Over the next two years, the Archdiocese of Detroit will transition to a new pastoral and governance model for its 218 parishes called “families of parishes,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron announced on the feast of Pentecost.
Calling it a “very important step in the life and mission of our local church,” he said the move will allow parishes to serve their mission more robustly while responding to historic challenges that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, we knew God wanted to renew our parishes. The structures we inherited served our mission well in the past, but they need to be renewed and aligned for mission,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “And so, in prayer and in consultation with others, I’ve discerned that this is the time to respond in faith to our new reality and to better equip our parish communities for mission.”
While the health and economic crises have contributed to a reduction in material resources, the archdiocese also faces a looming priest shortage, the archbishop noted, with almost two-thirds of priests in southeast Michigan older than 60.
Many of these priests care for one or multiple parishes as they approach — or even exceed — retirement age, a burden that if left unchecked would quickly become unsustainable, the archbishop said.
In the new “family of parishes” model, multiple priests and deacons will be assigned to care for a group of three to six parishes, alleviating some administrative burdens and allowing parishes to share human and material resources.
“Over the next several months, groups of clergy and lay faithful will help me discern the leadership and governance structure of the families of parishes and the ways in which this new structure will help all our parishes become vibrant posts of missionary activity,” the archbishop said.
While evangelization continues to be the focus, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need to rethink how parishes are structured for mission, the archbishop said.
Between now and Advent, appointed teams of clergy and lay leaders will discuss different options for the leadership of parish families.
At Advent, the groups of parishes that will form each family will be announced, and the first wave of parish families will begin operating by July 2021. The archbishop also announced the creation of a new website, familiesofparishes.org, where the faithful can learn more about the plans.
Different from the traditional model of merged parishes, each parish in a “family” would retain its own canonical identity, but share a leadership team that may include priests, deacons, pastoral ministers and other parish staff.
In a merged parish or a parish cluster, one priest might be responsible for multiple communities, which can contribute to clergy burnout and isolation, while in a parish family, multiple priests and deacons would work in tandem to administer and serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of the faithful in each of the parishes in the family.
“Experience in our diocese and other dioceses has shown that (the merged or clustered parish) model is quite hard on the priests and ultimately leaves the parishioners feeling as if they do not have the support that they want and need from clergy,” according to an FAQ document accompanying Archbishop Vigneron’s announcement.
Given the shrinking number of available priests — as of 2018, the average age of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s 382 diocesan priests was 63.6 — the coronavirus crisis threatens to worsen the problem, especially if older priests who are more at risk of infection become ill or opt to retire early out of health concerns.
The archdiocese will not ask any parish to merge or close churches as a result of the Advent announcement, but “after a careful and honest review of existing resources,” the resulting parish families “may opt to close worship spaces or merge with partnering parishes.”
The transition to families of parishes is “not a change in our aims,” Archbishop Vigneron said, but a change in strategy.
Michael Stechschulte is editor-in-chief of Detroit Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit
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