The Church has always undergone structural changes, but the mission of sharing Jesus with the world can never change, priests say

DETROIT — This weekend, on the feast of Christ the King, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron is expected to release his vision for the Archdiocese of Detroit’s transition to a new governance model, known as “families of parishes.”

It will be the most significant change to parish structures in the archdiocese since the 1960s, when Synod 69 ushered in a host of changes, from vicariates to parish councils.

Yet despite the new approach, the priests charged with leading discernment efforts say once the plans are made final, each new “family” will have lots of flexibility to implement the changes in a realistic, practical way that makes sense for each community.

“‘Flexibility’ is the right word. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all because of the diversity of the archdiocese,” Fr. Tim Birney, chairman of the ad hoc governance and leadership committee, told Detroit Catholic.

Fr. Birney, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, led an eight-member committee of priests — each with a diversity of pastoral experience — in devising recommendations to the archbishop regarding how families of parishes will be structured in the archdiocese.

The committee also included Fr. Mario Amore (pastor of St. Aloysius, Detroit), Fr. Dave Buersmeyer (pastor of St. Regis, Bloomfield Hills), Msgr. Ron Browne (judicial vicar), Fr. Jeffrey Day (moderator of the curia), Fr. Paul Snyder (pastor of St. Mary, Royal Oak), Msgr. Dan Trapp (pastor of St. Augustine & St. Monica, Detroit), and Msgr. John Zenz (pastor of Holy Name, Birmingham).

To help the archbishop discern how “families of parishes” will look, three leadership teams led by local priests were tasked with identifying structures for leadership and governance, “mission direct” and “mission support.” (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Ultimately, the committee discussed two models: a “one pastor” model, in which a single priest — with the help of deacons, lay leaders and assistant priests — would be placed in charge of multiple parishes in a family, and the “in solidum” model, under which multiple pastors would work together as a team, with a single pastor acting as the moderator of the parish family.

While the “one pastor” approach has some precedent in the archdiocese — such as in North Branch, where Fr. Rich Treml is the pastor of four worship sites, Fr. Birney said — the “in solidum” model “is more of a team approach.”

Both models have been presented to the archbishop, Fr. Birney said, and both could end up being utilized in different circumstances.

“Once they’re constituted, it will be up to each family to determine amongst themselves what the best governance model will be for their family,” Fr. Birney said. “A parish family could move from one model to the other model — once you start, it isn’t set in stone.”

‘Mission direct’ and ‘mission support’

Two other leadership committees — the “mission direct” and “mission support” committees — discerned a similar need for flexibility in the way “families of parishes” will operate, said Msgr. Charles Kosanke and Fr. Ed Zaorski, chairmen of the two teams, respectively.

Msgr. Kosanke, who led the “mission direct” committee, explained the difference between the two committees lies in how they impact the parish’s mission in different ways.

“The ‘mission direct’ committee’s focus was on ministries that directly impact the parishioner,” said Msgr. Kosanke, pastor of the Basilica of Ste. Anne and Most Holy Trinity parishes in Detroit. “Mission direct is concerned about the actual pastoral ministry in the parish family, whereas mission support’s role is to support that.”

Youths make cards for homebound seniors during the Mercy in Action Day of Service at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills on Oct. 17. (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

For example, religious education, Christian service or liturgical worship might be considered “mission direct,” while parish finances or administrative roles could be considered “mission support.”

On the “mission direct” committee were Msgr. Kosanke, Fr. Brian Cokonougher (pastor of St. Thecla, Clinton Township), Janet Diaz, Ph.D. (Holy Family, Novi), Fr. Joe Gembala (pastor of St. Malachy, Sterling Heights), Fr. Patrick Gonyeau (administrator of Corpus Christi, Detroit), Sandy O'Shaughnessy (Our Lady of Good Counsel), Fr. Theodore Parker (pastor of St. Charles Lwanga, Detroit), Fr. Steve Pullis (director of evangelization and missionary discipleship) and Edmundo Reyes (director of communications).

Msgr. Kosanke said the “mission direct” team read both Archbishop Vigneron’s Unleash the Gospel and the Vatican’s document related to parish renewal in preparation for its work.

“Our question was, ‘What does an evangelizing parish look like?’” Msgr. Kosanke said. “Because not every parish has the same ministries.”

After prayer and discussion, the committee identified five areas of focus: discipleship formation, evangelization and engagement, ministry to families, evangelical charity or Christian service, and worship. From there, the team identified structures to help each parish family organize ministries in each area, from parish leadership to volunteer coordinators and ministers.

While the committee has presented its recommendations to the archbishop, “what we emphasize is that no one size fits all, and that in the end, every parish and family will have to apply this to what makes sense to their family,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “There’s no cookie-cutter. There’s no mandate that everybody has to be the same. But these are templates that a family team can use to apply to their particular situation.”

