Friday, October 14, 2005

New ways of being church with fewer priests

By Ellie Hidalgo

The Tidings, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles

At the March 2006 Religious Education Congress they will bill themselves as The Odd Couple. She is a mother to four grown daughters and a grandmother to three children who loves to welcome people with warmth and hospitality. He is a celibate male priest who loves to preach and write.

PARISH LEADERSHIP --- Father Paul Boudreau, priest minister, and Lynn Zupan, pastoral coordinator, greet parishioners after Sunday Mass. Photo by Ellie Hidalgo

Together Lynn Zupan and Father Paul Boudreau lead, build and sustain the parish community of San Gorgonio Church in Beaumont, some 75 miles east of Los Angeles.

The parish is one of 13 pioneering Catholic churches in the Diocese of San Bernardino embracing an alternative parish leadership model in which there is no resident pastor. As pastoral coordinator, Zupan was appointed by Bishop Gerald Barnes to assume day-to-day overall responsibility for the parish. (The same position is called parish life director in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.) Father Boudreau serves as priest minister. He celebrates Eucharist at the weekend liturgies, hears confessions and presides at funeral Masses. Periodically, he assists with adult faith education.

Father Boudreau lives about 30 minutes away from the parish, and during the week works fulltime as a writer for various Catholic magazines like U.S. Catholic and Catholic Digest. He is the author of "Between Sundays: Daily Gospel Reflections and Prayers" published by Twenty-Third Publications.

When Father Boudreau, who had served as pastor for many years, was offered the opportunity to be a priest minister, he accepted.

"To discover new ways of being church with fewer priests --- it intrigued me and I wanted to be a part of it," he recently told a group of parish staff and ministers from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Father Boudreau said he enjoys focusing on what he does best --- preaching homilies and writing. He has appreciated not having time-consuming administrative and supervisory responsibilities, which he said are not his strengths.

"I've become so peaceful and relaxed," he said. "Because someone who is very competent is in that position [of running the parish].

LITURGICAL MUSIC --- Members of the Spanish Mass choir include Iris Lopez (from left), Jose Franco and Alberto Rodriguez, joined by Galicia Franco, age four. Photo by Ellie Hidalgo

In a given day Zupan visits the sick, leads a prayer service, prepares parents for the baptism of their child, assists a divorced Catholic with her annulment, or designs a worship aid for a funeral. She supervises staff and handles the administrative work, which in her first six months included the re-striping of the parish parking lot.

"I dearly love what I do. It's a wonderful ministry," said Zupan, who holds a masters degree in Religious Studies from Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles and held previous jobs as a school teacher, director of religious education and in the diocesan catechetical office. "Walking with the people on a day-to-day basis. Sharing their joys and their tough times. Hospitality is way up on my list --- to let people know the doors are open to everyone, and everyone is treated with a sense of welcome, and everyone is accepted for who they are."

Zupan and Father Boudreau meet weekly, believing that a collaborative relationship between the priest minister and the pastoral coordinator is key to the success of an alternative leadership arrangement.

"The role of each is to make the other the best he or she can be," noted Zupan, who also relies on a number of other ministers. Two deacons celebrate weddings, baptisms, graveside services and quinceañeras. A couple of retired priests celebrate the Sunday Mass in Spanish and assist with anointing the sick.

Unprecedented growth

The growth in the number of Catholics living in the Diocese of San Bernardino coupled with the decline in the number of active priests is startling. When the diocese was established in 1978, there were 100 assignable diocesan priests actively serving 235,000 Catholics. Today, there are 1.2 million Catholics in Riverside and San Bernardino counties --- while the number of active diocesan priests has declined to 59.

The diocese is committed to promoting vocations to the priesthood and the number of seminarians has grown, but not at the rate to meet the needs of a burgeoning Catholic population.

"We don't have a sufficient number of priests to assign all our parishes," said Bishop Barnes. "Some have the charism to be priests but not pastors. The role of pastor requires additional administrative and leadership competencies that not every priest is able to do."

