How to cope with change when parishes cluster

12 mins read
Parish merger
Jesuit Father Mark Hallinan greets a young girl following a Spanish-language Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in the Staten Island borough of New York in this 2014 file photo. Founded in 1877, St. Mary was one of more than 30 churches the New York Archdiocese that closed in 2015 as part of a reorganization initiative that merged 116 parishes into 56. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Two of the largest parishes in Cincinnati, when I grew up, are now joined in one cluster. In the future, they will unite as one parish. This common occurrence of changing parish structures has intensified as dioceses face the decline in priestly numbers. 

The issue is similar everywhere, with no clear answers. In this environment, dioceses struggle to devise the best ways to teach Jesus’ message and celebrate Mass and the sacraments for parishioners. 

To remain vibrant, different organizational models of parishes surface. This article does not describe or judge which are the best. Rather, it makes 10 suggestions for priests and pastors, pastoral leaders and parishioners to consider. They center on what happens when parishes that sustained the faith of Catholics for generations close or merge with another parish. 

When facing the challenges coming with changing parish organization, it is important for parish leaders to maintain confidence and provide spiritual comfort for parishioners. To do so, they are invited to consider the following suggestions.

1. Maintain hope in changing times

Christianity is a religion of hope that offers consolation in difficult and challenging times. It is rooted in the change from the Judaism of Jesus’ times to Christianity in the first century. Christianity itself is based on the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the new life promised by his resurrection. And new hope comes as we celebrate Easter. Our “Good Friday days” of pain and death are followed by resurrection and new life. 

During personal and social change, the Christians’ stance is one of hope. This hope promises that God will never abandon us, and we are to remain faithful to the new life promised by Jesus’ resurrection.

When uncertainty and a whole range of emotions surface, it is easy to forget, when experiencing doubts, wonder and even anger, that our faith offers us hope for a better future. We need to connect Jesus’ promise of new life at his resurrection with the lived reality of the cross that we carry when our parish faces major changes, including closing or merging. 

Shifts in parish life need to be grounded in prayer and pastoral leadership that focus on hope. This is not based solely on prayer and organizational decisions coming from the diocese, but on prayer coming from the heart of the parish. If diocesan leaders take parish recommendations seriously, they can lead to significant growth in faith for parishioners, just as Jesus’ death and early persecution did at the beginning of the Church.

2. Recognize that change is difficult

Uncertainty, doubt and change are difficult to face. They make us uncomfortable and insecure. This applies to ordinary and spiritual matters. When dealing with the priest shortage and parish restructuring, change must be addressed. The way it is faced, however, is important. Parish members need to be prepared, and transparency is vital. Many parishioners are wary if they have not been satisfied with the church’s past openness. 

Parishes and dioceses are encouraged to begin any process of change with prolonged communication about what will happen before any specific organizational process begins. 

3. Realize that changes cannot be solved by reason alone

statsIntellectually, most parishioners realize that the priest shortage requires drastic change, but many have not accepted this emotionally. They know it with their reason, but that is the extent of their consideration. It is vitally important for Church leaders to recognize the emotional level of parishioners when faced with the reality that their parish may change its name, merge or even close. If such matters are addressed intellectually, but not faced emotionally, difficulties emerge, including anger and people leaving the church. 

While bishops and pastors have to deal with organizational matters, parish reorganization and structural changes, the same does not apply to the average parishioner, whose concern often is limited to why their parish is changing or being taken away from them. Acknowledging how they feel is an important starting point for successful parish change.

4. Recognize that paradigm shifts take time to achieve

A paradigm can be described as an overarching model of how a group functions. Applied to parishes, the traditional model of one priest as pastor of a parish has been relatively stable for generations. We grew up knowing our pastors, and they knew us. Now this is changing. 

People pray at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich., Nov. 24, 2020. Under the new “family of parishes” structure, each individual parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit would retain its identity, but would work more closely with neighboring parishes. CNS photo/Valaurian Waller, Detroit Catholic

We learn from sociology and psychology that a paradigm shift causes uncertainty and confusion. When paradigms change, what we once took for granted subconsciously is brought to conscious awareness. Emerging questions surface, as we refocus, wonder and doubt. Trying to address the challenges that emerge intellectually, without considering the emotional issues involved, brings anger, doubt and wonder. 

This is now happening with parish changes, as we move away from the traditional one pastor/one parish model to multiple configurations. Often parishioners do not understand what is happening and wonder if a hidden plan is about to be unveiled. Because of such uncertainty, transparency is vital.

When paradigms shift, it takes time to assimilate the new model while addressing the emotional and organizational issues involved. What the Church presently experiences with the priest shortage will take time to incorporate into new models of what it means to be a parish and to pastor multiple parishes. Applied to pastors, preliminary results indicate that the successful pastor of one parish might not be successful in pastoring multiple parishes. 

