Roamin’ Collar: Multi-parish priests

In the Pews
Pastors across the country serve two, three, and even seven parishes. With innovation and flexibility, parishes are learning as they go.

Father Ed Vanorny loves celebrating liturgy with his parishioners-even if that means traveling 185 miles to four faith communities every Saturday and Sunday to do it. "I think every Mass I do energizes me all over again to barrel into the next one," says Vanorny, who was ordained for the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota 10 years ago at the age of 53. He has been the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Gregory, Immaculate Conception Parish in Bonesteel, Sacred Heart Parish in Burke, and St. Anthony Parish in Fairfax for three years.

At one time there were 10 priests covering the parishes of Gregory County, which now includes 365 Catholic households in the southeast corner of the diocese. Parishioners were still being served by two priests until Vanorny replaced them, and they continue to adjust to their new pastoral reality. The parish councils and finance councils of two of the parishes have merged, for example, and it is likely that the other two parishes will follow suit.

"The primary issue for me-and the parishioners are very much attuned and sensitive to this-is cutting back on some of the administrative duties I have been doing," he says, explaining that he sees their spiritual needs as his main focus. That "gets shortchanged a lot," he admits. "People tell me, ‘Father, you don't have to visit my mother in the hospital who is dying. We know you have a lot to do.' That frustrates me."

Nevertheless Vanorny doesn't appear to miss much. He travels 2,500 miles each month to visit the two hospitals, nursing homes, and care centers in Gregory County and to be present at events at the three local high schools.


Drive-thru pastors

Vanorny isn't alone in facing the challenges of pastoring more than one parish. About 44 percent of the country's 20,668 Roman rite parishes and missions share a pastor, according to a groundbreaking study conducted in 2005 by Sister Katarina Schuth, O. S. F., who holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota. Schuth reported her findings in Priestly Ministry in Multiple Parishes (Liturgical Press).

The highest percentages of multiple parish pastoring are found in a region that includes Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, where 48 percent of the priests serve more than one parish. At 78 percent, the Diocese of Rapid City is second only to the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, where 94 percent of the priests cover two or more parishes.

Schuth discovered that more than 50 percent of priests in four other states were offering pastoral care to multiple parishes: Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, and Idaho. The lowest percentages-less than 10 percent-were in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Nevada.

"Somehow those numbers have to be addressed," she says. "How are we going to continue this? Who is going to take responsibility? It can't just be left in the hands of church authority. This is a larger church issue."


Among those rising to the challenge are six national organizations that partnered to form the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project with a grant from the Lilly Endowment. Project members researched ministry to two or more parishes, among other topics; results will appear in the forthcoming Pastoring Multiple Parishes (Loyola Press), co-authored by Mark Mogilka, who led the project's study committee on multiple parish pastoring, and Kate Wiskus.

"We're following a path that has not been mapped out-we're finding the answers for ourselves," says Marti Jewell, project director for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project. "What we've discovered is that people are really creative and adaptive as they move into the new situations they're finding themselves in."

That creativity is necessary, she says, because only a handful of dioceses are providing any formal training for people involved in ministry to two or more parishes, despite the fact that this is the solution most often used by U.S. bishops when they have more parishes than people to staff them.

Still, Jewell says, "people are realizing that this is a reality that's happening. They're beginning to realize the need to provide preparation and training."


On-the-job training

This hasn't been, however, the only change to the pastoral landscape.

"Historically the way you learned to be a pastor was to be an assistant pastor for 10 or 12 years-it was a mentoring system," Mogilka says, noting that this is no longer the case. "In my own diocese, [priests] are being made a pastor in two or three years now."

With much of that time needed to learn how to be a good priest, few of these men are able to develop the "prophetic vision" necessary for ministry to a cluster of parishes, he says. Without it, they often find themselves in survival mode.

As more dioceses begin to face the need to plan for multiple parish ministry, seminaries are also entering into the conversation. Many are addressing multiple parish ministry as part of existing classes on parish life and leadership. Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois has devoted an entire course to the subject. Taught by Wiskus, associate dean of formation at Mundelein, it is thought to be the first of its kind in the country.


