Historic change keeps eye toward future as local Church responds to ‘new reality’ brought on by health and economic crises

DETROIT — 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 H. Vigneron announced May 31, the solemnity of Pentecost.

A “very important step in the life and mission of our local Church,” the move will allow parishes to more robustly serve their mission while proactively responding to historic challenges that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the archbishop said.

Tune in to Archbishop Vigneron’s Pentecost Mass at 9 a.m. Sunday, May 31

“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 parish communities 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 would be assigned to care for a group of three to six parishes, alleviating some administrative burdens and allowing parishes to more closely share human and material resources and talents.

“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.

From Synod 16 to families of parishes

In a pre-recorded video message before his livestream Mass from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Archbishop Vigneron reflected upon the “missionary journey” of the archdiocese, beginning in 2014 with a Year of Prayer and followed by the historic 2016 synod, which resulted in the publication of his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, on the eve of Pentecost three years ago.

Jaire Cook is all smiles after being baptized by Archbishop Vigneron during last year’s Easter vigil at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Since then, the archbishop has given an informal “state of the Church” address each year at Pentecost, sharing new insight and direction into the local Church’s progress.

Last year, the archdiocese embarked on a plan to renew its parishes and schools through an initiative called “Sent on Mission,” an effort to align all resources to better serve the mission of evangelization.

That effort “continues to be our mission today, even now in the midst of a historic pandemic,” Archbishop Vigneron 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.

“We are not the same diocese we were six years ago when we began this journey. God has been at work in us, in our communities, in our parishes, and in our schools. We have learned to be more docile to the Holy Spirit. We have learned to walk with apostolic boldness and confidence in God,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “We are committed to working in a spirit of innovation and collaboration. And most importantly, we have resolved to place Christ and his mission above all else.”

Between now and Advent, appointed teams of clergy and lay leaders will pray, discern and discuss different options for leadership and governance models for parish families, some of which have been successfully modeled by other dioceses, including neighboring London, Ont.

Under the “families of parishes” model, multiple priests and deacons will serve groups of three to six parishes, allowing clergy to more fully exercise their gifts and uniting families across multiple parishes. (Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

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.

What is a ‘family of parishes’?

At their core, parish families will be groups of parishes — generally three to six — that share human and material resources in a spirit of collaboration.

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 a frequently asked questions document accompanying Archbishop Vigneron’s announcement.

Unlike in a merged parish or parish cluster, where one priest might serve several communities, the “family of parishes” structure eases the burden on pastors, especially as the average age of local priests is at least 63. (Valuarian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

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.

Even if the number of available priests and the number of parishes remain the same, having multiple priests share responsibility for each parish in the “family” allows clergy to lean on one another to a greater extent, exercise their unique ministerial gifts more effectively, and creates closer fraternal bonds between both clergy and the parishes they serve.

When the changes will take place

A phase of discernment and planning will take place starting now until Advent 2020, the archbishop said, during which time episcopal advisers from the presbyteral council, assignment board, regional vicars and auxiliary bishops will develop a list of 60-80 proposed parish families to present to Archbishop Vigneron for his consideration.

In addition to these recommendations, three teams comprising clergy and laity will pray, discern and develop recommendations for the specific models and structures that will govern the creation of parish families.

One team, focused on governance and leadership and led by Fr. Tim Birney, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, will focus on questions related to the priest assignment process, parish pastoral and finance councils, leadership teams and finance officers.

The groupings of parishes to serve together in “families” will be announced during Advent, with the first wave of parishes beginning to operate together by July 2021. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

A second, “mission direct” team, led by Msgr. Charles Kosanke, pastor of Ste. Anne and Most Holy Trinity parishes in Detroit, will discuss ways for families of parishes to minister directly to the faithful, including religious education, music ministry, youth ministry and the possibility of newly created staff positions.

The third team, focused on “mission support” and led by Fr. Ed Zaorski, pastor of St. James Parish in Novi, will focus on questions related to parish administration, including human resources, IT, finance and facility maintenance.

The three teams’ recommendations are expected to be presented to Archbishop Vigneron by Advent, when the archbishop expects to release the final plans.

How changes will affect parishes

Once the plans are made public, there will likely be two implementation phases, with approximately half of the archdiocese’s parishes beginning to operate as parish families by July 2021, and the other half by July 2022, with six months of preparation before each wave.

“During the preparation phase, each family of parishes will begin to discuss the practical ways in which the clergy, staff and parishes in the family will interact within the family, as well as finalize the new leadership structure, including items such as leadership teams, key staff mission, and operations staff positions,” according to the FAQ document.

Each parish family would also use the time to consider changes to Mass and confession schedules to better accommodate the needs of parishioners in each parish.

The new model for parish governance won’t distract from the local Church’s missionary efforts, Archbishop Vigneron said. Instead, it will offer new opportunities for collaboration as the Church seeks to make disciples. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

“This process will be rooted in prayer, will be respectful of building and maintaining relationships, and will be marked by quick and honest responses to questions and concerns that are raised,” the FAQ states.

The archdiocese will not ask any parish to merge or close worship sites 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.”

“These decisions will be left to the discernment of that family, with assistance from the Archdiocese of Detroit, guided by a complete focus on mission and the best interest of the entire community,” the document states.

The Spirit still leads

In his homily May 31 during the Pentecost Mass at the cathedral, Archbishop Vigneron acknowledged that “what God is asking of us is not easy.”

But, he said, “we have received the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who drives us and is our driving force on mission. He will not abandon us or leave us orphans. And so, today we must pray about this great work.”

Archbishop Vigneron recalled that adjustments have always been part of the life of the Church since the days of St. Paul, who was shipwrecked in Malta while on his way to Rome.

“But that shipwreck became, because Paul could adjust, an opportunity to evangelize a people that to this day remain firm and steadfast in professing the Gospel,” the archbishop said. 

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron addresses the faithful via livestream during his Pentecost Mass from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on May 31. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“Between Pentecost 2019 and today, we’ve had the pandemic, which has disrupted all of our lives,” he said. “And it’s disrupted the path on which we set out last year. The pandemic has accelerated changes that now require all of us to adjust. But these changes mean this Pentecost offers new graces and new opportunities.”

Archbishop Vigneron insisted that the transition to families of parishes is “not a change in our aims” but a change in strategy.

“Families of parishes is our way to live the call of the Spirit we heard at Synod 16, which called for a complete renewal of structures to make them radically mission-oriented and Spirit-filled,” he said. 

“Above all, let us pray for love,” he said. “Because without love, every effort to be on mission is nothing more than sounding brass or a tinkling bell. Love is the motive for our mission and the message we carry in our mission: that love has triumphed over death in the rising of Jesus Christ and that Jesus offers this triumphant love to us so that we can be with him forever.”

Learn more

For more information about the Archdiocese of Detroit’s transition to “families of parishes,” visit familiesofparishes.org