Hold or Fold The Baltimore City skyline is changing. In 2014, the first casino will open here for business. With the transformation of the city horizon, the parish skyline also changes. The new casino is within parish boundaries, immediately next to the two stadiums that house Orioles baseball and Ravens football.

Gambling is not new to the Church. We have our share of raffles, wheels of chance and bingo. All this gambling does remind us that life itself is a risk and that most decisions we make bear the risk that it is the wrong decision.

In the 1970s, when Kenny Rogers recorded his hit song The Gambler, the line, “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run” became famous. This saying can be used in most instances of life, not just at the poker table.

Gambling is not new to the Church. It reminds us that life itself is a risk. Shutterstock

People everywhere are trying to reduce their risk level because life itself is a risk. Whenever you speak to your financial advisor or receive recommendations from your advisor, there is always this sort of disclaimer, “Neither ABC Mutual nor any officer or employee of ABC Mutual accepts any liability whatsoever for any direct, indirect or consequential damages or losses arising from any use of this report or its contents.” If each investor knew when to hold, when to fold, we would all be millionaires — or at least the investor would be. It is not easy to know if we should sell now or buy later.

Thirty years ago, the people in my neighborhood could not get out fast enough. It was a modern day exodus as people fled the city. They just packed up and left. Housing values were low, as there were more houses for sale than buyers who wanted them. People sold their houses quickly, just to leave the city behind. So many sold their houses at a loss just to get rid them. They certainly did not want to “hold them,” so they “folded them.” Now those same people who could barely afford to move out could not possibly consider buying back their home. They sold “low” and would be buying “high.” Real estate agents who are big into flipping homes for a profit probably have the proverb “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” as their mission statement. Houses that once sold for under $35,000 in 1980 are now selling for $350,000 and sometimes that is just the empty shell that the buyer guts and remodels.

Rogers’s mantra applies to almost every aspect of our lives. During your spring cleaning, as you look at your favorite “can’t live without” item, which you have not seen for the last 15 springs, do you hold onto it or “fold” by dumping it into the trashcan or sending it to Goodwill? Whether it is at a casino, in the stock market or buying/selling houses or items around the house, it tends to be an either/or, hold/fold, or black/white decision.

Does the song cover all our options? Could we expand the option in some aspects of life to allow another choice? Could it be a black/gray decision or an either/both and decision. If we don’t or can’t hold ’em, and if we are cautious of folding ’em, might we consider instead of folding up totally? Or could we fold into something new? Or maybe we could hold it, but in a different way.

I think of the many aspects of church life. Often we don’t have the option of deciding to hold or fold. Sometimes neither option works, and we have to search for a third option. I think of the many buildings I have in my three parishes. It is not easy just to say fold it when it is in the middle of the property. You have to hold on to it, but maybe hold on in a different way. While holding on to it, maybe it could be folding into something else. Could the building be used for something else? Maybe you don’t have to hold onto it, but someone else does. Holding on to the building can fold into rental income to support the mission of the parish.

I think dioceses are asking the same big question that parishes ask: which parishes do we hold; which parish we do allow to fold? Could the other option work? Instead of folding up shop and closing, maybe the parish could be folded into another parish. Is there a win/win out there now and then? As coins are being tossed to determine which parish stays and which parish goes, maybe both could stay if each parish were willing to look at itself differently. Why “all or nothing” when it could be “some of each”? Maybe each has something that the other needs, and by combining these efforts, somehow the new normal is better than the two old normals. There is an instruction in cooking recipes called “fold into.” When two items are folded together, each maintains some of its character and is still able to be seen and distinguished from the other. But, at the same time, there is a difference to each as it has taken on a character that is not its but now becomes part of them. Often this folding into creates a new entity. It is one of those times when 1 + 1 does not equal 2, but 3; the new entity is more than the sum of the parts.

I have found this true in the parishes that I pastor. No one parish could survive on its own — not one of them could be the hold ’em parish. Folding each of them (i.e., closing each of them) would not be an option. Holding one and folding (closing) the other two would not have been prudent, as some aspects of the ones closing were needed by the one being held (kept). By keeping all three and folding them into one, the best of all came out, and the worst of all was put aside. In cooking it always say fold gently; this advice holds quite true of dealing with parishes and the parishioners who love their parish. Folding personalities — and, like people, parishes have personalities — is a delicate process. If you fold too much, too quickly, folding becomes blending whereby no ingredient is distinct anymore.

Even human resources directors encourage asking the question, “Is there the third option?” when the pastor would prefer to fold an employee instead of holding the employee. Instead of folding (firing) an employee, maybe that person can be folded into a new position to better fit the employee’s ability and the parish’s needs. This is easier said than done and takes much patience and creativity.

Most parishes go through a change of employees for all the normal reasons: retirement, moving away, offered a better position elsewhere. These openings create an opportunity to choose what to do next. Do you hold the position vacated (that is, are you are keeping the position and now need to find someone to fill it)? Or do you fold the position, abolish it for cost-saving purposes. Another option is to fold it into another position, adding to that employee’s duties, or maybe the duties of the vacant position could be divided among more than one employee. Folding the job into another’s might help the parish’s bottom line and assure that the ministry of that position is not lost.

At some point in our lives, we as priests face the question posed in the song in a personal way. As we get closer to retirement we have to ask, “should I hold or fold?” This is a most difficult decision. Retiring is quite a shift in lifestyle. Often the priest’s identity and support system are connected to his ministry site. If access to the ministry site is gone, what is next? How can the new priest retiree fold into the next phase of life? Holding on can be tiring and painful. Discerning when to lay down those cards and not hold on to them is hard. Finding a new way of ministering, folding years of ministry and gifts and wisdom into a new entity would add great richness to the Church. Due to the shortage of priests, many priests feel compelled to hold on at great cost to them and their health. If folding into retirement could be accomplished in a way that allows all the rich experience of those years to be savored, it would be a great blessing to the Church and to the priest.  

Father Carrion is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org