church that is more than half full can make people feel more connected, he said.

Getting a community to the point of accepting this change can be difficult. “If you want to navigate organizational change successfully, there is a personal component to that, and in particular for nonprofit and religious organizations, there is an emotional connection,” Mr. Laughery said.

The Diocese of St. Louis worked to respect that connection by collecting feedback from many people across the archdiocese, but that, too, brought new challenges. Father Martin noted that some parishioners felt their concerns were not heard and that many parishioners believed the results of the process were predetermined.

The summary notes from each planning area’s listening session were posted to the All Things New website. At St. Sabina Parish in Florissant, the summary notes stated: “It’s important to address the question not only of whether people are being heard, but whether they feel they are being heard,” adding, “When people feel they are being heard, they are usually much more generous in following the hard decisions leaders have to make.”

Father Martin said much discernment happened after the listening sessions, but it was not possible to make every person happy. “Being listened to and getting your way are two different things,” he said. “We could have done a better job of articulating that.”

The archdiocese has made available online the information needed for parishioners to submit appeals to the Vatican. Several appeals have been filed, including one by St. Richard Parish requesting not to be subsumed into St. Monica Parish, both in Creve Coeur, Mo. In February, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy declared that it had not found just cause for the closure. But the Vatican has upheld other archdiocesan decisions. As of early April, 12 unresolved appeals remained in the archdiocese, according to Father Martin.

Father Martin noted that even when an appeal is approved, the reality on the ground often remains unchanged: “That doesn’t magically make more people appear in church. It doesn’t make the buildings not have the infrastructure needs or make more priests appear.” He said that in one parish where the appeal was upheld, the parishioners asked for several Sunday Mass times to return, but the pastoral reality made that impossible. He also noted that while awaiting the results of an appeal, a parish may be left in stasis. “For people looking to begin new initiatives, it can feel like they’re in limbo,” he said. “If you’re treading water; you’re also declining.”

He said he understands that some changes will be painful, but Father Martin urged people to consider the big picture. “I’m never going to argue that there are not good things going on at all of our parishes,” he said. “The question we need to ask is: Are we willing to offer up the individual goods going on at our parishes to ask what is the best thing for our diocese in this moment?”

An Eye Toward Growth

In the summary notes of the listening sessions for All Things New, parishioners voiced the need for evangelization multiple times, and this is one area in which there is little disagreement. In fact, many dioceses are making evangelization a cornerstone of their efforts to reimagine parish structures.

Previous efforts to reconfigure or merge parishes were “more of a stabilizing, not an evangelizing effort,” said Father Martin, who in July 2023 was named the vicar for parish mission and vitality. In years past, “we pulled together three struggling parishes and the church was full again. However, if we don’t equip ourselves to evangelize as this parish ages and new people move in, we will be in the same spot as we were 10 years ago.” A report from the archdiocese estimates that, in 2021, “only 25 percent of our pews were occupied during the typical weekend Mass.”

Indeed, some parishioners have recognized that the status quo cannot stand. The summary notes from the listening session at St. Norbert Parish in Florissant stated: “Any change(s) will take a change in mindset by all of us.”

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Parish in Florissant was the product of a merger in 2005 of St. Dismas, Our Lady of Fatima and St. Thomas parishes. The summary from its listening discussion notes that the change at first “felt like death” but resulted in a “more vibrant parish experience.” Still, the number of households in the parish has dropped to 759 today from 2,221 in 2005. In May 2023, Archbishop Rozanski declared the parish would be amalgamated into Sacred Heart Parish in the same town.

Despite the challenges of the last two and a half years, the strategic planning was the comparatively easy part, Father Martin said. He said the archdiocese is now asking, “How do we help parish leaders to build up their own plans and equip people to go out and share the faith?” To Father Martin, at the heart of the process of All Things New is this question: “Using the resources we have, how are we trying to align ourselves to proclaim the Gospel for future generations, and not just preserve the infrastructure that has served well previous generations?” As he explained,“Sentiment doesn’t keep churches open; disciples do.”

Living Into Change

A path forward for any archdiocese or diocese often begins with taking stock of its current situation, Mr. Laughery said. As a consultant, one of the first questions he asks clients is about available resources: “Do you have the skills and talents in your organization, and do they have the time?” Often, he said, a diocese may find that the way they are using their “gifts and resources does not align with the needs of the church.”

