Facing the Challenges of Multiple-Parish Ministry

Some 15 years ago, a devoted, hardworking priest — my cousin whom I had known all my life — just had celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination. His health was good, and his enthusiasm for ministry never had wavered; but age was slowing him down a bit, and he decided to ask the bishop if he might have just one parish instead of the two he had been pastoring for more than 10 years. The drive of 30 miles between parishes during western Minnesota snowstorms was difficult.

The bishop thanked him for his faithful ministry through the years and, as the conversation was ending, said to Father Paul: “You’ve handled the parishes so well; I want to add St. Wenceslaus to your duties; it’s small, and I’m sure you can manage. If you miss a Sunday once on a while, the parishioners can substitute a Communion service. Thank you so much for accepting this assignment.” And so the conversation ended. Father Paul told me he would never visit the bishop again for fear there might be a fourth parish waiting for him just next door. He served those three parishes for five more years until, at the age of 80, he simply could not continue.

Since then, many priests have been living the reality described above. Dioceses report on a regular basis the realignment of parishes by joining two or more independent parishes. In some dioceses, parishes simply are being closed. Generally, these events are recorded and then seemingly forgotten, except by the pastor whose duties doubled or tripled, by the staff whose roles were expanded or positions terminated, and by parishioners who find themselves without their own pastor (and sometimes without their former parish).

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Priests overseeing multiple parishes in rural areas can drive hundreds of miles per week. Lightstock

This situation is confirmed by comparing data from all U.S. Latin-rite dioceses in 2005 and 2006 with data from a sample of dioceses in 2016 to 2017, which revealed that the proportion of parishes being served by a pastor with multiple parishes rose from 44 percent to more than 55 percent. In the latter sample of more than 50 dioceses, only one declined in the proportion of parishes with a pastor serving more than one parish, and in that case the total number of priests from other countries ministering in the diocese increased considerably.

The many pastors of multiple parishes who served long-term have gained valuable insights from their experience and have much to offer those new to the situation. Since my initial research, which included survey responses from 911 priests and interviews with 70 more, I have continued to add to the original information by presenting seminars or workshops in two dozen dioceses, including to faculty and students in 15 seminaries and to numerous parishes and organizations. Responses from both research and presentations contribute to the updated reflections that follow.

Multiple-Parish Ministry: Snapshot No. 1
Like more than half the priests in his diocese, Father James was approaching the age of 65 and was ordained almost 40 years. Nonetheless, he was ministering to three parishes — his third assignment to a cluster of parishes.

Adapting to Changing Needs

The basic facts about how much Church and parish life have changed in the past 50, 25 and even 10 years escapes almost no one who is an active Catholic. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, priests, parish staffs and parishioners have adapted not only to personnel changes and parish reconfigurations, but also to new liturgical directives and parish commitments. For the most part they have opened their hearts and their doors to members with diverse cultural backgrounds who hold a mixture of religious preferences and come from all generational groups with varied educational and economic backgrounds. Besides these differences, the numbers of those who minister have fluctuated considerably: religious and diocesan priests, religious sisters and brothers all have decline; permanent deacons and lay ecclesial ministers are continuing an upturn. Priests ministering to several parishes must adapt to these parishioners while accommodating differences in several parishes at the same time.

Changing Circumstances

A fundamental consideration about ministry in general and the role of priests in particular is the decline in the number of parishes by 2,106 from 1965 to 2017 and the increase in the Catholic population from 45.6 million in 1965 to 71.2 million in 2017. During the same years, the numbers of those ministering has sharply declined.

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Taking into account all of the data — the loss of more than 100,000 people in ministry and the increase in the number of Catholics by 25.6 million — the effect on how ministry is provided is extensive. Among other effects, it means that parishes are much larger, few have associate pastors, and an expanding number of priests are staffing more than one parish. Moreover, of great consequence is the uneven distribution of priests. Rural dioceses especially have been hit hard, but the shortage now has spread to urban dioceses as well. Ten years ago the upper and central Midwest and Northwest were most affected by having too few priests for the number of parishes, but the pattern has shifted to some degree in almost every diocese. With the exception of the majority of large archdioceses and a few others in large urban areas, almost every diocese is affected by having fewer priests. Many of the once priest-rich dioceses are now experiencing the same decline that others have lived through for decades.

