In 2005, two parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, St. James in Mequon and St. Cecilia in Thiensville, merged to become one combined parish named Lumen Christi. The rationale for the merger was a familiar one: the archdiocese’s worsening priest shortage. I joined the pastoral staff of Lumen Christi in 2013, when the then-merged parish was evaluating whether they should combine into one geographic site, using the St. James church building rather than both locations. When the parish held a listening session to discuss the issue, a debate quickly broke out about how to furnish the combined site. People from St. James insisted that they could not bear to lose their crucifix. Someone else suggested that they could utilize the tabernacle from the St. Cecilia site, since it seemed the crucifix had to stay. People continued to chime in with opinions about how to best combine pieces of both spaces.
An older gentleman raised his hand and stood up. He looked around the room and said, “My grandfather was baptized at St. Cecilia. I was baptized at St. Cecilia. My son and granddaughter were both baptized at St. Cecilia. I am sorry about your decorating dilemma, but I want you all to know that I am not too excited about leaving my home parish to go worship at yours.”
Nine years later, Lumen Christi has combined into one site in a way that honors both former parishes, and their process is an example of how to manage mergers thoughtfully. But the man’s comments have stuck with me, and I continue to be sad for his loss. It seemed to me that parish mergers and closures ripped apart communities and brought a lot of unnecessary pain. I wondered why the preferred method of dealing with the priest shortage, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and elsewhere, has been to merge parishes, when an alternative exists.
This alternative is Canon 517.2, which allows lay or deacon leaders to serve as the administrators and spiritual leaders of their parishes. The canon states:
If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.
Rather than requiring a single priest to be the head of the parish, and closing a parish when one isn’t available, the model allows other qualified members of the faithful to lead the parish day-to-day. This model does not have a universal name; the leadership role it involves is most commonly referred to as “parish-life coordinators,” but they also go by “parish administrators” or “ministers of Canon 517.2” (which rolls off the tongue). In Milwaukee, these ministers are known as parish directors.
According to data from CARA, since the 1960s, the number of active priests in the United States has dropped by 38 percent. Today there are six times more parishes without resident priests. In Milwaukee the numbers are even more dire: a drop in the number of priests by about 73 percent since the 1970s. Seventy percent of priests here are sixty years old or older. Milwaukee has used the Canon 517.2 model increasingly since the 1980s, but still not very often; parish administrators make up only 7 percent of the total parish leadership in the archdiocese. At the same time, as a result of mergers and closures, the number of parishes has decreased from 265 to 197.
Given this reality, I wanted to know more about the experience of parish directors in Milwaukee. Does this model of leadership work? What challenges do parish directors face? Why is this model not used more? Could it be a long-term solution to the priest shortage? With permission from the archdiocese, in 2017 and 2018 I conducted research interviews with the eleven parish directors in Milwaukee at the time—four lay women, three lay men, and four deacons. These ministers had served in the role anywhere from a half a year to twenty-two years. They were open and generous in sharing their stories and provided valuable information about Canon 517.2 that is of use to the whole U.S. Church.
It is surprising how different Catholics’ perceptions of what it means to be a parish can be. Most Catholics have never experienced a lay or deacon parish director, but for those who have, they do not flinch at this alternative form of leadership. I recently told a colleague who was raised in a lay-led parish about my research on Canon 517.2. Her first reaction was surprise: “Isn’t that normal?” she asked. The truth is that communities led by parish directors are by far in the minority.
But according to the parish directors I spoke with, the model works. They spoke especially of a renewed vibrancy in parishes that might have otherwise died—new committees, new initiatives, or new programs that got many parishioners involved and active. They also said that their parishioners feel known in a way they hadn’t before. Catholics can tend to defer to a priest-pastor, which can mean that they don’t become involved in parish life or governance. This is not a spiritual laziness (in most cases), but it can create a lack of responsibility in some Catholics. But when there is no priest to lead, parishioners have to step up. They often feel responsible for the well being of their parish and are empowered to get creative.
The other side of this bargain is that parish directors feel especially accountable to their parishioners for providing a good experience of Church life. When the leadership structure of a community is upended, its members reevaluate why they are a part of that community, and parish directors feel that they need to work hard to remind people why they should stay. As Bridget, one of the parish directors said, “It has to be meaningful, or else [parishioners] have other stuff to do.”
One secret to their success is their “ministry of presence.” This kind of pastoral attention is not a new approach, but it does require an available and engaged person to attend to parishioners’ needs. In the current shortage situation, too many priests are pastoring multiple parishes, or are asked to stay in active ministry far beyond their prime. By expanding the leadership pool, parishes can ensure that leaders have time to engage with their communities. For far too long, we have overburdened our priests with lofty expectations that can lead to burnout and communities starving for engaged leadership.