When graduates of Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland come back to visit, rector Msgr. Steven Rohlfs takes them aside to ask, "How did we do? Was there anything we could have done to prepare you that we didn't do?" About two years ago, he started hearing about multiple parish ministry.

"You can't really train men at this level to administer more than one parish," he says. "What you can do is present the issue to them so it gets on their horizon, so they can begin to think about it."


In a yearlong course Rohlfs teaches on parish leadership and administration, "We show them things that have been successful and things never to do if they're placed in these assignments."

One of those "potholes" to avoid is rushing people when the decision is made to link two or more parishes. "I tell them not to think of this as a project-like the fall bazaar," Rohlfs explains. "It takes several years, and they have to use a gentle hand. And the more parishes there are to mesh, the more time it takes."


Job opening

As new models of parish ministry continue to play out, it has become clear that lay Catholics are not only willing and able to make them work, but are vital to their success. Mogilka cites the new position of parish life coordinators as a prime example (see sidebar).

When dioceses began to experiment with this ministry 15 to 20 years ago, it was typically women religious who filled the role. More often today one finds permanent deacons or lay women with a master's degree and training who are meeting the need.

While there was some initial confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the coordinators, "In the vast majority of cases the communities grew to love and appreciate those leaders," says Mogilka.

Arvilla Juenemann is one of the people who heard the call to move into parish leadership while she was working as the secretary for several parishes in a rural Kansas team ministry during the 1980s. It came during a scripture class sponsored by her diocese, when the instructor told them a change was coming.


"She said, ‘In five years there's not going to be all the priests and sisters we have now. It will depend on laypeople like you to fill these kinds of positions and do the teaching and work in the parishes,' " Juenemann recalls. "Something in my head said, ‘If this is coming in five years, someone has to be ready.' I think that was God's call to me so I could be ready when the time came."

It spurred her to finish her catechist training. In 1993 she was hired to be the first parish life coordinator at St. Nicholas of Myra Parish in Hays. She is now one of seven ministering in northwest Kansas.

Juenemann currently serves in Selden and Immaculate Heart of Mary BVM Parish in nearby Leoville. While some priests worried that having parish life coordinators might diminish their role in the parish, she says others welcomed the change.

"They said, ‘I was ordained for the sacraments. This will allow me to do better what I was ordained to do,' " she explains, adding that this countered the fear some priests had of not writing every check or preparing every couple for marriage.

The Diocese of Salina has developed guidelines for the parish life coordinators as well as for priests, and there are regular meetings for continuing education, fellowship, and prayer.

"I think we all work well together. The bishop [Paul Coakley] has been supportive. He has repeated time and time again that in this church there is room for all to minister."

Team building

Before Wiskus went to Mundelein Seminary, she headed up pastoral services and pastoral planning for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. In working with priests making the transition to pastoring multiple parishes, she says they most often expressed concerns about how to maintain their identity as priests.

"It seems selfish, but it's not. They were trying to figure out their role in the parish, in the faith community, and how to do everything. If they had to sacrifice something, it was their priestly identity. It would affect the communities they serve."


For Father Donald Everts, pastor of the Quad-Parishes of Green Bay, Wisconsin, leading four parishes in a way that is healthy for everyone concerned means surrounding himself with a good team.

"I knew I needed a centralized team to help me do this-to organize and run the parishes effectively. Having separate staffs was not possible," says Everts, who has been responsible for Annunciation, St. Joseph, St. Jude, and St. Patrick parishes for nearly three years, along with an an associate pastor and a retired priest.

The 10-member pastoral team was chosen only after leaders from all four parishes discussed and ranked their priorities. "That gave us a sense of where to pour our resources. Then we discussed what our communities needed for ministry and built a pastoral team to make that happen," he says.

This has allowed them to provide ministry at a higher level for the 2,400 families they serve, according to Everts. No one parish could afford a full-time youth minister or liturgy coordinator, for example, but the four parishes working together can.

"I always say linked churches have a better understanding of what the universal church is all about because they're part of something larger than themselves," he says. "We have to remember how powerful we can be when we work together."

