September 19, 2014


Merged parishes need more money

With the mergers of parishes that are taking place throughout the country, including here in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, it should come as no surprise that the resulting parishes are sometimes forced to take on the appearance of big businesses. Some of them have come to be known as “million-dollar parishes.”

An article in the Sept. 7 issue of Our Sunday Visitor’s OSV Newsweekly reports that approximately 28 percent of Catholic parishes in the United States now qualify as million-dollar parishes. That is, parishes whose annual revenues exceed $1 million. That happens primarily in large parishes.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University says that the average number of parishioners at U.S. Catholic parishes whose annual revenue exceeds $1 million is 6,590. Only a few parishes in our archdiocese—including St. Monica and Holy Spirit in Indianapolis and St. Malachy in Brownsburg—exceed that number.

It’s true that many of these supersized parishes are in the South (Florida and Georgia) and Southwest (Houston and Phoenix, for example), where there has been a rapidly growing Catholic population. Dioceses affected have built large regional parishes. Nevertheless, many parishes that are a result of a merger have to feel growth pangs.

Of course, the revenue should rise, but so do expenses. In many cases, the expenses rise more sharply than the revenue. Since there are more people in the merged parishes, sometimes there are more Masses and almost always there’s an increase in the number of lay people, both paid staff and volunteers, to serve the larger population. Parishes can’t survive without them.

Most parishes these days, especially those in urban areas, have 15 to 20 paid staff, not including school personnel. There are fewer priests these days, but many more lay people than there were at one time. This is how it must be if our parishes are to retain their vitality.

The article in OSV Newsweekly quotes Mark Gray, a senior research associate for CARA, saying that the additional revenue at a merged parish seldom exceeds the combined total of the various parishes’ revenue before the merger.

We can surmise some of the reasons for that. Some people harbor ill feelings over the closing of their former parish and decide not to contribute as much. They have to be convinced that the bishop or archbishop had no other choice considering the number of priests he had and the number of parishioners in the former parish.

Or they might develop the attitude that their contribution doesn’t matter much in the larger parish. In fact, Gray alluded to that when he said, “The perception in smaller parishes is, ‘What I give really matters,’ where in bigger parishes it’s, ‘There are so many other people giving, my parish will be fine even if I can’t give this week.’ ”

Obviously, that’s an attitude that must be corrected. Since larger parishes have larger expenses, all parishioners have the responsibility of contributing.

As our parishes increase in size, either as the result of mergers or through evangelization or demographic shifts, pastors are forced to learn how to be chief executive officers, how to be good managers. They can no longer do everything themselves, as they once had to do.

Fortunately, they no longer need to because the Church in the United States now has many thousands of lay people who want to work for the Church and are qualified to do so. The pastor’s role, therefore, in addition to saying Mass and administering the sacraments, is to provide leadership and vision to a growing staff.

Larger parishes usually are able to do more for the parishioners and the surrounding community than smaller parishes can do. And that’s the challenge for merged parishes. Their pastors must take advantage of the new talent in the parish to revitalize it.

Of course, that’s the challenge for all of our parishes, not only those that have been merged. Usually, only a small percentage of parishioners do most of the work. We must find ways to get more parishioners involved so that our Mass attendance percentages improve.

Larger parishes present their own problems, but it appears that they’re the future for the Church in the United States.

—John F. Fink

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