As Archdiocese of Detroit charts new course through historic times, a small group of disciples has been at the forefront of the Church’s mission

DETROIT — When Deacon Steven J. Morello signed up to be a “missionary” with the Archdiocese of Detroit in March, he didn’t know what the job might entail.

After three decades as an ordained deacon, he had done “pretty much everything you’d expect a deacon to do” and was ready for a new challenge in his ministry.

At the time, the archdiocese was in the middle of developing missionary strategic plans — parish-based blueprints for evangelization based on Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s Unleash the Gospel pastoral letter —and was looking for clergy and laity who could offer their expertise in helping parishes navigate the new direction.

“So I did something that I learned in the Army you’re never supposed to do: I threw my hand up, and they picked me,” said Deacon Morello, a former U.S. Army lawyer who now serves at St. John XXIII Parish in Redford.

That was the first week of March. Then the second week hit.

Along with 15 other “missionaries” whose job descriptions changed virtually overnight, Deacon Morello suddenly found himself on the front lines of the archdiocese’s response to a historic pandemic.

The small group of disciples — which included both clergy and laity — had begun six weeks of training for their roles at St. Scholastica Parish in Detroit, which included daily Mass, spiritual direction and practical education.

Deacon Michael Houghton, director of missionary strategic planning for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is leading a team of “missionaries” charged with supporting the Church’s missionary transformation, from strategic plans to “families of parishes.” (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

The training quickly moved online, but after two weeks, “it became quite evident that we were not going to be working with parishes on MSPs any time soon,” said Deacon Michael Houghton, director of missionary strategic planning (MSP) for the archdiocese, “and so we had to reconsider what to do next.”

With the pandemic unfolding in southeast Michigan, several clear needs emerged. First, with Masses suspended, priests needed a singular point of contact with the archdiocese to navigate the unprecedented challenges to parish life. Second, parishioners struggling with economic and emotional burdens needed material and spiritual support. And third, everyone needed prayers.

So the newly formed missionaries went to work.

One of the first methods of outreach was the development of a program called Spiritual Outreach and Support — S.O.S. — an 800 number those in need could call to talk to someone.

Joe Schmidt, a missionary from St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, said it was a spiritually rewarding experience.  

“We would reach out to parishioners who had called in and just wanted to talk to somebody. They were lonely, usually elderly, and they didn’t have their parish family,” Schmidt said. “They just wanted someone to talk to, and they found it reassuring.”

The missionaries also offered resources, guidance and support to pastors, as well as to parish intercessory prayer teams — a critical task in a time of great spiritual need.

A volunteer fills bags of groceries at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan's food distribution center in Dearborn in the spring. During the height of the pandemic, the missionaries’ jobs included reaching out to lonely parishioners through the newly established “Spiritual Outreach and Support (S.O.S.)” program. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Soon, however, even the initial needs of the pandemic began to wane, and “another time of difficult discussions began regarding what we should do next,” Deacon Houghton said.

It was about that time that Archbishop Vigneron decided the archdiocese would transition to “families of parishes,” a new model of parish governance.

Precipitated both by a decade-long decline in the number of available priests and the economic realities exacerbated by the pandemic, the “families of parishes” model would join groupings of three to six parishes together, led by a group of priests and deacons whose administrative burdens would be lessened to allow them to focus more exclusively on ministry — rather than the day-to-day operations of running multiple parishes.

While the idea was sound, the details still needed to be worked out. 

“Much research had already been done on the concept of ‘families of parishes’ (FOPs), and from that research and from further contact with other dioceses who had gone through similar transitions, it became clear that quite a bit of work needed to be done to make our FOP efforts successful,” Deacon Houghton said.

With an eye toward announcing the new families by Advent, the archbishop organized three leadership teams to discern questions focused on governance, “mission support” or administrative realities, and “mission direct” or questions having a direct bearing on parishes’ outward-facing ministries.

The leadership teams — comprised of both clergy and laity — would study and report their findings to the archbishop by Advent, but even they needed help with such a monumental task.

Catholics pray at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica as an “Unleash the Gospel” banner is displayed above the sanctuary. At Advent, the archdiocese will begin to announce the first groupings of “families of parishes,” groupings of three to six parishes aligned for mission. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

To assist the leadership teams in their work, nine additional work teams were identified to focus on the more granular details, from surveying families to supporting priests and deacons to educating the lay faithful.

“We needed to develop training for clergy and for laity. We needed to develop means of supporting our priests as they make the transition. We needed to make certain that all FOP efforts were covered in prayer. And much more,” Deacon Houghton said. “Other dioceses told us that they had either formed similar work teams, or that in hindsight they wished that they had done so to make their transition run more smoothly.

“But how should we populate these teams? Most diocese brought on a combination of expensive consultants and full-time employees for the task. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, we chose to populate these teams with our missionaries,” he added.

Besides being disciples with a heart for mission, the already-trained missionaries brought a wealth of practical expertise, Deacon Houghton said.

“We have three who speak Spanish and one who speaks Aramaic and Arabic. We have former business owners, consultants, lawyers, HR professionals, psychologists, even a general counsel for the U.S. Army. We have deacons, former youth ministers, Christian service coordinators, worship coordinators, and a myriad of other parish roles,” Deacon Houghton said.

The “missionaries” tour the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament with cathedral rector Fr. J.J. Mech in the spring. (Courtesy of Deacon Michael Houghton)

While the missionaries’ original focus, developing parish-based strategic plans, will still be part of the “families of parishes” structure, the more immediate need is figuring out what those families will look like. 

Schmidt, who runs his own consulting company, has helped the “mission support” team discern areas such as finance, building maintenance and goal setting, while Deacon Morello has assisted in deacon formation and best practices.

“I’m used to positions and needs evolving throughout my career, so I took (the changes) all in stride,” Schmidt said. “It was unbelievable the amount of skill that (the missionaries) have. It made me believe that the Holy Spirit gathered us together to fulfill a mission.”

While the concept behind families of parishes is new to some, Deacon Morello sees the wisdom in the new direction. 

“I look at families of parishes as powerhouses of prayer,” Deacon Morello said. “A family of parishes is a grouping of parishes with one thing in mind: encountering the Lord Jesus Christ and leading others to the Lord. Families (of parishes) allow us to concentrate all of our resources together and use them in the most efficient way possible. It’s like we’re supercharging our parishes, and I think we’re going to be that much more effective.”

When the family groupings are announced at Advent, parishes will begin learning how to collaborate, but Deacon Morello said one group will benefit almost immediately.

“So many of our priests will tell you that they were ordained to minister, but it seems like all they do is worry about the asphalt and the potholes in the parking lot, or the leaks in the roof,” Deacon Morello added. “In a family of parishes, the administrative burden falls only on the lead pastor, and the other priests and deacons are free to minister how they always prayed they could.”

As parishioners learn more about the plans in the coming months, Schmidt said families of parishes will help not only clergy, but laity to unlock their potential as missionaries with an outward focus on Christ.

“We have a tendency to become isolated, islands unto ourselves,” Schmidt said. “We were excited about the families of parishes process because it made sense to us. It makes sense that families of parishes will give parishes the means to put their best foot forward for their parishioners.”

Families of Parishes

To learn more about the Archdiocese of Detroit's transition to “families of parishes,” visit familiesofparishes.org