p.5schuth1Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth, one of the country’s leading researchers on seminaries and parish collaboration, is pictured at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., March 12, 2004. She was in the Milwaukee Archdiocese Oct. 27-29 to offer a national perspective on parish collaboration. (CNS file photo by Dave Hrbacek)ST. FRANCIS — Some 10-15 years ago, Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth found virtually no research on the growing reality in the Catholic Church of priests having to serve more than one parish. Little was written on the topic, but it was becoming more common as the numbers of Catholics increased, and the numbers of priests, sisters and brothers declined.

In fact, while the number of Catholics has increased by more than 21 million since 1967, according to data from the Official Catholic Directory, the number of priests has decreased during that same time by more than 19,000. Additionally, there are more than 117,000 fewer sisters and 7,800 fewer brothers. The number of Catholics per parish has jumped by 1,114 since 1967.

Not finding research on this trend of having individual priests and lay ministers serving more than one parish, Sr. Katarina, one of the country’s leading researchers on seminaries and parish collaboration, investigated it.

She surveyed 911 priests, interviewed 70 priests individually and spoke with groups of priests and informally with lay people.

The result was “Priestly Ministry in Multiple Parishes,” a 233-page book published by Liturgical Press in 2006.

Sr. Katarina, endowed professor at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., was in the Milwaukee Archdiocese Oct. 27-29 to discuss her findings and present her ideas on parishes in collaboration at three programs for parish staff held at St. Frances Cabrini, West Bend; St. Robert Bellarmine, Union Grove and at the Cousins Center, St. Francis.

During her visit, she spoke with your Catholic Herald about the trend and what it means for the church.

The parishes most successful in sharing priests are those in which careful planning was done, according to Sr. Katarina, acknowledging that the process can be “extraordinarily painful. People are very attached to their parishes, to say it is only a building … it is so much more than that. It’s a place where birth and life are celebrated,” she said.

When planning, people should be encouraged to work together at the grassroots level, said the Franciscan, noting that “in some other archdioceses, parishes simply closed to the dismay of many.” When done correctly, she said, there may be grief among parishioners, but there will be better understanding if they are kept well-informed.

She praised one pastor in Minnesota who sent out 87 communications – in the parish bulletin, e-mails, even mailed letters – to keep parishioners informed.

“It was not as if something secret was building up; there was constant communication,” she said.

Ministering to more than one community can be extraordinarily draining for the priests, said Sr. Katarina, noting that seminaries need to educate their students on the new, shared approach to ministry.

A style of ministry and collaboration that may work for some parishes might not work for others, said Sr. Katarina.

“Each situation has to be studied and carefully evaluated,” she said, describing the variety of ways collaboration can take place. “With a variety of situations, different responses will be needed at each place. There are no easy answers or textbook answers.”

The benefits of collaboration and sharing ministry are many, she said, noting it leads to a good mix of staff, better, wide-ranging services with lower or shared costs, improved facilities – in some cases shared ministry leads to the building of a new church, she said.

While she said it’s difficult to predict what the church of the future will look like, Sr. Katarina said, “We can be sure of one thing, that people will become more used to working together. This new kind of ministry has a way of bringing people together as they get used to a new identity.”

Regardless of the approach to ministry, Sr. Katarina said she expects the church of the future to remain strongly eucharistic.

Rural dioceses likely saw this change in ministry coming earlier than urban dioceses, according to Sr. Katarina, because they often felt the challenges of the priest shortage more acutely. The Milwaukee Archdiocese, with the third highest proportion of priests to people, has not felt the shortage as severely as some others, she noted. But she also said, that in comparison to others across the country, the Milwaukee Archdiocese stands out in terms of its planning for this eventual approach to ministry.

“I’ve been coming here for 25 years and have done a lot of work with the seminary and I know the archdiocese here has done well in terms of planning,” she said, noting the archdiocese has also produced many well-educated leaders with lots of creativity and energy with roots of deep faith.

According to Sr. Katarina’s research, conducted in 2004-2005, about 11 percent of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s priests serve multiple parishes or missions. This compares to the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, where about 58 percent of the priests serve multiple parishes. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, only about 2 percent or 13 of 674 priests serve multiple parishes.

Three representatives from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who work in parishes where shared ministry is the norm participated in a panel discussion following Sr. Katarina’s presentation on Friday, Oct. 29, at the Cousins Center.

Panel participants included Fr. Tim Kitzke, team member of the in solidum team that serves Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, which includes worship sites at Holy Rosary, St. Hedwig and St. Rita parishes, and Old St. Mary, Our Lady of Divine Providence and SS. Peter and Paul churches, Milwaukee; James Piotrowski, director of administrative services at Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, with two worship sites at the former St. James, Mequon and St. Cecilia, Thiensville, and Robert Lynch, parish council chair and district 15 Archdiocesan Pastoral Council representative from the tri-parish community of St. John Kanty, St. Helen and St. Alexander, Milwaukee.

During his presentation, Fr. Kitzke noted it’s not his job to close churches, but rather to merge them, he said, stressing that in whatever approach is used, “let’s not forget the mission of Jesus Christ.”

The approach the in solidum team uses in the east side parishes, according to Fr. Kitzke, is a sense of collaboration.

“It’s not one element absorbing another; we are not losing anything, but are using them to gain something more,” he said, noting the focus is not on an individual parochial unit, “but above all, it’s for Jesus Christ and that helps us keep perspective in what we are called to do.”

Piotrowski offered four suggestions for a successful merger:

  • Communicate early, often and constantly. Be transparent. It’s impossible to over-communicate, he said.
  • Acknowledge the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room, he said, describing the situation at Lumen Christi as “a merger of two parishes, but in some ways it was more an absorption of St. Cecilia. Lumen Christi is a larger St. James,” he admitted.
  • Rip the Band-Aid off early, he said, noting it’s important to bring the emotion to the forefront and rip it off quick, rather than allowing a long, drawn-out process of grieving.
  • Understand the merger process is long. “For two or more parishes to merge, it almost takes a generation,” he said, for example, noting he still receives checks made out to St. Cecilia.

“Change is hard for people; it’s an opportunity and a challenge,” he said. “A merger energizes staff and parishioners and while some of the energy is highly emotional, and sometimes it clouds judgment and how people think. It’s an opportunity to better use staff, but the flip side is the problem of being overstaffed. Those are difficult and painful decisions.”