Something similar applies to parishioners who feel at home in their traditional parish but not in a cluster of parishes or in merged parishes. In these situations, the emotional issues involved need to be addressed, sooner rather than later.

5. Create a trusting climate where parishioners believe that their opinion is important

stats In speaking of missionary discipleship, Pope Francis refers to the importance of communication and open dialogue when sharing Jesus’ message with contemporary society. The same applies, even more so, to the need for openness when facing the emotional issues involved in the clustering or closing of parishes. In transition times involving paradigm shifts, the need for trust is vitally important. If trust is absent, unhealthy emotional problems surface. With trust as the groundwork, true dialogue occurs.

Most parishioners trust their pastor. That is why, from the beginning of planning for change in parish structures, diocesan leaders, especially the bishop, need to make sure that pastors are on board. It’s not a good beginning if pastors and parishioners feel that decisions have been made with little consultation with them. 

How trust is established in parishes depends especially on the pastor and pastoral leaders. Just as paradigm shifts do not occur overnight, so it takes time to establish trust. This depends on how previous matters were treated in the dealings between pastors, diocesan leaders and parishioners.

It is worthwhile for a bishop to take the time to meet with pastors to ensure that trust exists in the presbyterate, so they can establish a climate of trust with their parishioners. When trust is present, changes in parish structures proceed more easily. 

6. Acknowledge that what is happening occurs within the framework of God’s designs

When uncertainty exists, Jesus’ passion and death provide an incentive for establishing hope. As parishioners anticipate the closing, consolidation and changing of parish structures, it is easy to develop a bleak mindset about what is to come. In contrast, imagine what happened at the foot of the cross with Mary, the Mother of God, and the few disciples who remained. The future looked bleak for them, but they maintained their hope and became role models for anyone who struggles with loss and uncertainty. 

Churchgoers pray the Rosary before the final Sunday Mass at Cantonment Chapel at Fort McPherson in Atlanta in this file photo. The chapel, which had served as a place of worship for the Army community since 1941, was closed as Fort McPherson prepared to shut down in a base closure and realignment process. CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin

Like the faithful disciples at the foot of the cross, we wait for God’s designs to reveal themselves. This happened on Easter Sunday for Jesus’ first followers. For us, the outcome of what is happening in our parishes will not come quickly. But it is God’s Church, and he promised to be with us until the end of time. 

Even if we cannot grasp the big picture, we can be confident that we are called to cooperate with God’s plan for making all things new. It is imperative that parishes put the change that is happening into God’s hands and pray for wisdom to discern the best path forward. 

It is important for pastoral leaders to teach their congregation the paschal mystery of dying to the old and rising to new life. This means that Christianity is a faith that prepares its members to phase themselves out. This happens from birth to death, as we move from one stage of life to another. Something similar occurs in families as they move on and in parishes as they change, acknowledge the signs of the times and seek God’s advice on the best way to go forward. As we move on, we are mindful that we are weak human actors in the great drama of salvation, directed by God and supported by one another and God’s grace. Parish members are to keep this in mind when they play their part in accomplishing God’s plan of making all things new.

7. Be patient with those who cannot immediately recognize that change is inevitable

Patience is needed by parishioners and pastors alike as they see their parish shifting focus. Like everything else in Christianity, we look to Jesus as our model of patience. Imagine what it was like for him to be patient with his followers, who constantly looked for a temporal messiah or who sought first place in his kingdom. Even more, picture the scenes when he put up with rejection, denial and persecution by his friends and foes alike. Realizing that something new was emerging, he put his life into his Father’s hands, even though the outcome was not clear. The same applies to us as we question why this or that is happening to our parishes.

We look to Jesus for patience in uncertainty as parishes change. As he was patient while bringing his disciples together to form the community that became his Church, so must parishioners and pastoral leaders be patient with those who find it difficult to let go of the past.

8. Focus pastoral efforts on the domestic church and the call to missionary discipleship

As parishes change, restructuring is necessary. Because energy and time are needed to deal with buildings, programs, organizations and liturgies, it is easy to minimize one key component of parishes: the families. Here faith is born and develops. Today the expression “domestic church” refers to the family. Initiated at Vatican II and stressed by succeeding popes, the family as a domestic church has come into a new light. 

The family is the church of the home. As parishes plan for reorganization, they need to incorporate family ministry into any new plan that is developed. As far as the meaning of “the domestic church” is concerned, the family and parish are not an either/or but a both/and. We cannot have one without the other. 

While change occurs in parishes, the family is a stable force in passing on the Faith. From baptism onward, Christians are called to be missionary disciples. This begins in family life and extends into the parish and the world. 

Two books for parish life
book “Made for Mission: Renewing Your Parish Culture” (OSV, $16.95)

Author and speaker Tim Glemkowski offers four keys to a radical change in parish culture, and outlines a simple strategy for evangelization that every parish can use. It is a must-read for Catholic clergy, lay parish staff, anyone working in ministry, and any dedicated parishioner who is passionate about renewing the Church.

“Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples” book (OSV, $15.95)

In her first book, “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus,” Sherry Weddell, uncovered the life-changing power that accompanies the conscious decision to follow Jesus as his disciple. In this book, written for the parish level, she has gathered together experienced leaders and collaborators whose exceptional field-tested wisdom and enthusiasm for transforming Catholic parishes into centers of discipleship and apostolic outreach is both inspiring and practical.

9. Evangelization, catechesis and work for justice are essential aspects of parish ministry

Any parish restructuring needs to bring to the forefront that parish members are missionary disciples of Christ, entrusted with sharing the good news. They carry out their mandate through evangelization, catechesis and social outreach — ministries at the heart of any parish. These ministries in the domestic church and the parish can never be overlooked. 

Members of St. Cecelia Parish in Cleveland greet each other during the sign of peace during Mass in this file photo. The multicultural parish was one of 28 parishes to close while another 39 merged to form 18 new parishes in the Diocese of Cleveland. CNS photo/Charles Tschopp via

In reflecting on these ministries, at the heart of a parish, we remember what the Acts of the Apostles says, namely that Jesus’ early disciples “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (2:42).

These words sum up the heart of a parish. Teaching includes the call to evangelize. Early Church missionary disciples and today’s parish members are responsible to share the good news of Jesus at home, in the world and in the Church. This happens through word and example, especially in the parish’s commitment to stewardship and ministry to the poor. 

Future parish vitality depends on whether outreach to the poor and disenfranchised are a top priority and central to the parish’s commitment to follow Christ. This is influenced by the degree that the parish is a community of fellowship — a prayerful people committed to the sacramental life where God is honored at Mass in the breaking of the bread; a revitalized parish is a people at prayer, which brings parishioners together more than any organizational structure. 

10. Prioritize the importance of Mass and the sacraments

The Eucharist and other sacraments are at the center of Catholic life and worship. Parishioners experienced what life is like without them during the 2020 pandemic. The incompleteness that Catholics felt, especially their inability to receive the Eucharist on Sundays, illustrates the need for community and the Eucharist. Keeping this in mind, parish reorganization must stress fellowship and provide vibrant welcoming liturgies. 

Parishes are encouraged to go out of the way to offer multiple opportunities to worship God at Sunday Mass. For a vibrant future church, it is imperative that ready access is available for Catholics to celebrate the liturgy on Sundays. Regardless of the parish format, the Mass at the heart of Catholic life and worship must be in the forefront. 

In so doing, parishes are to instruct parishioners that Mass on television is not an adequate substitute for celebrating the Eucharist with a parish community. Ongoing catechesis on Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist is a vital key to effective parish renewal.

Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, so must today’s Catholics do the same to enhance a vibrant Catholic parish.


Just as previous generations of Catholics built the parishes where we now worship, Catholics now forge parishes of the future.

We live in a sophisticated world imbued with secularism and challenged by atheism. May the wisdom of the Holy Spirit prevail as clergy and laity build parishes of tomorrow on the solid ground laid today. 

As this happens, we thank God and look forward to a new day, for we are people of hope. We can never forget this in developing tomorrow’s parishes.

Father Robert J. Hater Ph.D. is a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and a professor emeritus of the University of Dayton.

What two U.S. dioceses are doing
The Diocese of Pittsburgh

After three years of prayer and planning, Bishop David A. Zubik and the Diocese of Pittsburgh in April 2018 announced the details of its restructuring and evangelization initiative, “On Mission for the Church Alive.” Under the new model, none of the 188 parishes in the diocese would close. Instead, the diocese split into two vicariates — the North Vicariate with 30 groupings or new parishes and the South Vicariate with 27 parishes — in order to shift the responsibilities of 65% of its priests.

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor in May 2018, Bishop Zubik said: “The purpose of doing this, though, is to make sure that we are wisely using all our resources, with the thought of making every one of our parishes complete, so that every parish would have a good religious education program, every parish would somehow be associated with a Catholic school, that every parish would have an outreach to the poor, that every parish would be reaching out to young people. The whole purpose of doing this was evangelization.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit

Using a different model, the Archdiocese of Detroit announced last spring that they were beginning to transition to a new pastoral and governance model for its 218 parishes called “families of parishes.

“By July of this summer, the first 27 “families” of parishes will be operating together. A second wave of 24 parish families in the archdiocese will form by July 2022. These “families” are groups of three to six parishes that will maintain their own distinct identities yet share resources and leadership teams, and collaborate on ministries.

As Deacon Michael Houghton, the archdiocese’s Families of Parishes project manager, told Our Sunday Visitor last December, “The world needs us to come forward and proclaim the Good News, and we’re hoping that by structuring in such a way that it frees our people up to do more of that.”