ASSEMBLY --- San Gorgonio Parish is comprised of 2,000 families. Photo by Ellie Hidalgo

Catholic canon law provides for the ability of a deacon, woman religious or lay minister to provide leadership to a parish in the absence of a priest pastor. Thus, Bishop Barnes and the Diocese of San Bernardino turned to alternative models of parish administration that would welcome the leadership gifts of qualified competent laity, deacons and women religious while preserving the unique charism of ordained priests.

"The pastoral coordinator is the pastoral and spiritual leader of the parish," said Bishop Barnes who directly appoints each pastoral coordinator to a parish for a three-year assignment which is renewable for another six years. After the nine-year period, the parish may once again be assigned a resident pastor.

Currently, the diocese has 12 non-priest parish leaders, called pastoral coordinators, administering 13 churches out of a total of 97. Three priest moderators mentor the pastoral coordinators, and coordinators are evaluated thoroughly at different points in their appointment.

Parishes using an alternative parish leadership model are chosen carefully based on staff development, lay leadership, the financial stability of the parish and geography. The candidates for pastoral coordinator should have a graduate degree or be working towards one as well as have experience with parish life, supervisory skills, multi-cultural sensitivity, maturity, collaborative style and flexibility.

Transitioning parishes

Parishes are informed a year before that they will be transitioning from having a resident pastor to having a pastoral coordinator and priest minister in order to have time to prepare. The diocese meets with the current pastor, staff, and parish council. A letter is read to all parishioners and questions are answered during a parish-wide meeting.

SAN GORGONIO CHURCH --- San Gorgonio Church in Beaumont in Riverside County is in the valley below the San Bernardino Mountains. Photo by Ellie Hidalgo

Bishop Barnes acknowledges that some priests and parishioners have a difficult time accepting the model. Some don't like the idea of a woman having overall responsibility for a parish. Others are anxious about change.

"All of a sudden the bomb drops," longtime San Gorgonio parishioner Ellen Campbell recalled upon hearing that a non-priest would be taking charge of her parish. "I wondered, 'What did we do to deserve this?'"

Was the parish being punished? Quite the opposite, officials maintained. San Gorgonio had been chosen because when their pastor had a heart attack and was absent for two months, lay leaders and parishioners rallied together and the parish carried on well.

Parishioners' fears were put to rest once Zupan had a chance to demonstrate her gifts of collaboration, fostering community and the continued development of lay leadership.

"We have open doors with Lynn," said Alberto Rodriguez, who coordinates the Spanish choir. He said he appreciated her trust in him and her encouragement to attend classes in liturgical music.

Zupan is culturally sensitive, added Deacon Ralph Sepulveda. "She greets you with a hug. For a Hispanic that means you are being accepted."

Parishioners have gotten used to the different roles and responsibilities of Zupan and Father Boudreau.

"Lynn is easy to work with and Father Paul brings joy to our lives," said Margaret Spalenka.

The lack of a resident bilingual priest creates some difficulties, especially following the death of a parishioner.

"We get a priest wherever we can for a funeral. It's hard. You have to call around," said Luz Angelica Ortega, one of the lay leaders of the Spanish-speaking community. "Lynn supports us. We keep seeking to understand and grow and work out any problems."

Despite the challenges, San Gorgonio's community of 2,000 families continues to grow. The parish has a number of active ministries including Bible study, religious education, Eucharistic adoration, Knights of Columbus, a respect life committee, small faith communities in English and Spanish and a centering prayer group. Following Hurricane Katrina and famine in Africa, parishioners raised more than $83,000 to help the victims. A parish-based international food festival drew 700 parishioners, linking the Hispanic, Filipino and Anglo communities together.

Even Campbell, one of the most resistant parishioners to the alternative leadership structure, has changed her mind.

"This isn't something to be feared or regretted," she said. "We are thriving. People are volunteering all the time, and the Holy Spirit is operating in us."