Home Diocesan News Speakers address alternative parish leadership models
Speakers address alternative parish leadership models Print E-mail
Written by Pete Sheehan   
Friday, 22 September 2017 14:43

PITTSBURGH – Youngstown diocesan priests at their biennial convocation here Sept. 7 had an opportunity to learn how, in other dioceses, some parishes have coped without a resident pastor.


“Nobody likes change except a wet baby,” said Father Jim O’Connor, a retired priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, who drew laughter but made a serious point about how his diocese is implementing the approach of appointing a parish leader or pastoral administrator for a parish for which a resident priest is not available.

Father O’Connor, who is sacramental minister for St. Andrew Parish, Sloan, N.Y., said the situation seems to be working well for him and the parishioners. He was one of three panelists from the Buffalo Diocese who shared their experiences and insights.

Also speaking were Deacon David Clabeux, pastoral administrator for St. Andrew, and Sister Lori High, a sister of St. Mary of Namur, who is pastoral administrator for St. George Parish, West Falls, N.Y.

About 60 Youngstown diocesan priests and Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., gathered at the Sheraton Hotel at Station Square here Sept. 5-8 for the convocation.

The three panelists were invited to speak, said Peter Schafer, director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Pastoral Planning and the diocesan Office of Lay Ministry Formation, because they were from one of several dioceses that the Youngstown Diocese consulted in planning its own program of alternative parish leadership.

Earlier this year, Bishop Murry appointed a parish lay leader as well as canonical pastors and sacramental ministers in four parishes that had no resident pastor.

In 1995, as allowed for in the Church’s Code of Canon Law, the late Bishop James W. Malone appointed parish leaders and canonical pastors in two parishes – St. Peter of the Fields, Rootstown, and St. Ann, Sebring. In canon law, the bishop can appoint a professional parish leader or pastoral administrator, who can be a deacon or a lay woman or lay man, under the direction of a canonical pastor, to see to the day-to-day administration. The two, individuals named parish leaders at that time were women religious – the late Notre Dame Sister Regina Zleznik at St. Peter of the Fields, and the late Humility of Mary Sister Maureen Smith at St. Ann.

A canonical pastor, a non-resident priest, is responsible for the pastoral care of the parish. Sacramental ministers are priests who assist the canonical pastor in serving parishioners sacramentally. The canonical pastor assigned to St. Peter of the Fields in 1995 was Father Terrence Hazel; the canonical pastor serving St. Ann was the late Father William Ellis.

About his own appointment, Father O’Connor said, “I wanted to be retired, but retired from administration, not from ministry.” His position as sacramental minister sees him serving at St. Andrew Parish three times a week for daily Mass and on Saturday and Sunday for weekend Masses. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.

“I think it is a blessing for me and a blessing for the parish,” Father O’Connor explained. The people wanted to continue to be a parish rather than be “closed, merged, or linked to another parish.” Still, it is necessary “to be very patient with parishioners.”

He emphasized that collaboration “is essential.” He has to remind himself and parishioners that he is “not in charge anymore. There are people who automatically come to me” about day-to-day matters that are actually the responsibility of the pastoral administrator.

“It has been very interesting,” said Sister Lori, who previously worked in education and parish faith formation, “and it will be interesting to see how it works in different areas.”

At her parish, she works with a priest moderator pastor and the sacramental minister, a retired priest who lives at a nearby seminary.

One complicating factor is that her parish is a merged parish that is still adjusting to the merger. A lot of Sister Lori’s work involves communications – learning what is happening in the parish. For example, “you find that there are different groups who don’t get along and you can help to mend some of the rifts.”

“There is also a learning curve,” she noted, such as knowing which responsibilities are hers entirely and which ones require consultation or notification of the priest moderator pastor.

In addition, Sister Lori said, difficulties sometimes arise, requiring a pastoral administrator to be assertive.

For example, the priest who had been pastor was slow in leaving the rectory during the transitional period. Eventually, the issue was resolved.

Deacon Clabeux, a retired CEO for the Buffalo Neurosurgery Group, noted that “this is not something to hold us over…. This is long-term.” He added that there are several “best practices” that can help a parish administrator deal with change.

“Proceed gently,” finding out the situation in the parish before acting, and collaborating with the other members of the parish, Deacon Clabeux recommended.

In his parish, for example, there was a decline in bingo revenues and thought was given to scaling back the activity. Deacon Clabeux thought, however, “Let me get to know them first,” and he started going to bingo, meeting the people present and hearing and implementing their suggestions.

“Bingo increased and we tripled our net,” Deacon Clabeux reported.