One way in which dioceses can effectively create change, he said, is by helping those involved have a true understanding of the current state of affairs. “They need to come to the conclusion that the status quo is not an option,” he said. “Once people understand that, the Holy Spirit can really take root in our hearts.”

Robust data gathering, local decision making and multiple levels of consultation can help a diocese find direction, he said, adding that “the more clarity we have with the vision of what Jesus is calling us to in this community, the less likely we are to dispute Mass times.”

The Archdiocese of Seattle is one of the groups that has sought out Mr. Laughery’s advice, as it began Partners in the Gospel, its effort to combine 170 parishes and worship sites into 60 families of parishes. Caitlin Moulding, the diocese’s chief operating officer, and the Rev. Gary Lazzeroni, the vicar general, assembled a core team of multidisciplinary leaders, including laypeople and members of the clergy, and established working groups, all before the project publicly launched.

In June 2022 the archdiocese introduced the plan for suggested parish family groupings to its priests. Their team spent time talking with the priests formally and informally and put together focus committees about different aspects of parish life. They revised the drafts and again offered the plan to the priests for review.

priests meeting
Priests from King and Pierce counties look over maps at a May 2023 meeting about creating parish families in the Archdiocese of Seattle. (Stephen Brashear)

The website for Partners in the Gospel launched publicly in January 2023 and included a timeline and the suggested parish families. Consultations with priests, deacons, school leaders and parish staff followed. In fall 2023, the archdiocese encouraged parishioners to attend listening sessions following a synodal model, through which they could offer feedback on the plans; parishioners could also offer input online. Although several parishes were struggling financially, Ms. Moulding said the archdiocese did not have definitive financial goals in mind.

Father Lazzeroni estimates that the steering committee read over 3,000 pages of input from Catholics around western Washington State. Following that feedback, 25 parish families were changed, and then parishioners had another chance to offer input on the new configurations. “The work and the discernment happens at the local level,” Ms. Moulding said.

When the final configurations were announced in February 2024, there were no surprises. Still, the work is just beginning. The parish families now enter into a phase of what the website describes as “welcoming, restructuring and re-envisioning.” The archdiocese acknowledges that some buildings will close by the projected end of the process in 2027, but Father Lazzeroni hopes to move away from the typical language around closing parishes. “It isn’t about closing my parish, but ‘How do we come together to better use resources?’,” he said. “For most people, they’re just going to have to live into it.”

Ms. Moulding said that the initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. The archdiocesan Mass counts are up since Partners in the Gospel began, and a recent gathering of Catholic middle-school children was four times the size of last year. “We are optimistic that we can continue to grow,” she said.

Still, both Ms. Moulding and Father Lazzeroni noted that many tough decisions have yet to be made. “There will be loss in this,” Father Lazzeroni said, ranging from the loss of a favorite Mass time to the closure of a beloved church. “We know there is real grieving that will go on. There’s no way to get to the other side and start something new until you attend personally and communally to that grief.”

Ms. Moulding emphasized that it is important for the archdiocese to “honor and be present to the grief that people will rightly feel,” but she also hopes people will grow to understand that the process is “re-envisioning mission at the archdiocese,” and she said a successful end result will include full Masses, more youth and young adult ministers, and more social justice ministries at parishes.

Responding in Real Time

Father Lazzeroni and Ms. Moulding said they learned from the efforts at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and were inspired by its synodal approach. Jeremy Helmes, director of the center for parish vitality in Cincinnati, said that, in the midst of the second year of a five-year effort, the archdiocese is still learning lessons from the process.

“We are trying to respond in real time and to recalibrate as we go,” he said. For example, the five phases of the strategic plan do not directly correspond with the five years of the project, and each parish family is moving at its own pace. But Mr. Helmes said some families have struggled not to compare their own progress against that of another parish family.

Mr. Helmes said another challenge has been a “general sense of distrust of church leadership,” and he still meets people “in a phase of denial” that change is required. “I wish more people understood that there is not a predetermined way that this [process] is going to end” in terms of what happens to various parish buildings, schools or staff, he said. “Each [parish] family has the responsibility and wherewithal to make those decisions.”

