Mergers give rise to ‘million-dollar parishes’

A million-dollars isn’t what it used to be.

Throughout the past decade, a growing number of Catholic parishes have learned that lesson for themselves, as they’ve joined the ranks of “million-dollar parishes” — parishes whose annual revenues exceed $1 million.

According to a recent report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, approximately 28 percent of Catholic parishes now qualify as million-dollar parishes, while 1 in 10 boast of offertory collections that pass the $1 million mark every year.

Some of those parishes are in the South and Southwest, where dioceses have responded to rapidly growing Catholic populations by building large regional parishes. Increasingly, however, million-dollar parishes can be found in the Midwest and Northeast as well, with widespread parish closings resulting in “super-sized” parishes, where multiple closing parishes merged into one.

Coming in, going out

At first glance, the growth of million-dollar parishes, especially in areas where older parishes have struggled to remain open, can seem like a good thing, even an argument for parish mergers. But as Mark Gray, a senior research associate for CARA, explained, the bottom line is a bit more complicated than it initially seems.

“Million-dollar parishes don’t just have million-dollar revenues,” he said. “They also have million-dollar budgets.”

According to Gray, CARA found that while parish mergers might lead to larger revenues, they also lead to more people in the pews. That, in turn, requires more Masses every weekend, more lay staff to serve the increased population and a large parish campus to maintain. With rising expenses usually surpassing rising revenues, million-dollar parishes rarely have cash surpluses, many are in debt and most pay their employees no more than other parishes in their dioceses.

In fact, Gray said, mergers sometimes come with financial disadvantages, as giving occasionally drops in newly merged parishes, even ones who, on paper, qualify as million-dollar parishes. In those cases, while the annual revenue may exceed $1 million, it doesn’t exceed the combined total of the various parishes’ revenue before the merger.

The reason for that, Gray explained, is three-fold.

First, parish closings and mergers leave some parishioners angry or hurt. Second, as parishes grow, it becomes easier for people to “get lost” in the parish and feel less connected. Lastly, with more people to support parish endeavors, some feel less of an obligation to do so themselves.

“The perception in smaller parishes is, ‘What I give really matters,’” Gray said. “Where in bigger parishes it’s, ‘There are so many other people giving, my parish will be fine even if I can’t give this week.’”

Challenges of merging

To an extent, the experience of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in New Prague, Minnesota, bears out CARA’s findings.

Four years ago, five parishes in the New Prague area merged. Two church campuses closed, and three remained open, with one pastor, one associate pastor and one administrative office serving all three. Some parishioners, upset by the closings, left. Most stayed, and the parish’s annual revenue, including revenue from its school, now tops $2 million. But it has come at a cost.

Father John Betters gives an outdoor homily in front of the parish school at Sts. Robert and William in Euclid, Ohio. Courtesy photo

According to Peter Guzulaitis, the parish business administrator, over the past four years, St. Wenceslaus has experienced all the normal problems that usually follow mergers. Some parishioners still struggle with the loss of their former parish; others struggle with change.

The parish also has the added expense of maintaining three separate church buildings, each more than a century old, and paying additional lay staff to do the work once done by individual pastors.

“That’s been particularly challenging,” Guzulaitis said, “as some parishioners don’t understand why they have to pay lay people. They were used to the pastors doing all the work.”

Despite those challenges, Guzulaitis said the merger has trimmed some costs, making one super-sized parish somewhat more cost effective than five separate parishes. They’ve also managed to keep parish giving steady, partly by promising to keep the two smaller rural churches in the parish cluster open for as long as parishioners give enough to remain financially viable.

As Guzulaitis sees it, however, those small financial advantages pale in comparison to the real gift of the merger.

“It’s helped our community recognize that the Catholic Church is more than just our parishes,” he said. “We can’t just remain in our own ethnically-based churches. We have to work together to make this work.”

Stronger community

Another recently formed “million-dollar parish” — Sts. Robert and William Catholic Church in Euclid, Ohio — has learned a similar lesson. Sts. Robert and William formed four years ago, when two parishes merged into one. Today, it serves 1,700 families and while revenues rose in the wake of the merger, so did expenses.

According to the parish’s pastor, Father John Betters, in order to meet the large parish’s pastoral and administrative needs, Sts. Robert and William now employs eight full-time parish staff members, plus two-part time staff members, in addition to school employees and maintenance workers. They also have the sizable expense of caring for the aging parish buildings, which for too long, he said, “were treated with bandages when what they really needed was surgery.”

At Sts. Robert and William, however, the merger did bring some marked advantages. To start with, it made it possible for some employees’ pay to rise, with the parish’s teachers’ salaries finally coming up to par with the diocesan pay scale. Moreover, parish giving rose rather than fell in the wake of the merger, and the sense of community got stronger instead of weaker.

The reason for that, however, had little to do with the parish’s new designation as a million-dollar parish. Rather, when Father Betters arrived in 2010 to take the reins of the newly merged parish, he worked hard to help parishioners see the merger as what he calls “an opportunity for revitalization.”

After giving parishioners time to mourn the loss of their old parish, Father Betters launched a massive expansion of the parish’s ministries and apostolates; it now boasts more than 60 different offerings, including a parish nurse, community meal program and perpetual adoration. He also launched an active evangelization campaign: training people in the pews to evangelize; going out into the increasing African-American community and inviting people to parish events; setting up an information desk to help orient visitors to the parish; and even placing a guest book in the church’s narthex, then sending notes to every person who signed the book.

As people became more involved and connected to the parish, contributions rose by 30 to 40 percent when compared to contributions before the merger. That, more than the mere fact of the merger, made possible the new hires and expanded parish offerings.

Father Betters believes that if priests and parishes facing similar mergers want to make the most of becoming a million-dollar parish, they need to remember that the important piece of that phrase is “parish”— not “million-dollar.”

“What we’ve done wouldn’t have been possible without the merger,” he concluded. “But the greatest asset that merger gave us was the people, not the money.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.