Deacon Clabeux also urges an effort to foster growth, such as reaching out to young families, and flexibility in parish programs.

In addition, he received the wisdom of the former pastor’s many years as a priest, he said. The pastor made a point of helping prepare the parishioners for the new situation. Deacon Clabeux said that the most valuable lesson he learned from the previous pastor was: “Bottom line. Love them.”

Following the panel’s presentation, the Youngstown diocesan priests discussed the presentations with their tablemates and then asked questions of the panelists.

Father Frank Zanni, pastor of St. Thomas Parish, Vienna, inquired about salaries for the parish administrator, canonical pastor and sacramental ministers.

Deacon Clabeux replied that, in the Buffalo Diocese, the canonical pastor receives no salary and the sacramental minister receives Mass stipends and a ministerial fee. Salaries for pastoral administrators range from $36,000 to $48,000, depending on the size of the parish.

He noted that, having retired from his position at a large surgical practice, his financial needs when he assumed the pastoral administrator position were less. His current stipend is “probably not enough for most people to raise a family on,” he said.

Msgr. John Zuraw, chancellor for the Youngstown Diocese, asked about the kind of training and preparation required for pastoral administrators in the Buffalo Diocese.

“Those interested were encouraged to get a degree in pastoral ministry,” Sister Lori said. “There was a one year-long course” which specifically taught the diocesan departments, such as insurance, buildings and properties, and the diocesan counseling center.

Schafer said that the preparation was similar in the Youngstown Diocese.

He added that the Youngstown Diocese is following a model of “shared sacrifice,” with some larger as well as smaller parishes having a parish leader rather than a resident pastor.

Father John Jerek, director of the diocesan Office for Clergy and Religious Services, pointed out that a diocesan representative, either he or Schafer, visits a parish that will have a parish leader a few months beforehand, to notify them and ease the transition.

He told the Exponent that the priests attending the convocation found the presentations helpful and appreciated the ability to ask questions to learn about the panelists’ experiences.

“I think they were also grateful to be able to discuss it among themselves later,” Father Jerek said.

Priests share camaraderie, prayer and learning

PITTSBURGH – As Father Steve Popovich entered the conference room for Mass at the biennial diocesan priests convocation here Sept. 7, his brother priests broke into applause.

“It’s great to see you guys again,” Father Popovich exclaimed as he rode in on his wheel chair for the first such convocation that he has been able to attend since he was seriously injured in a car crash in November of 2013.

About 60 Youngstown diocesan priests and Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., gathered at the Sheraton Hotel at Station Square here Sept. 5-8 for the convocation.

The gathering included a speaker, Father Shawn McKnight, former director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations; a panel addressing the topic of alternate forms of parish leadership (See related story, this page), and opportunities for prayer, rest, and recreation.

The priests also had the opportunity to meet with Bishop Murry about issues of concern to them.  Bishop Murry also presented a “State of the Diocese” address to the priests on Sept. 8. Cards were handed out with the names of 18 priests who had served in the Youngstown Diocese who died during the past two years, to be remembered in prayer.

At the Sept. 7 Mass following the panel discussion, Father Popovich proclaimed that day’s Gospel, from Luke, in which Jesus tells Peter, who had been fishing all night unsuccessfully, to “put out into the deep” and lower his nets to catch fish. Though skeptical, Peter did so, catching so many fish that the nets were ready to tear and other boats had to come to help.

In his homily, Father Popovich told his fellow priests “we have to put out into the deep,” venturing forth to serve the faithful and to proclaim the Gospel.

That work is more difficult now “because of the number of priests” available, Father Popovich said, “but we have to continue to trust in the Lord.”

“Is Jesus Christ actively working through us?” is the question for priests to ask themselves, Father Popovich continued. “We have to be sure that we are serving with Jesus.”

Father Popovich also referred briefly to his recovery from the accident, which had left him initially confined to a hospital bed. Through rehabilitation, he had gradually been able to do more.

He thanked Bishop Murry for his support during his recovery. “First he had to put up with my uncle,” Father Popovich said referring to his uncle, the late Father George Popovich, drawing laughs from the priests present. “Now the bishop has to put up with me.”

Following Mass, the priests who spoke with the Exponent seemed happy with the convocation.

“It’s always good to see our fellow priests and spend time with them,” said Father Gregory Fedor. “It’s well worth the time and expense.”

“It’s important that we come together to address important issues,” said Father Leo Wehrlin, pastor of Little Flower Parish, Middlebranch. “It’s also important that we spend time with each other informally and get to know each other.”

Bishop Murry said, “I think the priests appreciate an opportunity to have time with each other and to pray and to listen and learn from the speakers.”



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