Beacons represents a move away from “pre-formed, centralized decision” making and toward an emphasis on subsidiarity. But that also means that there are tough decisions ahead. “We are going to have decisions made at the family level that will bring forth grief,” Mr. Helmes said. “We are trying to have our pastoral leaders and pastors be equipped for those stages of mission. We’ve got to find a way to respect the past. As a church built on tradition, if we are not respecting tradition, we’re doing it wrong.”

“At the end, some church buildings will not be needed, some schools will close, some parishes will merge,” he said. But the hope is that “each of our 57 families is able to better able to do the mission of the church, which we’ve articulated as ‘to make missionary disciples that bring people to Christ.’”

The archdiocese, he said, has learned from past mistakes. He said planning processes in the 1980s and 1990s never “felt complete” because parishes often were combined under one pastor without a plan for what that meant for staff and organizational structure, and without a unifying vision. “We knew the people in the field needed a new reality,” Mr. Helmes said.

In the Beacons process, Mr. Helmes says, the archdiocese committed to the “ministry of liaisons” and hired nearly two dozen professionals who are available to any pastor. The liaisons spend an average of five hours per week with a parish family and in that time might meet with the pastor and his team, review documents or offer advice on organizational leadership. Currently, about 40 pastors have requested a liaison.

Under the new parish family structure, each pastor has at least one vicar or retired priest to assist at the parish. Many have reorganized their staff, and the archdiocese has offered sample organization charts and suggestions such as ways to combine pastoral councils, if the parish desires. “There is an expectation that the planning you’re doing as a family is for evangelization and for growth. It’s not just maintenance,” Mr. Helmes said.

Supporting the Church on the Ground

Father Lickteig at Bellarmine in Cincinnati noted that he has been impressed with the quality of resources provided by the archdiocese. As part of the process, each family of parishes held a fall “Visio Day,” which brought the individual parishes together to create a shared vision. Father Lickteig felt the day was productive and allowed “people to come together to say we do have a lot of the same hopes and goals, even as we are articulating an individual mission of how we live out that vision.”

Ms. Mitchell, who also attended the meeting along with about 100 people from each parish, said that the all-day meeting was “really well run,” and it was the first time she could imagine the two churches sharing resources effectively. “I got the sense that there was a sharing of the charism,” despite some “differences in the texture of each parish and worship style,” Ms. Mitchell said, although she also noted that a parish with fewer resources might have different feelings about the process. “I think there is a lot of promise. If we can lean into the strengths of it and be less territorial of our particular Mass.”

Ms. Mitchell also said the process has made her more aware of how many sacrifices have been made by people managing the process and parish staff. She said Father Lickteig often travels between Masses from one church to the other just to be physically present to greet people in the narthex before or after Mass on a Sunday.

Father Lickteig appreciates concerns like Ms. Mitchell’s about the possibility of overloading pastors, and he sometimes feels he is stretched thin. But he also said that becoming a part of a parish family has given him a greater understanding of the importance of working in concert with his fellow priests and staff. He has started asking lay staff members, as well as his fellow clergy, to also spend time outside the churches after Mass, which he says is an adjustment for some parishioners. “They want to see a priest,” he said. “How do we allow people to realize that this is a ministerial staff and we’re all companions and disciples in ministry?”

He said he understands when parishioners are wary of changes at a parish. “People are suspicious because they have been hurt [by the church],” said Father Lickteig, which means sometimes other questions need to be answered before those regarding logistics. “The other conversation we’ve been having is: What does healing look like for us? It’s fraught, he said, especially in the current political climate where many people are immediately combative or have their guard up. But he hopes to let people know that their parish family will be a place of healing.

The question becomes: “How do you repeat the message patiently and peacefully in a way that people can hear it?” said Father Lickteig. “And how do you live it out in a way that backs up what people are saying?”

Father Lickteig said that meetings like the community vision session give him hope.“That conversation has been difficult and fantastic. I’ve loved every minute of those meetings, even in the midst of sometime chaos and tension and personalities,” he said. “It’s about holding that center and letting people know that ours is a big church and we are going to find our way through this.”

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

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