Debbie Kennard, office manager at St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township, is pictured in 2019. Parish support staff, including office managers, business managers and administrative assistants, play a vital role in the parish structure, helping support ministries and parish community outreach. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Likewise, Fr. Zaorski said the “mission support” team’s role was to identify ways parishes can effectively utilize their resources to move from “maintenance to mission.”

“Our team focused on providing recommendations to help parishes not only function efficiently in a business model, but how we can support pastors and the parish in truly moving from maintenance to mission,” said Fr. Zaorski, pastor of St. James Parish in Novi. “We’re trying to help folks figure out how to work in a collaborative model, and look at where efficiencies are. In a lot of ways, we’re simply enabling the gifts of the people in the parishes, to give them support.” 

Fr. Zaorski’s “mission support” committee included Fr. John Bettin (administrator of St. Daniel, Clarkston), Fr. Jim Bilot (pastor of St. Paul on the Lake, Grosse Pointe Farms), Fr. Dave Cybulski (pastor of St. Isaac Jogues, St. Clair Shores), Msgr. Mike Hrydziuszko (pastor of St. Andrew, Rochester), Chris Kozlowski (St. Isidore, Macomb), Karen Roosen (Divine Child, Dearborn) and Jeff Wagoner (chief financial officer, Archdiocese of Detroit).

Fr. Zaorski echoed that there isn’t a single approach that will work for every parish, but different parishes will approach collaboration in different ways.

“There’s already a lot of collaborative ministry happening in parishes, and we need to celebrate that,” Fr. Zaorski said. “There will be different ways of addressing things in city parishes, middle suburb parishes, and rural parishes.”

Change happens organically

While Archbishop Vigneron will set the Church on a new course next week, it will take years, if not decades, for “families of parishes” to fully bear fruit, Msgr. Kosanke said.

“This is not a small change. It’s a huge change,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “Any paradigm shift is going to take time. We as human beings, no matter who we are, really don’t like change. And this is really encouraging us to experience change — or in religious language, conversion — in order to be stronger disciples of Jesus.”

The Detroit skyline is seen from the steeples of Sweetest Heart of Mary Church. For decades the Church has seen the need for inter-parish collaboration, which is one of the goals of “families of parishes.” (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Msgr. Kosanke noted that “families of parishes” seek to achieve the same goals originally envisioned by the vicariate structure, which arose from Synod 69, but on a more localized scale.

“The problem the past 50 years has been that vicariates haven’t worked,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “There’s probably many reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that a lot of the vicariates are just too big. With the notion of families of parishes being three to six parishes in the same geographic area, it’s going to encourage greater collaboration.”

Fr. Birney noted that the Church is “always adapting and ever evolving,” adding the Church in Detroit has undergone a significant structural change “every 80 or 90 years.”

“In 1701, we were part of the Diocese of Quebec. In 1789, we were in the Diocese of Baltimore, which encompassed the entire country. In 1821, we morphed into the Diocese of Cincinnati. In 1833, we became the Diocese of Detroit, which was Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. All the way up to the present day,” Fr. Birney said.

Despite the change in structure, the Church has always remained faithful to its core mission of sharing Jesus with the world, Fr. Birney said.

“Even though this feels different to us — it’s not something we’ve been used to — the changing of structures is not a new concept for the diocese. This isn’t changing why we exist. This is changing how we exist,” he said. “There’s still going to be ministry, sacraments, first Communions, confirmations, reconciliations, daily Mass, Sunday Mass, Eucharistic adoration. All of the devotions and beauty and goodness of the Church is still very much alive and well, and it has the opportunity to become even better.”

Volunteers hand out food at St. Peter Parish in Mount Clemens during one of the parish’s weekly outdoor food pantry days. Families of parishes will benefit from the gifts of multiple communities, Fr. Zaorski said. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

People in the pews might not notice many changes right away, Fr. Zaorski said, but one thing he hopes they will notice is that the Church is bigger than any individual parish community.

“One of the positive things I hope people see is that even though each parish has its culture, we are part of a wider Church,” Fr. Zaorski said. “In the early Church, people came together with different gifts and talents, and that’s how the Church flourished.”

Each step toward families of parishes has been — and must continue to be — permeated with prayer, Fr. Zaorski added. Otherwise, the entire project is in vain.

“We can be doing the right things for the wrong reasons,” he said. “If we’re doing the right things to make sure we have an efficient parish and things are going well, it might look successful. But that’s not what we’re about. We are about the work of establishing the kingdom. We are about the work of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus had to pray to the Father for his guidance, that’s got to be primary in our work.

“We have to make sure we’re about God’s work and not our work,” Fr. Zaorski said. “That’s key.”