success stories

Posted July 16, 2004

Study says training, consultation
are keys to reorganizing parishes

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- "If parish reorganization is to be successful, dioceses need to ensure that effective consultation and training occur. Both are essential," says a new national study that was sent to the U.S. bishops and made public in mid-July.

A lack of priests is the most important factor behind reorganization, followed by population shifts, the study said. The most-cited goal or criterion for reorganization was ensuring that each parish is able to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday.

It said an effective reorganization process will engage the affected parishioners and priests as active participants in the process.

The "2003 National Study of Parish Reorganization" was carried out by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in conjunction with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, with funding from the Raskob Foundation.

A follow-up to a smaller study in 1995, the new study was based on a national survey to which 123 dioceses and six eparchies (Eastern-rite dioceses) responded, plus 273 survey responses from pastors or parish directors of reorganized parishes and in-depth interviews with 25 heads of such parishes.

The parish leadership side of the study was described as "the first systematic national investigation of pastors' experiences of parish reorganization."

Of the 123 dioceses that responded, the study said, "72 percent report having done some form of parish reorganization from 1995 through 2000. An additional 8 percent have formally planned for such changes."

It said that 61 percent of the dioceses that made changes in that time reported linking or clustering parishes. Just over half said they had merged parishes or created new parishes. More than 40 percent replaced a pastor with a parish director, and nearly as many replaced a resident pastor with a nonresident pastor.

Commenting on the survey of parish heads, the study said, "Respondents who receive special training are five times as likely to report an increase in their own effectiveness. Those who were consulted in the reorganization process were also significantly more effective afterwards."

The study used "parish director" to refer to nonpriests appointed as pastoral administrators of parishes. Of the parish heads who responded to the survey, 14 percent were deacons, religious or lay ecclesial ministers. Virtually all the unordained parish directors were women.

"Adequate consultation and training are key to well-planned changes and positive parish outcomes, yet many dioceses neglect these essential components," it said.

The study summarized advice dioceses and parish heads offered for others in light of their experiences.

It said the collective comments of diocesan respondents "define a seven-step process: Set goals, provide leadership, prepare, educate, collaborate and consult, move at a deliberate pace, and prepare for emotional difficulty."

It said that "four themes dominated parish leaders' advice":

-- "Plan carefully and well."

-- "Establish effective two-way communication."

-- "Practice leadership and develop it in others."

-- "The pastor is responsible for exercising his leadership in a way that ensures that the spiritual dimension of the change process is not overlooked."

The study said that reorganizing parishes does not generally lessen the parish staff's workload.

"Most (pastor or parish director) respondents report that their time dedicated to administrative responsibilities increased with reorganization," it said. "Half also reported that the willingness of parishioners to volunteer also increased. Combined, these responses indicate an increase in the complexity of parishes and of pastors' duties."

Among difficulties arising from reorganization, the study found that the most common problems pastors and parish directors confronted were "coordination and balance of time between parishes, finding enough lay volunteers and unhappiness of parishioners with changes brought about by reorganization."

"Overall," it added "respondents whose parishes have been linked or share a pastor appear to have significantly more difficulty than average. Parish directors and pastors in new parishes report less difficulty."

"Those who employed appropriate transition rituals and believed they were helpful in dealing with parishioners' grief regarding the change saw themselves as more effective," the study said.

It said that although reorganization often included a reduction in the level of priestly staffing "respondents were twice as likely to indicate an improvement in meeting parish needs, as opposed to a diminishment in meeting needs -- 18 percent to 9 percent. Improvement occurred most often where a parish director was assigned."