PITTSBURGH — Facing the challenge of fewer priests available to shepherd the faithful and administer the sacraments, the bishop of Pittsburgh is testing out new options where experienced deacons step up to the challenge of running parish operations.

This summer, the diocese plans to roll out three pilot models at three parishes that employ deacons as parish administrators. Bishop David Zubik told the Register that the move dovetails with his evangelical vision of the “Church Alive” in Pittsburgh, by making sure the diocese has tried-and-true “options” — all canon-law approved — that it can use both now and in the future to help him provide for the temporal and spiritual needs of parishes.

“This is for now and the future, because we have to be prepared for the challenges ahead,” he said. “This is not in any way, shape or form a Band-Aid approach.”

The bishop said the idea originated out of a discussion with his priests. The diocese’s largest classes of priests, men from the baby-boomer generation, were ordained in the 1970s, and they are now nearing retirement age. However, Bishop Zubik said that a number of priests told him they would be willing to continue as active priests “if you can get us a little help with administration.”

Bishop Zubik then consulted with his permanent deacons, who said they had some “heavy hitters” with both administration and ministry experience who could fill the administrative roles. They agreed to the idea, so long as it was voluntary and not expected of every deacon.

Although Bishop Zubik said he is “blessed to have a steady increase of vocations” — he has 40 seminarians and will ordain six men to the priesthood this year — the diocese’s ordination rate is outpaced by the retirement rate. Canon law allows bishops to appoint a parish administrator other than a priest, with permanent deacons being first in the order of preference, followed by religious and lay faithful, when the diocese does not have enough priests to function as pastors and full-time administrators.

 

The Models

The diocese is exploring three models that will allow deacons to take up the work of a parish’s day-to-day operations and free up priests — especially those working past retirement age — to carry out the sacramental ministry of a pastor.

The first model involves a deacon helping a pastor with the administration of the parish. The second involves the deacon taking on administrative parish work for a team of priests responsible for a parish or parishes. The third involves a deacon taking on administrative duties where no priest resides at the parish. However, the regional vicar will have responsibility for the care of souls in such a parish.

The pilot project, Bishop Zubik explained, allows participating deacons time to work out difficulties and learn how to improve them.

“There will be three pilot [deacon] assignments, and they will match each one of these three models.”

The diaconate is a good source for this plan, as the ordained deacon has three charisms of his ordained ministry: service at the altar, service of the word and the service of charity.

“This certainly ties into that third element of holy orders,” Bishop Zubik said.

The new deacon-administrators and their parish assignments have not yet been made public. However, Deacon Stephen Byers, director of the department of diaconate formation, said three deacons have been training since Jan. 1 to take up their new roles in this project. The training covers the day-to-day operations of parish life and brings in experts from a variety of professional backgrounds to cover all the areas of parish management.

The idea is that training will continue in the form of workshops, which can address issues that arise on the job.

“We’ll provide them with as much ongoing formation as they need,” Deacon Byers said, explaining that diocesan officials will review the project after a full year.

“There’s a lot of communication issues that go along with this because the models are all different,” he said. The program’s organizers are working with the regional vicar, the pastor and the deacon to understand what the prime constituencies of each parish (such as the parishioners in the pews, the pastoral councils, staff, etc.) need to know in order to make sure everyone is prepared and understands what is going on.

Byers said this post-ordination role is for “seasoned guys” — deacons with years of experience in ministry already under their belts and professional backgrounds in management. He said they chose the deacons carefully to make sure that they would have a “good-working relationship” with the pastors or regional vicar, who will still have charge over the care of souls in the parish.

 

Other Dioceses

Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, told the Register that, according to the most current information available — the 2014 edition of The Official Catholic Directory — 55 dioceses employ deacons as parish administrators, with 143 deacons serving in that role.

“According to the same source, Green Bay [Wis.] was the leader, with 15 deacon administrators,” she stated in an email.

She added that Pittsburgh will be the eighth-largest diocese in population to use deacon administrators, ranking behind Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Calif.,  Dallas, Fresno, Calif.,  Phoenix and Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas.

In the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, a handful of parishes are administered by a deacon or religious known as a “pastoral leader,” who works with the priest, known as the “presbyteral moderator,” who has primary spiritual care of the parish.

Deacon Jerry Ziemkiewicz has run the administration of St. Richard’s in Swanton, Ohio, for three years, and he said that stepping into the role was “a difficult transition” for both him and the parish, mainly because it was so new and different. While he had more than 20 years of full-time ministry and parish experience in the Church when he arrived at the parish, he had to build the relationships, the trust and personal ties with people who were still getting used to the idea of a married deacon living in the rectory full time. But they got to know each other, and Deacon Ziemkiewicz said he focused on viewing the challenges as opportunities for growth, particularly in his preaching.

“I asked: What can we do now as a parish? How can we have parishioners step up and help more in leadership roles and get more involved in parish life?” he said. “And one of the great things about St. Richard is that the people love their parish: They volunteer, they do step up, and they take ownership of the areas where they need to.”

He added that Father Adam Hertzfeld, St. Richard’s presbyteral moderator, has been “extremely supportive,” and they work well together.

“We have discussions where he shares his ideas, and I share mine, but he does not over-extend his role in the parish,” Deacon Ziemkiewicz said. “And that has worked out extremely well.”

 

Complementary, Not Competitive

Bishop Zubik said the role of deacon-administrator is “complementary” to the pastor and requires compatibility. A “competitive” relationship, he said, “simply is not going to make it work.”

“If there is going to be a consultative, team approach to the parish for the good of the people, it has to be a relationship that people are able to work well at,” he said.

The bishop said that he sees the pilot project as an opportunity to provide the best service for the diocese’s faithful and priests. It also provides an opportunity to show people that the deacon is much more than a “glorified Eucharistic minister.”

“I think that people are now seeing that the deacon is ordained by the Church for a much more inclusive leadership role. So the pilot program can be seen as positive on many, many fronts.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.