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Renewing the Church to make Disciples

The Church here in southeast Michigan marches forward as a family of joyful missionary disciples despite any circumstances we may confront.

by Editorial Team

By: Most Reverend Gerard Battersby, Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Deacon Michael Houghton, Director of Missionary Strategic Planning for the Archdiocese of Detroit

One can only imagine how overwhelmed the eleven disciples may have felt when our Lord gave them the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. They likely wondered how they, this ragtag group of fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot, could possibly carry out such a monumental task.

But after being emboldened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they found the courage to go about doing what the Lord had asked of them. They did it like a family. They lived in community, traveling, preaching, and teaching in groups. By working together, they were able to mutually share their gifts and talents as they rapidly grew the Church.

The Lord didn’t tell them about the trials that lay ahead: persecutions of Christians, shipwrecks, martyrdom. He didn’t have to. The only thing the apostles needed to know was their mission – a mission they were committed to carrying out no matter what obstacles confronted them.

From those early days until now, the Church has always been on mission to go and make disciples of all nations, and she has always had to adjust her approach in response to the circumstances in which she found herself, including heresies, world wars, and even pandemics.

Our Challenge

Today, some 2,000 years after the Great Commission, the Church still must overcome obstacles as she seeks to make disciples. We certainly have our share of obstacles. Scientific fundamentalism, moralistic therapeutic deism, and secular messianism have crept into the belief systems of society and have caused seriously misguided understandings of who God is and what he means to our world (Unleash the Gospel Pastoral Letter, Marker 3.3). The COVID-19 pandemic has left a trail of death and pain that we could never have imagined just a few short years ago. And an ever-dwindling number of priests has prompted us to rethink the structures by which we minister to the faithful.

Are these obstacles insurmountable as we seek to become more missionary in response to our call fromSynod 16? No, they are not. They are not roadblocks, but rather just bumps in the road. The Church here in southeast Michigan marches forward as a family of joyful missionary disciples despite any circumstances we may confront. We do so because we too are on mission to go and make disciples of all the nations, starting right here in southeast Michigan.

Families of Parishes

In July of this year, we will begin a significant change in the structure of our Churches in the Archdiocese of Detroit, designed to help us become a more missionary community of faith. We will adopt the Families of Parishes model for twenty-six Families, or roughly half of our parishes across the archdiocese. The second half of our parishes have been grouped into twenty-five Families which will be launched in July of 2022.

There are several reasons for the formation of these Families.Among those reasons is the urgent need to free up our priests from some of the administrative tasks that burden them today and in exchange, to give them the time they need to minister directly to the faithful. We will find our parishioners better supported by their priests and we will be able to ramp up our efforts to help the laity to be more missionary. New staff and volunteer positions will be created within the Family, serving the entire Family rather than just one parish. These positions will be empowered to lead us forward in mission-direct activities like discipleship formation, engagement, evangelical charity, family ministries, and worship. Mission support activities like finance and maintenance will be led by one person for the entire Family as well.

Parish Pastoral Councils will make way for Family Pastoral Councils. Parish Leadership Teams will make way for Family Leadership Teams. And Family Intercessory Prayer Teams will be called upon to pray in ever-increasing ways for the clergy and laity of the whole Family.

Will this change be easy? Of course not! No change of consequence comes without effort. We will be challenged to rethink the ways we approach ministry and the ways we relate to one another as a Family. We will strive to find ways to be more efficient and effective in our efforts to be more missionary. As part of this effort, some people who work in parishes will be asked to take on new roles in support of the new missionary Family model.

Amid such change, it is natural to feel uncertain. But we cannot allow ourselves to fall victim to any fear we may have about moving into Families. Be not afraid! We will move forward as joyful missionary disciples, steeped in trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding our efforts to be a more missionary diocese sharing Christ and the Gospel with those around us.

The idea of Families of Parishes is not new to the Church, worldwide or here at home. There are several dioceses across North America and the entire world that have embraced similar models. Taking advantage of this precedence, our archdiocese has done due diligence benchmarking the successes and failures of these other dioceses to inform us as we developed the plan for our Families.

From May through October of last year, a team of eight priests from the archdiocese studied different options for Family governance and settled on two possibilities for our parishes. They are the One Pastor Model and the In Solidum Model.

The One Pastor Model is closer to what most of us experience today. In this model, there is one single Pastor charged with the care of two or more parishes. Depending on the number of parishes he is charged to lead, he may have one or more Associate Pastors (also called Parochial Vicars) to help him with his tasks. Ultimately, it is the Pastor who takes responsibility for the care of his parishes.