New church

"When you're pastoring multiple parishes or handling multiple ministries, you must empower people," says Msgr. Charles Beebe, pastor of two rural parishes in the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois-St. Joseph in Roanoke and St. John in Benson. "I'm there to oversee what's happening. I'm there to support it. I don't have to be there to put every light on the Christmas tree."

The members of the Roanoke parish, for example, have taken responsibility for organizing a Bible study, and the church environment owes its beauty to a committee that includes a florist, an interior decorator, and volunteers who love to be involved.

"You have to identify the talents in the community and identify the people who have strengths where you're weak," Beebe says. "I'll do what I do best, and you do what you do best, and everyone grows."


Roanoke parishioner Beverly Micheletti appreciates that approach.

"The church belongs to the people-it belongs to us. That's what Msgr. Beebe has made us feel. We as a community have become more involved in our church," says Micheletti, 71, a lifetime parishioner who has served as a lector and extraordinary minister of Communion.

"It's nice being involved instead of just going into church for Mass and coming out again. You're helping the church, from cleaning to praising," Micheletti says. "This is where I was baptized. This is where I was married. This is where my children were baptized. This is our church."

Multiple parish ministry has philosophical as well as practical ramifications. "For me," says Father William Surmeier, longtime Kansas pastor and a licensed clinical professional counselor with Catholic Charities, "it's about my vision of church, and my vision of church is not a pyramid with Father on top, but a circle with Jesus in the middle. Do we have different roles? Yes, we do."

To remain effective as a sacramental minister and a full-time marriage, family, and individual counselor, he makes it a habit to invite others into his ministry and encourages his staff to do the same.

"I think healthy priests are those who are not threatened by lay leadership and by lay involvement and by creating new structures. A healthy priest doesn't find security in where his brick is at in the pyramid," says Surmeier. "A healthy priest finds his security in calling forth the gifts of those around him."

Surmeier has been doing that for more than 40 years. With two other priests, he helped to establish team ministry to a cluster of six parishes-the first of its kind in the Salina, Kansas diocese-early in his ministry. When he was assigned to be pastor of two other parishes as well as a counselor at Catholic Charities, he tried something new again: He served as canonical pastor and sacramental minister with pastoral administrators overseeing the day-to-day operations of both parishes.

In time seven parishes in Hays, Kansas and surrounding communities and the Catholic campus center at Fort Hays State University formed an informal partnership known as the Heartland Parishes of Ellis County. Not only did the parish staffs work together on sacramental preparation, RCIA, communal reconciliation services, and parish missions, but the clergy and lay leadership met on a regular basis for prayer and fellowship.


"It's not like instant coffee. It doesn't just happen," Surmeier says. "Sometimes we tried things that didn't work, which was good. Part of what makes this creativity fun is not to be afraid of a new idea. We tested some waters. I think that mentality is really important."

From Paul to the prairie

Multiple parish ministry is a reality, and it rarely comes out of the blue, says Wiskus of Mundelein Seminary. Helping people in the pews understand what is happening, challenging them to fully live out their baptismal call, and providing formation for them-as well as for the permanent deacons, seminarians, and priests-makes all the difference in their ability to participate in the church's mission.

When people move from "How am I being served?" to "What does being a disciple of Christ call me to do?" things start to happen, she says.

"The ministerial load can be shared more equitably. Everyone would contribute more readily. The church would grow, and vocations would increase," Wiskus says, noting that from its earliest days the church has had a good example of how to manage ministry to more than one faith community.

"Paul was the pastor of multiple parishes, and his circuit was pretty big. Recognizing that, we have a history and wealth of information and inspiration to draw on. We know it can be done.

"When you read Paul's letters, you can see that he struggles at times. This isn't easy," Wiskus acknowledges. "But when you read his letters, you can also see that he understood his role [was] to grow Christ's church, and he found ways to do it from prison. We should be able to find a way to do it from the prairie."

Check those tires!

The days of one pastor per parish are gone, as more priests are traveling long distances to serve multiple parishes. Here's a breakdown on how far they're really going each month:

46.9% drive more than 500 miles


23% drive more than 1,000 miles

4.6% drive more than 2,000 miles

(From Priestly Ministry in Mulitple Parishes by Katarina Schuth (Liturgical Press, 2006)

This article appeared in the Marcy 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 3, pages 29-33).