Church Size in Flux

Church closings and parish mergers over the past decade have given the Catholic Church in America a new face.

WAYLAND, Mass. — Church closings have fueled a sense of loss and anger at the fallout from clergy-abuse settlements, and even appeals to the Vatican.

But some experts say the faithful must rethink their views about parish life — starting with the axiom that “small is beautiful.”

Father James Laughlin, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Wayland, Mass., has experienced the benefits of a larger congregation firsthand.

He once shuttled between two small parishes, with double budgets, staffs and Mass schedules. But in January, the two parishes merged, the final step of a two-year process that involved multiple committees and consultants — but avoided any protracted standoff or appeals to the Vatican.

The smooth transition to one 1,500-member parish in January 2011 is now presented as a success story by the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been vilified by many local Catholics angry about the closure of 70 churches since 2004. The merger didn’t come easy, but Father Laughlin believes his parishioners are content with the outcome.

“The focus was on mission: What could we do better if we were to combine our resources and work together to build up a Catholic community in this area? We have streamlined our outreach with minimal duplication, growing music ministry with two choirs, and hired a new youth minister with a focus on helping youth to find their call and place in the Church,” said Father Laughlin.

Judging from the data generated by a landmark study of church closings and demographic trends conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the story of Good Shepherd parish is already an increasingly familiar, if painful, fact of life — particularly in the Northwest and Midwest.

Over the past decade, the typical U.S. parish membership grew 36%, from 855 to 1,167 households, according to the CARA study. Commissioned by the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project and funded by the Lilly Endowment, the study has provoked a spectrum of interpretations and predictions since its release last month.

Some experts contend the Church is moving toward a supersized model — a possibility that gained traction after the Diocese of Orange made a bid for the Crystal Cathedral, a 5,000-seat edifice in California. But the emerging consensus is that the transition marks an inevitable and even necessary trend in parts of the country where the Catholic population has steadily declined.

“I sympathize with someone whose parish has been closed. Their parents and grandparents may be buried there. It feels like a personal violation,” said Father Paul Sullins, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America.

“But a small parish uses more resources than a larger parish. The bishop almost always closes the smallest and economically marginal parishes. As membership drops and diocesan support increases, dioceses have sometimes found themselves subsidizing marginal parishes by an amount that works out to hundreds of dollars per parishioner per year. When the diocese is investing that kind of money, it becomes obvious that something needs to change — especially when there is another church within walking distance,” said Father Sullins.

According to his research, lack of funds is the most common reason for church closures. It is rare for parishes to be closed because a priest is not available, he stated.

As the CARA study noted, bishops are more likely to appoint administrators who are not priests to manage the parish if the community can maintain it. This pattern is especially common in rural areas surrounding cities like Albany, N.Y., Rochester, N.Y., Dubuque, Iowa, and Fairbanks, Alaska.

When parishioners are informed about the closing of their church, the bishop can become the target of their ire, and appeals to the Vatican have become more common.

Bishops’ Painful Choices

The Congregation for the Clergy has generally upheld the authority of the local bishop in such appeals. But Sister of Mercy Sharon Euart, executive coordinator for the Canon Law Society of America, noted that in a few cases the Vatican decided with the petitioners.

“Decisions for the closing of the parish churches have, at times, not been upheld by the Holy See if the procedures were not followed or the reasons for the closing not been judged by the Holy See as sufficiently grave,” said Sister Sharon, who noted unconfirmed rumors of an upcoming Vatican document dealing with the issue of church closures.

Father Sullins, for his part, said that it’s time for the faithful to respect the critical role of episcopal authority.

“Church closings are a sign of the proper assertion of the authority of the bishop. A bishop is the overseer. He has to think beyond the sentiment of the parish and about the good of the diocese,” he said.

That kind of statement may constitute fighting words in cities like Cleveland, where Bishop Richard Lennon has requested the Vatican review his decision to shutter 50 churches.

But Father Sullins stressed that Catholic bishops play an essential role, guiding the Church’s response to broader demographic trends.

“A Catholic bishop has the big picture and the authority to make painful changes. He can impose and live through that pain. Protestant churches haven’t done that,” he said.

Reassessing Old Patterns

A significant difference between Catholic and Protestant churches is parish size. “The average Catholic parish is more than 10 times as large,” he said.

In faded urban neighborhoods in the Northeast, it’s not unusual to see multiple churches in close proximity, each structure built by a once robust ethnic community that has since headed for the suburbs.

“One of the issues in Northeastern cities with rich Catholic histories is that there is a parish surplus, coming from a time when it seems St. Paul’s words to the Galatians — that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek — was forgotten and at a practical level ethnicity became more important than Catholicity,” observed Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, Mass.

Based in the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., Father Landry enjoys giving tours of his vast, ornate church, built long ago by French Canadians. But the pastor, who led a youth group to World Youth Day in Madrid, believes that a larger congregation offers advantages.

“Young people don’t find the same amount of faithful peers as they would if the Catholics of a particular region worshipped together rather than in multiple, smaller churches,” he said, while noting that a decline in giving and in the number of families passing on the faith contribute to the problem.

Yet he recognizes that larger parishes may lead their pastors to spend “far more time running a big corporation, without providing more effective and more efficient spiritual care of parishioners.”

Neil Parent, who heads the National Association for Lay Ministry, agrees that larger parishes offer a mixed blessing.

“According to our research, large parishes offer more services, and during a downturn they can sustain themselves better than smaller parishes. But congregations with an average of 200 families have higher attendance at Mass and greater per-household giving.”

CARA researchers speculated that “it’s easier in a larger congregation to assume that someone else can pick up the tab or that no one will miss you. Larger parishes seem to lose that smaller sense of community,” said Parent.

Capuchin Father David Couturier, director of pastoral planning for the Boston Archdiocese, has grappled with these issues in the wake of the 2002 clergy abuse crisis that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, followed by a series of church closings marked by angry protests.

Father Couturier has worked closely with Cardinal Sean O’Malley and local pastors to improve the archdiocese’s track record on implementing closings and mergers.

He noted that Cardinal O’Malley had to contend with an annual $15 million deficit. He insisted that clergy-abuse settlements were not connected to the more recent closures.

Thirty percent of the parishes in the Boston Archdiocese, he reported, “are unable to pay their bills from their offertory. We have to find creative ways of organizing, of developing economies of scale, having parishes cooperate to build up common programs.”

As pastors and parish councils continue to reassess old patterns of parish management, Father Couturier has helped to refocus their attention on the future “mission” of the Church and pastoral needs requiring solutions.

When Father Laughlin, the pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Wayland, first contemplated the possibility of merging his two parishes, he feared such a move would escalate into a confrontation.

But with the help of the archdiocese, the pastor spearheaded a two-year study that led both parish communities toward the judgment that consolidation offered more opportunities for pastoral outreach.

Reportedly, there are no immediate plans for additional church closings in the Boston Archdiocese, but the local Church continues to symbolize the complex set of demographic issues and self-inflicted problems that will likely result in future closures.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.