November 3, 2017

Vocations Supplement

Priest seeks to make parish into ‘disciple-making machine’

Father Thomas Clegg, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg, preaches a homily during a Sept. 27 Mass with students of the New Albany Deanery faith community’s school at St. Paul Church in Sellersburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Thomas Clegg, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg, preaches a homily during a Sept. 27 Mass with students of the New Albany Deanery faith community’s school at St. Paul Church in Sellersburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

SELLERSBURG—You might think that after being a priest for 27 years, Father Thomas Clegg would have gotten it by now.

But this self-described “self-improvement junkie” is driven to learn more about what it means to be a priest in the 21st century, and then to put that into action at St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg, where he serves as pastor.

“I think I’ve learned more about being a pastor in my last five years than in the 15-20 years before that,” said Father Clegg. “That’s exciting. It keeps it alive.”

A native of Indianapolis who grew up in St. Philip Neri Parish, Father Clegg was drawn to the priesthood as he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s through his love of teaching, of helping others as a firefighter and the prospect of preaching and leading others in worship.

His embrace of priestly life and ministry today, though, is rooted in what he’s learned about the ultimate purpose of pastoral leadership in parishes.

“I stay a priest, and specifically as a pastor,” he said, “because it’s an opportunity to mold a parish into what I think God calls a parish to be, which is a disciple-making machine.”

As driven as he is about priestly life and ministry, Father Clegg started his journey to it in a kind of meandering way.

He enrolled at the Latin School of Indianapolis, the archdiocese’s former high school seminary, only after his pastor told him that, of all the boys in his

eighth-grade class, he thought he could be a good priest.

As it turned out, the pastor convinced eight other boys in the class to enroll at the high school seminary in much the same way.

Father Clegg, the seventh of nine children, said that his family was “never overly religious.”

“Sunday Mass was certainly there,” he recalled. “But we weren’t a family that prayed the rosary every night or anything like that.”

He graduated from the Latin School in 1978, the same year that it closed, and went through a couple of stints in college and major seminary before being ordained in 1990.

In the periods in between, Father Clegg worked as a teacher at St. Philip Neri School and followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as a firefighter in the Indianapolis Fire Department.

“When someone has a toothache long enough, they go to a dentist,” Father Clegg said of the way the idea of the priesthood kept recurring to him. “It was just kind of gnawing at me for so long. I really had to check it out.”

Over his 27 years as a priest, Father Clegg has served as chaplain at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and in parishes in Indianapolis and the New Albany Deanery.

During much of that time, he has led parishes that have either had to merge with or collaborate more closely with a nearby faith community.

That trend started in 1992 when Father Clegg led the former St. Catherine of Siena and St. James parishes on Indianapolis’ south side to merge and become Good Shepherd Parish.

He later served as pastor of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Augustine parishes. It was the first time that the two Jeffersonville faith communities had to share a priest.

In 2013, Father Clegg was assigned as pastor of St. Joseph and St. Paul parishes, both in Sellersburg. A year later, the two faith communities merged to become St. John Paul II Parish.

In all of these cases, Father Clegg says, the parishioners drove the process of coming together.

“In all three of the complex pastoring situations I’ve been involved in, it’s been the parishioners who have made the decision,” he said. “It has never been my agenda to merge churches together.”

Tom Meier served as pastoral associate with Father Clegg at Good Shepherd Parish and had previously been a longtime member of St. James Parish.

As he observed his young pastor bring his home parish and St. Catherine together, he saw a priest that “was well beyond his years in terms of maturity.”

“He was fantastic,” said Meier, who later served as Good Shepherd’s parish life coordinator from 2000-04. “What impressed me most about [his] ability to bring the parishes together was his ability to follow a process and let that process unfold.

“Most people, myself included, would have gotten so frustrated and just said, ‘Let’s go ahead with this.’ But he was able to sit back and let the process happen, getting input from the people.”

Susan Wheatley-Huff saw these same qualities in Father Clegg when she served as a pastoral associate at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Jeffersonville.

“I think he made a huge difference by modeling who Christ was for us, by being open to the power of the Spirit during that time of coming together,” she said. “He was good at trying to bring people together and to understand that, even though we were to be together, each parish would keep its own identity.”

Don Day, a member of St. John Paul II Parish and president of its pastoral council, says his pastor “is like the Energizer bunny.”

“He’s really made our parish come alive,” said Day. “There are a lot of things going on in different ministries. Our parish has really become more vibrant that way. He’s impressed me. He’s a real leader, very mission-oriented and makes things happen.”

It’s the mission of the Church that Father Clegg ultimately says is at the heart of the process of bringing parishes together as one.

“I really think it’s a question of how we best facilitate the mission of the Church, which, in my mind, is the mission that Jesus gave us, the great commission of making disciples,” he said. “How do we best do that? If it’s best to do that with two small communities, then you stay with two smaller communities. But if you can do that better by working together, then that’s the way to go.”

The mission to make disciples has also led Father Clegg to take 17 mission trips to Haiti, although he isn’t sure who is ministering to whom when he goes there.

“For me, when we do our mission trips, I almost like to call them a reverse mission,” he reflected. “We don’t build houses. We don’t paint buildings. We don’t want to take a job out of the hand of a Haitian.

“We go just to learn about them, their culture and their lives. I call a mission trip a success if anyone on our mission team can call 10 people by name at the end of the trip, and 10 people can call them by name. It’s really about building relationships and learning about the culture.”

And for Father Clegg, relationships—with God and other people—is at the heart of being a priest.

“You’re led into people’s lives at times of great emotion, whether it’s going to a hospital to anoint someone who’s dying, or at a wedding,” he said. “People just invite you into their lives. And sometimes, it’s not because they know you. It’s because you’re a priest.”

Father Clegg encourages men considering the priesthood to nurture their relationship with God.

“It’s about an openness to God’s action in your life,” he said. “If God is calling you and you don’t close yourself off to that call, you’ll find the answer.”

(To learn more about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit HearGodsCall.com.)


More about Father Thomas Clegg

  • Age: 57
  • Ordained: June 2, 1990
  • Home Parish: St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis
  • Parents: The late John and Rosemary (Wilson) Clegg
  • Education: Latin School of Indianapolis; Marian University in Indianapolis; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati
  • Favorite Scripture verse: Jn 10:10
  • Favorite saint: St. Peter
  • Favorite prayer/devotion: Prayer of trust and confidence by Thomas Merton
  • Hobbies: Texas hold ‘em poker, golf, reading

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