For the past year, diocesan offices and local parishes have been studying and implementing the diocesan pastoral plan for evangelization, “Trusting in Christ: A Call to Discipleship.” One new initiative from the plan is the Parish Leader Formation Program which began in October. This program addresses the chapter on administration, which calls for the diocese to “work with the parishes to identify plans and create creative models of parish administration to promote deacon, religious and lay leadership in collaboration with the clergy to prepare for the next generation of parish leadership.” Under Canon Law (517.2), the bishop can designate a qualified deacon, religious man or woman, or lay man or woman to participate in the exercise of pastoral care of a parish community when a resident pastor is not available. The person who leads a parish in this capacity in collaboration with the canonical pastor is known in our diocese as a parish leader.
Parish Leaders are professional, diocesan-appointed ministers who oversee the day-to-day care of the parish, from administration to pastoral ministry. A priest is also assigned to the parish for the celebration of the Sacraments. Parish leaders are not a form of lay priesthood, but rather an opportunity for faith-filled men and women to use their gifts of leadership and administration so that priests are able to focus on the sacramental and pastoral care of the faithful. Faced with the reality of fewer priests and an aging population of active priests, this is one creative way we are actively working to ensure that parishes can stay open and vibrant in light of the current situation.
While the parish leader option is not feasible for every parish and will not solve the many challenges that we are facing, it is one option that has many benefits. The administrative and leadership gifts of the faithful are more fully utilized. Parishioners are empowered to take more responsibility for the future of their parish. The administrative burden is removed from some priests, and a few priests have expressed interest in ministering under this model. In addition, an integral aspect of the ministry of parish leader is calling forth the many gifts of the baptized and empowering them to live their discipleship more deeply in ministry to others. When everyone’s gifts are used, the Body of Christ is more fully present to share the Good News with the world.
Fifteen people are enrolled in the Parish Leader Formation Program, including six current deacons, one religious woman, four lay men, and four lay women. Seven are current full-time professional staff at a parish or other ministry institution. Every participant is a person of deep faith, has been committed to the Church and ministry for many years, and is open to continually discerning the will of God throughout the formation process. The participants’ unique experiences and skills in a wide variety of ministry areas, as well as business and finance, provide a perfect context for them to learn from one another. The formation program presenters consist of key diocesan officials who are the experts and potential support for parish leaders in the many areas of parish administration and ministry. The group will meet periodically over the next six months for prayer, discussions, and education in the many aspects of vibrant parish life.
At the end of the Parish Leader Formation program, we will have a core group of people ready to serve in the role of parish leader. When the need arises for a parish or group of parishes to continue without a resident pastor, there will be another discernment process among the diocese, parish or parishes, sacramental ministers, and interested parish leader candidates, to find the best possible situation to begin this type of parish leadership. Two parishes have expressed interest in serving as pilot parishes. The parish leader will then be appointed by the bishop and installed at the parish with diocesan support for the parish and parish leader throughout the entire transition process and beyond. Whether the participants in the Parish Leader Program are appointed to parishes right away or down the road, they will be in a position to take on more leadership responsibilities at their current parish as their pastors see fit. The Parish Leader Formation Program will be offered periodically to train more of the faithful for this unique role of parish leadership.
While not all parishes will utilize this form of parish leadership, we all need to look beyond our own parish for the good of the Church. Thinking beyond the walls of our parish in terms of administration, staff, ministry, and Mass times is necessary. While difficult, it is important to remember that the commitment, pride, and fervor that we have for our parish is not lessened by a regional perspective. Instead our understanding and experience of Christ and His Church grows as we think and act in cooperation as the Body of Christ in this particular time and place. Together as a community of committed disciples we are better able to respond to God’s presence in our midst through our loving deeds of care for the body and soul of others.
“Trusting in Christ: A Call to Discipleship” can be found on the Diocese of Youngstown website at doy.org by clicking on the link “Diocesan Pastoral Plan.”