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Multi-parish Pastoring Is the New Normal

Tips for priests to survive — and even thrive — in the near term

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As a child, I remember my siblings claiming that my mom loved me best. I don’t blame them. I was a terrific child. But every time they said this, my mother would respond vehemently with her own claim: “I love all my children the same.”

Now, as the father of four children, I know she wasn’t telling the truth. I know it because loving all your children in the same way isn’t possible. It’s also not the best approach. Similarly, multi-parish pastoring requires a leadership that loves and uniquely responds to each parish community.

This admittedly is challenging. We call you, our pastors and priests, “fathers” for a reason, and your spiritual fatherhood is invaluable. The expectations and demands of spiritual fathers today are only growing. In fact, as more dioceses move to models of multi-parish pastoring, the demands are increasing exponentially.

Regardless of where you are incardinated, multi-parish pastoring is likely coming to a diocese near you, if it hasn’t already. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), since the 1960s the number of active priests in the United States has dropped by 38%. Today, there are six times more parishes without resident priests.

Even in parts of the country that seem to be growing in their Catholic population, the number of available pastors is not keeping pace with the need. The implications for our pastoral landscape are numerous. According to our research, a parishioner is 11 times more likely to recommend their parish if they are likely to recommend the pastor, and four times more likely to then say the parish is helping them grow spiritually. In our research, even the most effective pastors’ impact is diluted with each additional parish community they are asked to shepherd.

So what’s a Church to do? Among rooms full of your brother priests, I know that many of you are asking your bishops to “do something.” With a large majority of priests 60 years old or older — and those in their 60s with still a decade or so left in active ministry — it seems both unfair and unrealistic to double or triple the demands. For younger priests, who continue to be formed for a Church that no longer exists, it’s likewise futile to hand over an unsustainable reality and expect it to be propped up indefinitely.

There is no easy answer to the challenges posed by the multi-parish pastoring dilemma. However, there are several things that priests can do to survive and even thrive in the near term while also helping the Church respond and evolve to a better future model.

How do you minister during this disruptive time?

Even if your bishop is willing and able to realign parishes to meet massive generational shifts, there will still be a period of transition and implementation that will see priests being responsible for multiple parishes or, at minimum, a parish with multiple churches. While there is an important canonical difference between those two realities, in many ways both situations require the same effort and leadership from a pastor. What can you do in the short term to help yourself and your people navigate through this period?

You Can’t Run

Fathers, you may be reading this from a multitude of different experiences. Perhaps you have been ministering in a multi-parish reality for more than a decade. Or, maybe you are looking at the number of years until you retire and thinking, “This won’t apply to me.” Regardless of the context you find yourself in, I encourage you to take some time for reflection, asking the Lord to help you envision a different way of pastoring.

For example: What are you asking from me, Lord, as a shepherd in this new landscape? What qualities about myself will serve this dynamic or hinder it? What approaches or assumptions are almost automatic in my pastoring today that may need to be revisited? What expectations do I have for myself that I need to adjust or let go? If I could ask for three types of support to help me, what would they be and why?

While this kind of reflection is best to do before you enter a multi-parish pastorate, it’s never too late and never a selfish endeavor to draw away to the mountain, asking the Lord for the graces of persistence and clarity to guide you forward.

Based on our qualitative parish research, many of you already intuitively embrace a critical element of pastoring effectively in a multi-parish context — the power of your presence. It’s imperative to adjust your calendar to allow maximum visibility in your new communities. As you look at Mass times in your parishes, plan a schedule that enables you to be present and to mingle with parishioners before and after Mass. Instead of trying to attend every ministry’s meeting at every parish, try coordinating a joint ministry meeting every other month so that you can all pray together and build relationships. Instead of running around to different homes, ask a few families to help you host some dinners at the rectory.

Find a Second in Command

Fathers, you cannot and should not do this alone. For those of you in multi-parish pastoring situations where staffing is possible, prioritize the role of a director of parish services or the equivalent. When the budget might not even pay your salary, it is still possible to find a leader in a dedicated volunteer. The functions and behaviors of this role are important. This person needs to be someone you trust deeply — they must be credible, reliable, discreet and should be able to represent you in various settings, understanding and sharing your vision for the parish. They should be able to multitask and instinctively connect dots for different people and groups. They should prioritize their own work and help you prioritize yours. While you might be wondering where such a person can be found, I suggest looking to the younger mothers in your parish. Perks like flexible work schedules or tuition reimbursement can be very attractive to families that might need a second income. If you would like the job description, email me at

Often, multi-parish pastoring arises from a diocesan intervention — either as a broad plan for the whole diocese or a more localized effort. While the last thing a newly formed parish or family of parishes wants to do is interact with the diocesan central administration, I have encountered diocesan leaders who deeply consider how they can best support their pastors. Approach the relationship with the diocese as a partnership and try their resources. At a minimum, you can then provide feedback for improvement, and hopefully have some of the burden relieved from you.

