Listen to this story:
NEW YORK – Citing a decline in both practicing Catholics and available resources, the Archdiocese of Seattle has become the latest U.S. diocese to announce that it will embark on a years-long parish consolidation initiative.
Titled “Partners in the Gospel,” the process will follow a model used in other parish consolidation initiatives around the country, where two or more parishes will come together to create a new parish family under the leadership of one pastor and one or more parochial vicars.
Archdiocesan leaders said the initiative is essential given the present situation in western Washington.
“With all of the changes that we’re facing today – globally, culturally and within the Church – it’s very clear the status quo is no longer an option,” Archbishop Paul Etienne said in a statement. “’Partners in the Gospel’ is a plan for how we embrace these realities with hope and confidence.”
Announcing the plan Jan. 22, the archdiocese highlighted the reality that while the population in western Washington continues to grow, the number of practicing Catholics continues to decline, as evidenced by fewer registered households, fewer people attending Mass, and drops in overall parish life.
That reality is compounded by a decline in resources, including priests, lay leaders and finances. The archdiocese has 80 pastors for its 174 locations, but predicts the number of clergymen will decline to around 66 over the next 13 years. The archdiocese also expects to have fewer seminarians and lay ministers.
“We have churches built for many more people than are attending Mass, and most parishes have constrained resources with significant expenses to maintain facilities,” Caitlin Moulding, the chief operating officer for the archdiocese said in a statement.
“Many smaller parishes have fewer resources, so they can’t invest in the programs and the staff needed to bring people together and re-enliven their faith,” she said.
Financially, the archdiocese is in a solid position. After reporting a debt of $1.5 million in fiscal year 2020, the archdiocese reported a net liquidity – cash and assets minus debt – of $16.5 million last year. The archdiocese was able to buy a $2.4 million house for Archbishop Paul Etienne, and also sold a property used by his predecessors for $13.5.
The archdiocese’s parishes, however, face a different financial reality. About 64 percent of parishes operate with a deficit, Helen McClenahan, the chief communications officer for the archdiocese, told Crux.
McClenahan noted that there have been other archdiocese parish mergers and changes in recent years. The difference with “Partners in the Gospel,” she said, is the process will be highly consultative.
As outlined by the archdiocese, the first step are parish and archdiocesan consultations that will begin this spring. The public will then have the opportunity to provide input on parish families this fall.
Moulding emphasized the importance of the consultation period in coming to any conclusions.
“We have a full year of consultation planned as part of this process,” Moulding said. “We want to hear from our priests, deacons, religious sisters, lay leaders, parish employees and the people of God throughout the archdiocese. This year of consultation will allow us to get everyone’s perspective in crafting a plan for the future.”
The archdiocese said there is no predetermined outcome of the process, while maintaining that most parishes will join with two or more other parishes to create a parish family. The parish family structures will then be announced early in 2024, going into effect with one pastor in July 2024. From there, the pastor, parish leaders and parishioners will determine how the new parish family shares resources, such as staff, ministries, outreach efforts and facilities.
2024-2027 are outlined as years for the parish families to journey together, with the intent that by 2027 the parish families will become one canonical parish.
Etienne said the new initiative is “at the heart” of the mission of the church.
“To achieve our mission, we must reinvigorate the faith of our people and re-envision how we live our faith in our parish communities, which includes adapting to our current reality so that we can strengthen our relationship with Jesus, accompany one another in faith and credibly proclaim the Gospel,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg