Parish grouping modeling a shift toward lay leadership

Tuesday, January 07, 2020 - Updated: 12:50 pm

By Bob De Witt Correspondent

Donna Gillespie has seen many changes over the past 35 years from her parish office on Pittsburgh’s South Side, witnessing seven ethnic faith communities merge into one parish with four worship sites, then two, and soon one.

Now she is getting used to another significant shift — being part of a team of laity and clergy that share in the responsibility of leading what will become another new parish.

“I was used to deferring to the priests and deacons to make the decisions,” Gillespie said. “It was an adjustment to be involved with decision making.”

The parish leadership team at Prince of Peace and St. Mary of the Mount parishes was formed last February by the grouping administrator, Father Michael Stumpf. Unlike the pastoral and finance councils, which are consultative bodies, the parish leadership team is action-oriented, co-responsible with the administrator for major decisions and recommending outcomes.

“It is a messy process, but one that has been life-giving to me,” Father Stumpf said. “The team has gifts and insights that I don’t have, and it’s changed the way I make decisions.

“I don’t have to be everywhere or do everything,” he said. “This gives me the opportunity to share my own gifts and talents in a deeper way.”

The process Father Stumpf chose to adopt was developed by The Amazing Parish, a Colorado-based nonprofit that gives busy pastors and their teams the tools they need to transform their parishes from maintenance mode to mission communities that are truly alive.

The team exists to assist the pastor in managing the parish, getting involved in everything from strategic decisions and people management to operations and finances.

“It’s very exciting,” said Holly Mohr, director of religious education for both parishes. “It makes a lot of sense to have the voices, background and expertise of the laity. We understand the life experiences of the faithful and what the clergy deal with.

“Father Michael is excellent at making sure people feel that their voices are being heard, and helping them work together,” she said.

“We need structures that empower the laity in leadership positions and hopefully enliven every member of the parish to live their call to be a baptized disciple,” Father Stumpf said. “It will take time and patience to fully implement, (and) for trust to be built.”

An early team decision was to support the recommendation of the Prince of Peace Parish resources task force to close St. Peter Church, which needed costly building repairs. Bishop David Zubik signed a decree closing the building. The final Mass at St. Peter will be celebrated Sunday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m.

The On Mission for The Church Alive! initiative is much better than the parish merger process of the 1990s, according to Gillespie, in large part because of diocesan resources to assist parishes with the process and improved communication.

“With e-mail, websites, social media and texts, there’s just so much information out there,” Gillespie said. “Before, many parishioners didn’t understand why some churches remained open and not others.”

Mohr said she understands what Father Stumpf means when he describes a “messy” process.

“Pretty much everything in the church feels messy right now, with buildings closing, death and life mixed together,” she said. “But to build a sustainable and healthier parish, planning and decision making needs to involve lay leaders and parishioners.”

“It takes a pastor who is open to sharing leadership and responsibility.”

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