Where exactly, then, do priests fit into the parish-director model? Canonically speaking, each minister serving under Canon 517.2 must have a supervising priest, and this relationship is a wonderful opportunity for mentoring for the parish directors. In addition to the supervising priest, there can be an assisting priest assigned to help with the sacramental life of the parish. This assisting priest is often a “senior priest” retired from full-time active ministry. Assisting priests love ministry and being connected to a parish community, but are glad to put the days of managing staff and suffering through finance-council meetings behind them. One of the biggest surprises of my research was the consistently positive relationship between the parish director and the assisting priest, which parish directors described as respectful partnerships.
One critique of this model is that it could reduce the priest to a “sacramental dispenser.” While the potential for this does exist, the Milwaukee priests serving in this role wholeheartedly disagreed with this description. In the best case, the assisting priest builds a relationship with the community, where they are a consistent presence. While they can’t take on all of the leadership of a parish, they can continue to bring their spiritual gifts to the faithful.
The parish directors described a “best of both worlds” scenario: there is still a priest presence in the community, but the day-to-day operations and leadership can be done by a well-qualified, passionate lay or deacon parish director. As Michael Scott said in The Office, “It is a win-win-win”: for the parish directors who are empowered and supported in their leadership; for the assisting priests who can share their priestly vocation without being bogged down by bureaucracy; and for the parish community who benefits from a dynamic duo of leadership.
There are only a handful of dioceses in the United States that use the Canon 517.2 model. Why has there been such hesitation to take it up? Admittedly, it is certainly nontraditional. Most Catholics associate parish life with a priest-pastor and haven’t had much opportunity to imagine what other models could look like. To some, this model could look like a threat to the status or role of the ordained.
Certainly, the model only works in a diocese with a bishop supportive of the use of Canon 517.2. It’s the bishop who authorizes the placements of parish directors—or he can choose not to. The three archbishops who have led Milwaukee since the 1980s have had varied levels of enthusiasm for an alternative model of leadership; with every leadership change, the momentum of the model is thrown into jeopardy.
Moreover, hesitancy about the model doesn’t necessarily mean it is never implemented; it means that when it is implemented, it is done so haphazardly and with minimal support for parish directors. Of the eleven parish directors in this study, four were placed in parishes under “emergency circumstances”—meaning that there was not a long-term plan for them to take on leadership. Rather, they were placed there because the pastors were suddenly unable to fulfill their assignments and there were no available priests to take over. In these situations, the parish directors had little time to prepare or learn about the parish before assuming the role. One parish director reported feeling underprepared to manage a parish budget; another parish director described the awkwardness of being on the parish staff one week and overseeing it the next.
If this model were embraced in a proactive way, parish directors would have more opportunity to be successful. One of the most important things dioceses could provide to make this model work is more education. As it stands now, if a lay person wants to obtain an advanced degree in theology, they usually have to fund their own way. On the other hand, if a young man decides to enter priestly formation, he will have financial support and housing, and be assured of the faithful’s prayers for his vocation. Vatican II reminded the Church that all baptized are included in the “People of God” and are part of the family of faith, but it is clear that the Church prioritizes certain vocations over others.
And even the parish directors who are installed and supported sense that their roles are fragile. It’s not uncommon for parishioners to ask, “When are we going to get a priest?” In a Church where clericalism still has a foothold, parish directors understand they are not always parishioners’ first choice. As a result, they feel a need to be cautious in their leadership so as not to rock the boat. They also tend not to promote the good work they are actually doing, which can lead to a cycle of feeling undervalued. Women in particular feel that they have to be the “best of the best” to get and keep the role. Many of the women parish directors in Milwaukee have doctorates, university-teaching experience, and decades of experience in a pastoral role; without these, they may not have been considered. More vocal, formal support from the archdiocese could go a long way in the acceptance and education about the role of parish directors for the faithful.
Ultimately, the Canon 517.2 model is a temporary one. Without change to canon law, there can only be parish directors as long as there are also priest administrators and assisting priests. But based on my discussions with the parish directors of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I am confident that this is a viable model for the foreseeable future to deal with a shortage of priests—a problem we face whether we like it or not.
It’s worth noting that the canon is one of the boldest ways laypeople have been empowered since Vatican II, giving them a practical and authentic share in Church leadership on a local level. It echoes Vatican II’s call to faithful service for all the baptized. If the bishops would embrace this model, they could develop a more inclusive, proactive plan to use parish directors. Dioceses could provide better training and place parish directors intentionally to help parishes thrive. It’s also an incredible opportunity to elevate women to leadership roles in the Church and would make a bold statement of equality among the faithful.
In a time of uncertainty about the future of parish life, we have to ask ourselves a challenging question. What do we, as a Church, prioritize? Do we cling to an established leadership model that is struggling, or do we encourage the People of God to lead in their faith communities? If we embrace the latter, then we must let the Holy Spirit invigorate our leadership and enliven our faith communities in a way that breathes new life into the Church.