Churches to join together as ‘families,’ archdiocese says

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published June 9, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — Over the next two years, all 218 parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit will unite into Families of Parishes, according to Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

The Families of Parishes are described as groups of three to six communities that will work together in a model that will allow multiple priests, deacons and lay staff to more effectively share their gifts and resources while still maintaining unique parish identities.

The new organization is not about merging or closing parishes, the archdiocese maintains.

“This is not an announcement about clustering, merging or closing parishes,” Deacon Mike Houghton, director of missionary strategic planning in the Archdiocese of Detroit, stated in a press release. “We know from experiences in our own archdiocese and in others that these paths don’t typically benefit the priests or the faithful, and more importantly, they don’t solve the issues we are trying to address.”

According to Holly Fournier, associate director of communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit, Synod 16 showed the archdiocese that it needed a complete renewal of the structures of parishes to make them “radically mission-oriented” places.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, presented some challenges that the AOD could not ignore: a priest shortage and financial strains.

Fournier said that the AOD recognizes that it is possible that a number of priests, because they are at an age that puts them at-risk for COVID-19, may decide to retire early to protect their health or may become sick from the virus.

“The Families of Parishes model addresses the priest shortage by providing better support to the priests working together,” especially in cases where parishes have merged or consolidated, she explained in an email interview.

Instead of having to manage two or three parish councils, finance councils and religious education programs in a cluster of parishes, dioceses that have implemented models similar to the Families of Parishes model have their priests more able to engage in the “missionary and evangelization efforts of their ministry.”

Parishes will remain distinct entities within the family, unless the Family of Parishes decides for itself that its needs would be better met by merging. Fournier stressed that “this will not be a top-down decision from the Archdiocese.” Whether nonclerical parish staff will be merged or will serve multiple parishes will also be up to the individual Family of Parishes.

The group of parishes will share resources such as priests and deacons in a way that reflects the best interest of the parishes in the family, she added.

The archdiocese temporarily suspended public Masses to protect the health and well-being of everyone in the community during the pandemic, but that did exacerbate some financial struggles, Fournier said.

“While this was a necessary and prudent decision, it did contribute to a significant decline in offertories which support all the ministries in our parishes and wider Archdiocese,” she said. “Now that masses have resumed, the limit of only using 25% of building capacity ... will likely continue to have an impact on our offertories.”

That means fewer resources for the churches and their missions, she explained.

The archdiocese believes that moving to the Families of Parishes model will allow for more collaboration and stewardship of resources.

“Like the disciples, we have been asked to unite and go on mission together, enhancing each other’s strengths and working collaboratively to unleash the Gospel around us,” Vigneron said in a press release.

The archdiocese looked to models in several other dioceses, including the Diocese of London, Ontario, for guidance as to how to make the move, but the specifics of how the AOD will proceed remains undecided. The Diocese of London is a much smaller, rural community than the Archdiocese of Detroit; that is why the AOD is taking time to “develop this concept into a model that serves the best interests of everyone in our own communities,” Fournier said.

A phase of “discernment and planning” will take place from Pentecost, which occurred May 31, through Advent of 2020, involving priests and church members who are committed to developing structures to serve the needs of the parishes. The AOD plans to announce the parish family groupings during Advent and will then have two waves of implementation of the model: the first beginning preparation in January and launching in July 2021, and the second beginning preparation in January 2022 and launching in July 2022. It is anticipated that there will be between 60 and 80 families of parishes created through the process.

It is important to the AOD to involve the communities of clergy and parish members “early and often in the actual process of developing this plan to fit our diocese,” Fournier said.

“Without (participation) and buy-in from our communities, this plan will not work.”

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