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Ministry is not the same for pastors, and accessibility to services is less convenient for parishioners in this new reality. The immediate requirement for priests assigned to two or more parishes is to assemble and consult with current staff and parishioners to help guide the dynamics of altered relationships. It may mean incorporating lay ecclesial ministers more fully in the planning of activities to ensure equity among parishes. Sharing staff positions such as faith-formation directors, liturgists, musicians and maintenance personnel will require significant adjustments in parishes used to having their own staff. Also, given the availability of more deacons in many dioceses, it may be possible to assign them to responsibilities in more distant parishes to substitute for priests who cannot be available. The nature of the team needed in each situation varies, but collaboration is always necessary in light of changed circumstances.

What Priests Need

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In order to explore the effects on priests who are being assigned to pastor two or more parishes, as well as the impact on parishioners in those situations, I draw information from interviews and parish visits of more than 10 years. Through the years, in my experience, priests have found the following aspects of ministry the most rewarding: the faith, cooperation and appreciation of parishioners in less-than-perfect parish circumstances; the ministry itself with the variety and fulfillment it brings; and, for many, the setting in less-stressful rural environments. Pastors have discerned that certain characteristics are necessary if they are to provide ministry that is satisfying to parishioners and to themselves in these settings.

Above all, they realize how important their presence is in each parish and mission, regardless of size. “Being there” is but one of the problems they find difficult to overcome, and some others are intractable. Following are observations about characteristics they consider indispensable for effective ministry as well as some of the problems pastors face in providing services in several parishes.

Important Virtues and Qualities

Those who have served as pastors for many years — or even those who only have served for a few — realize the all-encompassing characteristics they are expected to possess. An almost endless stream of sources describes these qualities and virtues, but perhaps above all the most important is humbly acknowledging that their capacities are finite. In response to my research questions, priests identified what they thought was essential. Obviously not all agreed on every aspect, but listed here are the answers given by them in order of frequency. As leaders, they are able to thrive if they are:

1. Spiritual, prayerful and accountable.

2. Prudent, compassionate, loving.

3. Enthusiastic for ministry, diligent.

4. Forgiving, reconciling.

5. Flexible, collaborative.

Noteworthy about the list is the great diversity of gifts the pastors thought others expected of them and that they themselves felt they needed in order to minister successfully. Perhaps unexpectedly, many of those who were newer in their positions commented on the fact that being prayerful was insufficient if they were not accountable. Becoming pastors for the first time and not long after being ordained, often they had imagined that holiness would compensate for other inadequacies. While prayerfulness was indispensable, being responsible also was regarded highly.

Regardless of age or experience, pastors noted how dissimilar the aspects of personality were. At the same time, they were supposed to have a reflective, spiritual, compassionate side and an extroverted, managerial, executive side. The contrasting qualities usually are not found in equal measure in most people. Yet, in the often small parishes, the priest is responsible for many activities and cannot hire someone to make up for his every shortcoming.

Besides the characteristics most often mentioned in my research, other sources augment the list by identifying requisite skills for effective leadership: transparency and openness; ability to handle conflict and stress; build community and support personnel; and deal with fiscal and time management, among others. The only reasonable response to these demands, most pastors believe, is to assess each situation as fully as possible and, with the assistance of prayer and wise consultants, set priorities.

As they learned to direct their energies, several themes emerged as to what they found most important in giving life to their parishes, first and foremost being to provide quality ministry related to liturgy and prayer. Appropriate ministry required them to know their parishioners, their pastoral needs and their personal circumstances. Positive personal qualities, including a collaborative leadership style, were believed to be helpful in making up for the limitations and weaknesses that inevitably surfaced.

Multiple-Parish Ministry: Snapshot No. 2
Prior to his current assignment of pastoring three rural parishes, Father Andrew’s background and experiences had not included rural life. He asked for advice from a few of the other pastors who already had the experience, and he found their assistance invaluable, but no formal orientation program was offered by the diocese for priests entering this ministry.

Problems and Concerns

Beyond the control of pastors are certain aspects of multiple parish ministry that are difficult to overcome and others that simply are intractable. Especially in rural areas where more parishes are being added to the ministry of each priest, distances among parishes increase, with one-fourth of them driving more than 1,000 miles per month. Although careful planning possibly can limit the number of trips, the location of parishes is permanent and, without closing parishes, little can be done in dioceses with a small portion of Catholics who are spread over sparsely settled areas.

Other difficulties can be overcome to a degree with the cooperation and understanding of parishioners. Pastors over time have learned to address forthrightly the complications of scheduling and balancing the needs of several diverse parishes. In a number of situations, where a single parish is divided by language and culture, it becomes equivalent to two separate parishes. In order to fulfill extensive responsibilities that come with sharing a pastor, not every service can be delivered.

