Many parishes are like family. They love -- they fight -- they struggle to be God’s people. Sometimes they take their life together for granted.
But when a parish learns it is in danger of being merged or closed, the annoucement often leaves people in a state of shock, anger and sometimes despair. Even when parishioners are included in the process, the decision on parish viability or merger with another parish often seems pre-determined. In the worst cases, the bishop acts in bad faith, even crassly, and it has sometimes been clear that Church property was sold in lucrative deals to pay off bad debts to cover the costs of clergy sex abuse cases.
For years, FutureChurch has been supporting parishioners who want to preserve their parish community providing educational resources and working in partnership with Kate Kuenster, PHJC, JCD, an outstanding canon lawyer who provides guidance to parishioners in filing appeals. Although the work is demanding and the obstacles are many, she has successfully helped many parishes preserve their beloved community.
Still,the story of parish mergers and closings are now commonplace. We’ve been through round one and we are on to round two. Since the numbers of priests continue to spiral downward (half of our diocesan priests will be at retirement age by 2019), the mergers and closures will continue unabated. One by one, bishops who instinctively try to sustain the one-priest, one-parish model, are slowly but surely closing down the organism for spreading the Gospel – the Body of Christ – God’s heart and hands for making her love known in the world.
While many bishops are in the habit of making parish mergers and closings sound as if they are inevitable, the truth is, this kind of accommodations is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The cost of closing parishes is high. Not only are parish families banished from their homes, but communities -- especially those that are in a state of decay already -- suffer when parishes close.
We need to tell a new story in order to raise awareness about the value and worth of parishes and parish life in the service of the Gospel.
The closing of a parish in an already fragile community contributes to the decay and collapse of those communities. In many places, when a parish closes, the grocery store closes or the gas station closes. People empty out in even greater numbers, the weeds grow higher and more windows are boarded up.
In Cleveland where a new round of parish mergers and closure seems to be on the horizon, FutureChurch has had the opportunity to begin working with concerned citizens to tell a more complete, more compelling story – the story of the socio-economic cost of closing parishes in our most fragile communities.
Using a system of mapping plotting where parishes have been closed over the past decades, where foreclosures have skyrocketed, where poverty is highest and where people of color live -- a clear pattern emerges. The places where parishes have closed are also the places with the highest poverty rates. The places where parishes have closed are also the places with the highest foreclosure rates. The places where parishes have closed are also the places where African Americans, Hispanics and people of color live. The places where parishes closed are the places where there are food deserts.
To be a follower of Christ means to care for our families, including our parish family. But it means more. The demands of the Gospel are clear. We are to care for those who are poor – the stranger - those who live at the margins – those who have the least access to the necessities of life. Any plan to close parishes that does not prioritize that Gospel mandate is a failure of leadership – a failure in terms of the demands of discipleship.
There are serious theological challenges that must be solved, but the mechanical closing of parishes based on an unsustainable model of one-priest-per-parish is tragic.
There are innovative and exciting models for re-imagining parish leadership and ministry. The Lobinger Model (summarized below) is just one creative model that has its roots in the past and a sense of what is needed for the future.
There are practical challenges that must be solved. Part of our inheritance and frankly, our burden, is the legacy of buildings that have been passed down to us – some of them in need of repair. But closing parishes because we have failed to imagine new uses, new partnerships, new ways to serve people in need for the good of the Gospel – the good of the community - is irresponsible.
There are innovative and exciting models for re-imaging parish life and service.
We can begin by asking “What new partnerships can be formed in the service of our mission? How can we re-imagine our space so that care for God’s people and care for the earth can be realized?”
Look no further than St. Sabina’s Church in Chicago, a parish that was languishing. Fr. Michael L. Pfleger and the people of that parish fed on the Word of God, reimagined the space, engaged community partners and helped, not only to feed and clothe, but worked in partnership to create cottage industries and entrepreneurial opportunities to help people access job training and find meaningful work – all in the heart of the parish. Today, they struggle together to end the racism that is death-dealing in their community. This is a parish calling for and enacting the kind of justice and peace that God has in store for her people.
Without analyzing why so many in leadership are slow to move away from the unsustainable strategy of merging and closing parishes, it is clear that there are urgent reasons to reconsider their wooden approach and move toward creative models that are already proving to be life giving.
It is plain enough to see, when it comes to the future of the church, that future is up to us, the People of God.
The Lobinger Model
The Lobinger Model is an innovative model rooted in the particular needs and talents of local communities. It addresses the theological conundrum presented by the priest shortage by expanding the role of lay leaders and ordaining them into service.
The Lobinger model was developed by Bishop Fritz Lobinger who, early on, was instrumental in developing the pastoral model of the Small Christian Communities -- including a particular model of Bible study with central roles for lay leadership in liturgical services, catechesis and the social gospel. He ministered in regions of South Africa where there were few priests. He recognized the enormous faith and talents of lay people in the communities under his care and sought to empower them to carry out the fullness of sacramental life in their community. You can learn more about hismodel by reading his interview at www.uscatholic.org/ordainelders.
In preparation for the 3rd international meeting of priest associations and reform groups in October, Fr. Wolfgang Gamer offers his view of the Lobinger model based on his experience as a priest in South America. His model is based on the one advanced by Bishop Fritz Lobinger and the Vienna pastoral theologian Paul Zulehner of “Paul priests (originating outside thecommunity - i.e. ordained by the bishop)” and “Corinth priests (originating within the community – recognized and chosen from within the community).” Gamer notes that in Rom. 16 and 1 Cor. 16 the apostle Paul offers a variety of leadership roles that are exercised in Rome and Corinth.
To begin, each community opens itself to that Spirit, prayerfully reflects on its situation and sets priorities in order to live out their faith in today’s world. In order to be a community of mission, they spell out their activities under the guidelines of worship, service and witness. In this process, the community is accompanied and supported by “Paul priests” and fulltime lay people who assist in the discovery of charisms within the community.
The aim of this process is to build a team of “Corinth priests” of at least three persons. Lobinger and Zulehner speak of viri probati and eventually also of feminae probatae. Women and men, both single or married and couples, like Prisca and Aquilla in Acts, provide a robust model for missionary outreach and community leadership and ministry. From this process emerges a team of leaders, accepted and supported by all members of a community, whatever their size or number. This team may well undergo formation and will eventually be ordained for service.