Our Catholic Identity

Multi-parish pastoring can easily feel like a structural punishment for a declining faith, especially in your role as pastor. But any crisis or change provides an opportunity to learn. Changing dynamics in our parishes enable an opportunity to draw from examples in Scripture and speak to what oneness in Christ is all about. Preach and teach the connections between what’s happening in your communities and what happened in the early Church. In particular, cultivate a deeper appreciation for our identity as a member of a local Church. In his letters, Paul was and is writing to us, just with a different zip code. A renewed understanding of Catholic identity will help people better grasp the four marks of the Church — one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.

Helping people understand their identity will also help them prepare for more change. The growth of multi-parish pastoring will not be the last change the Church undergoes. This is the power of steeping our people in a true Christian hope — the circumstances, changes and structures never mean as much as who is at the center — the only unfailing, unchanging Jesus Christ.

Multi-Parish pastoring
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The Urgency?

What if multi-parish pastoring is a long way off for you, personally? Firstl, I might suggest you check yourself on that belief. The above recommendations for ministering in a multi-parish setting would also be recommendations I would make to any pastor in any context. The sooner you apply them, the smoother the change will be whenever it comes. However, there are three additional suggestions I would offer to those who have more time than others.

First, embrace the heart of the true meaning of competition. According to my high school Latin teacher, the root meaning of the word competition is not “rivalry” as the late Latin indicates, but rather “to strive together.” Is the way you engage your brother pastors down the road; speak to your people about the future of the parish; or set up your schedules, structures and strategies a rivalry, or is it a striving together — you do your best alongside others doing their best? In this current landscape, we need to work together toward the same goal — Jesus — rather than trying to be the last parish standing. I’ve heard well-intentioned pastors rally their parishioners by stating that they want the parish “to be the last one standing.” The short-term effects may be helpful, but the long-term harm will only make it harder for the eventual pastor (who might be you) to bring rival neighbors together. Pope Francis often says the shepherd should smell like the sheep. Fathers, let me tell you, the sheep most definitely will sound like their shepherd. Choose your rallying cries carefully, for your sake and ours.

Be Conscious of Limits

I often encounter presbyterates who are anxious for the bishop to have a plan, to solve the parish problem, to reduce the burden on pastors. However, I also find that sometimes priests don’t fully appreciate the complexities of timelines and the limits on our bishops. The presbyterate is not a homogenous entity, it’s a group of very different men. For some priests, change can’t come quickly enough. For other priests, eternity would not be enough time to figure things out. Some priests see retirement on the horizon and want to be left alone, while others are feeling the increasing pressure of a lifetime of uncertainty ahead. These are the dynamics of the presbyterate. Now add thousands of people who aren’t paying as much attention as you are.

Canonically, there are significant limits to a bishop’s ability to wave his crozier and make it all better. Such canonical nuances and requirements are not merely spin or other excuses; they are real constraints that require a great deal of thoughtfulness. Time for consultation and discernment is important. Getting the facts right is critical. Helping people to understand the reality, possibilities and limitations requires tremendous effort.

Striving toward a more sustainable and effective parish landscape is a marathon, not a sprint, and it has no finish line until Jesus returns. Expect a plan from your bishop, but respect the fact that it’s complicated. No plan is perfect. Seek to be a bridge builder within the presbyterate so that your bishop can benefit from your important wisdom from the field and help keep your local church moving forward for the good of everyone.

Last, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, love your children differently. A priest friend of mine was recently assigned to minister to two parishes for the first time. He shared that he was complaining to his biological brother about the demands it would place on him, and he asked rhetorically how on earth he could possibly be expected to love these parishes the same if he was split in two. His older brother, a father of three, responded: “Any parent who says they love all their kids the same is lying. I don’t love your three nephews the same. I love them the way they need to be loved, and I love them as best as I can.”

Fathers, as the future is increasingly defined by multi-parish pastorates, it is increasingly important for you to stay grounded in the most important truth. You are God’s beloved sons. He only seeks your faithfulness, not your success. Your Father wants you to be fathers who love his children as they need to be loved, and who loves them as best as you can. Know that you are loved, too, by God and by him through all of us.

DANIEL CELLUCCI is the CEO of Catholic Leadership Institute. His most important vocation is as a husband and father to four. He lives in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


Leadership that Contribute to Vital Parishes

As individual priests and lay ministers are asked to serve multiple parishes, in “Priestly Ministry in Multiple Parishes” (Liturgical Press, $19.95), Katarina Schuth, OSF, Ph.D., looks at models of leadership that contribute to vital parishes, as well as factors that might lead to the diminishment of vibrant parish life. The book presents the voices of pastors who serve and multiple parishes as they share the rewards and challenges of such ministry. The book is also a good resource for bishops, diocesan staff and seminary educators as they plan to meet the needs of these ministers and the people they serve.


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