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Coordinating with different committees and staff members from different parishes can be difficult to juggle for priests overseeing multiple communities. CNS photo/Paul Haring

As the size and viability of parishes decline, the first step is coping with limited resources. When parishioners begin to recognize the diminishment, a new concern arises — namely, managing fears of parish closures that can paralyze a once viable situation. Parishioners’ fear of loss may cause disengagement and, in fact, bring on closures. This difficulty can be alleviated by diocesan pastoral planning that enables parishioners to see a more complete picture of the diocese and to know the status of their parish for at least several years in advance.

The reactions and attitudes of pastors can cause them to thrive or lose heart, depending on how they respond to difficulties, some of which are expected and some are unforeseen. Contact with other pastors in similar situations is essential, both for personal support and receiving sound advice. Making known declining circumstances to diocesan officials also is important, though usually made reluctantly, in part because of not expecting a positive response and because of wanting to be seen as self-reliant. An inventory of self-care was recommended by many pastors, including time set aside for prayer, adequate rest and diet, contact with supportive priests and time for healthy relationships with families and friends. Awareness of resources that offer guidance in their specialized ministry also can be beneficial.

Recommendations Going Forward

Recommendations to maintain and improve future ministry in multiple parishes come from many priests who have served in this ministry for years. Some suggestions already were articulated 10 years ago, but now with greater emphasis. In recent years some new ideas also have emerged and may be adopted after further testing.

A long-standing suggestion is the value of forming teams that incorporate deacons, lay ecclesial ministers and regular volunteers more fully in planning and implementation of pastoral service. Most smaller parishes involved in a cluster cannot afford to hire people to serve only one parish. Coordination among pastors and staffs enable them to assess the needs of each parish and distribute the services and resources equitably. More directly affecting pastors is keeping their focus on ministry that only a priest can provide and being diligent about delegating responsibilities whenever possible. Pastors also recognize the importance of making modifications in their life situations with adequate personal care for their health and well-being. An ongoing recommendation is to insist on support from bishops by asking for at least occasional presence so that they have an awareness of the realities of this specialized ministry.

Resources to Assist Pastors of Multiple Parishes
In the past decade or two across the entire country, those who participate regularly in Catholic parish life are aware of a succession of changes in the structures and administration of their parishes. Many recent publications have addressed these changes in detail, and several of them offer useful counsel for pastors of multiple parishes.

A somewhat newer development that has proven useful in some settings is to form teams that include several priests who live and minister together. They work with many others who fulfill specific responsibilities and, together with the priests, minister to as many as six or more parishes. This team approach works well in densely populated dioceses where distances between and among parishes are more manageable. Even when distances between parishes are greater, dividing the responsibility among several priests lessens the burden of frequent long trips.

With this arrangement, and even if it is not possible, pastors have shared freely with their new counterparts about how to manage time and workload by consolidating activities whenever feasible. This process usually includes combining parish and finance councils, providing services for major feast days at the church able to accommodate the most people and joining together for religious education, youth ministry, parish festivals and other events.

For parishioners who share a priest with other parishes, broader knowledge of this reality should awaken in them ways to ease the burden and appreciate the gifts their pastor brings. For diocesan leaders, it is an opportunity to strengthen a systematic planning process that will allow reasonable transition to this form of ministry for many priests and parishioners. It also should stimulate their efforts to be more responsive to the specific pastoral assistance required in these situations, including better orientation of pastors new to this ministry and continuing education for all, geared specifically to multiple-parish ministry.

For all Catholics, it should cause us to redouble our efforts to pray for vocations to the priesthood and to lay ministry. Together these men and women who are giving their lives in service to multiple parishes will make it possible to maintain a vital Catholic presence in many places where it otherwise would disappear.

SISTER KATARINA SCHUTH, OSF, is the author of “Priestly Ministry in Multiple Parishes” (Liturgical Press, $19.95) and a former faculty member and researcher at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Multiple-Parish Ministry: Snapshot No. 3
Father Phillip represents the less-than-10 percent of priests for whom serving several parishes is not satisfying. After a brief stint as an associate and four years as a pastor, he was moved from his comfortable suburban parish to serve almost the same number of people in two rural parishes. Father Phillip found the rural isolation almost intolerable. He missed the parish administrator and other staff who were at his previous parish and helped with almost everything but presiding at Mass and administering the sacraments. Now he had only two part-timers — a custodian and a bookkeeper/secretary.