The In Solidum Model is something known to the universal Church but new to us in southeast Michigan, and it will take some time for us to truly figure out how to make it work well. In this model, multiple parishes (generally three to six but sometimes more) are under the pastoral care of a team of Family-Pastors. The Family-Pastors are each responsible for the care of all parishes, so there is no longer any one Pastor leading any one parish. One of the Family-Pastors is named by the Archbishop as the Moderator of the Family, meaning he essentially becomes the first among equals. If there is an issue for which no consensus of the Family-Pastors is possible, the Moderator will make the decision.

Deacons, much like Priests, will be impacted by the move to Families. A deacon will no longer be assigned to an individual parish, but will instead be assigned to the Family of Parishes. As such, Deacons will be teamed up with One Pastors or Moderators and will find themselves carrying out their diaconal duties on any given day in the parish where they are needed most.

In both the One Pastor and In Solidum models, new Director level positions will be created to serve the entire Family. These Director positions were designed such that they will enable us to structure better for mission. In Families following the In Solidum model, these team members will be supervised by the Moderator but will support all Family-Pastors. These Directors are not intended to be added costs to the Family. Rather, it is hoped that they will be populated through reorganization of existing staff within the parishes of each Family.

If this new structure is permitted to operate as planned, Family-Pastors who are not Moderators will be relieved of many of the administrative tasks that burden them today, leaving them free to be more missionary in their work. Moderators will be supported by the new Director positions, empowering them to lead their Families forward in ways that in the past were done only by pastors. This is an important next step toward involving the laity in ways envisioned at Vatican II.

Unexpected (but welcome) support from Rome

In June of 2020, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy released a document that encouraged dioceses around the world to find ways to be more missionary and offered the example of what they called parish groupings, which are very similar to what we have called Families of Parishes. How providential that the Vatican would signal its support for a plan we had already begun to explore! The document is titled, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church. While it is a bit lengthy, it offers tremendous support for our efforts to restructure with the goal of becoming a more missionary archdiocese.

What lies ahead

Our move to Families will most certainly come with its fair share of challenges. To think otherwise would be overly optimistic.

Our priests who find themselves in an In Solidum Model will need to work out how to lead a group of parishes as a team, which is something they have never done before. The Moderator will need to find the balance of being first among equals while at the same time never dominating his brother priests.

We enter this process aware of these potential challenges and equipped with mitigation strategies. In order to help the priests of each Family discern how they will collectively pastor  and support one another, they will mutually develop something called a Family Priests’ Covenant. This Covenant will reflect their prayerful discernment about interpersonal communion and ministerial relationships among the priests of a Family.

Our Deacons will be challenged to expand their ministries beyond their current parishes as they will now serve all of the parishes in their Families. This will be both exciting and taxing at times.

Our newly created Director positions will need to work closely with their One Pastors or Moderators to clearly lay out the plans for becoming more missionary. There will no doubt be some disagreement over what it truly means for these positions to be empowered, but this type of dialogue is becoming more critical as the number of priests declines. Indeed, some might say this dialogue is long overdue.

Prayer, Relationship, and Responsiveness

Oue responses to the challenges we will face as we move into Families can be summarized in three focus areas: prayer, relationship, and responsiveness.

Prayer is first and foremost because we are called and directed by the Holy Spirit in all that we do, including in our efforts to be more missionary. If we try to go it alone, without substantial and honest prayer for his guidance, we will fail because we will be pursuing what we think rather than following the direction that he gives.

Relationships are critical because we need to accompany one another as we make these changes. We need honest and transparent relationships among the Clergy in each Family, between clergy and laity within each Family, among the Family-Pastors and the Family Staff, and even between the Curia and the Families. We are all in this together.

Responsiveness may seem an odd third item on our list, but it is something that underpins both prayer and relationships. When we hear the direction of the Holy Spirit in prayer, we must respond. To hear but not respond is perhaps worse than not praying at all. And when we are in a relationship with another person, our responsiveness to their needs is a tangible demonstration of our care for them. Responsiveness is not only about taking action, but it is also about taking action in a timely way – about moving with a sense of urgency.

All things new

In the introduction to Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron states the following:

Jesus Christ makes all things new! He himself is at work to renew his Church in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit anew so that every member of the Church may be formed and sent forth as a joyful missionary disciple, so that the Gospel may be unleashed in southeast Michigan.

May we all embrace the renewal of our Church as we seek to unleash the Gospel through Families of Parishes.

by Editorial Team

Editorial Team

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.