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Posted June 24, 2009

When parishes close, there's more
to deal with than just logistics

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service



WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Charles Zech and Robert Miller have some advice for parishes going through what some have characterized as the greatest period of change in the history of the American Catholic Church brought on by the recent closing and merging of hundreds of parishes across the country.

First, they said, it's important to recognize that people who lose their parishes are experiencing a trauma that can be as great as the loss of kin.

Second, Zech and Miller advised that when people come together in a new parish the dynamics that emerge are similar to those that surface when a man and a woman with children from previous marriages get married and face blending two family units into one.

Merging parishes involves not just making sure individuals get along and minimizing the appearance of favoritism, but especially requires integrating the experiences, culture and history of both communities into a new Catholic community, said Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University School of Business in Pennsylvania.

Such tasks rarely have been done well, said Miller, director of the Office of Research and Planning for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He said mergers often are done under deadlines that do not allow people to fully plan for how two or more communities might become one.

Zech and Miller address many of the issues that have surfaced in the 15 years since parish closings and mergers became more commonplace in their 2008 book, "Listening to the People of God: Closing, Rebuilding and Revitalizing Parishes."

They said the model of parish life to which Americans have grown accustomed is changing rapidly. For example, in 2006 fully one-quarter of Catholic parishes were organized in a nontraditional manner, meaning they had no resident pastor.

Further, between 1995 and 2000, Zech and Miller report, 72 percent of dioceses restructured by either clustering or linking parishes, merging two or more parishes, closing parishes or, in areas of massive growth, opening new parishes with large membership rolls.

At some point, every Catholic parish will face changes that can prove to be troublesome, Miller told Catholic News Service.

"The idea is that we need to live our lives in such a way that we expect change," he said. "We are called to change. We are called to transform our hearts. We are called to transform our communities."

Mergers and closings are not new, but have become more commonplace as dioceses seek to "right size" to meet changing demographics, financial realities and the declining number of clergy. In the 1970s it was a shift of rural populations as people left farms and small communities for better opportunities closer to urban centers.

The realities of closings and mergers have shifted today primarily to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest where Catholic populations are dwindling as people with the financial resources abandon central-city life to seek the American dream in the suburbs.

Zech and Miller expect there will be demographic shifts in the future that will lead to more of the same across the country.

No matter the situation, people in large part are attached to their parishes. For many, losing a parish can be a traumatic experience. The closing or merger of a parish can leave people bitter, even alienated.

"Our parish is a family and when our parish is closed we feel like we've lost an important part of our family," Zech said. "We have to treat it that way. Diocesan officials need to treat it as if there's a death in the family."

Miller said he has seen few examples of where the merging of individual Catholic communities has been done well. In most cases, he said, neither community has been prepared for what merging truly involves.

"It seems to me that in the parish mergers going on across the country we're spending an awful lot of time on Good Friday but we're not getting to Easter Sunday," he said.

Echoing Zech and Miller, Marti Jewell, the outgoing director of Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership, a six-year-old collaborative effort among six national organizations studying the changing structure of parishes, said the massive changes the church is undergoing today can be traumatic and lead to anger, confusion and grief.

"(It's) the grief that comes from change, whether you embrace it or not," she said. "We can't be afraid of the grief and we need to recognize that the anger we are feeling is a product of grief.

"Until we address the grief we can't move on. We have to become ministers of grief, agents of change in that way, and care for that," she said.

To help overcome the feeling of loss, Jewell suggests that parishioners must be engaged so they feel they have a voice in whatever new parish structure evolves out of the old.

Throughout his studies of parish restructuring, Miller said he has seen time and again that even a parish that absorbs a smaller community eventually will undergo significant changes of its own, just not as quickly. Roles are going to change, relationships with the newcomers will be awkward and certain routines will be disrupted, he said.

"If people are not prepared for that, then they're wondering why they're so uncomfortable," he explained. "We try to get them to recognize (parish life) is going to change for them too."

Miller suggested that mergers need time to develop and that they cannot be thrust onto parish communities in a matter of weeks. He proposed that there be at least a year for communities to prepare for the transition and then as many as five years afterward before communities are fully integrated.

"We need to put a lot of energy into the building up and not building down (of parish life)," he said. "It's the creation of a new parish."