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San Bernardino and Los Angeles: New Models of Parish Leadership
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Because fewer priests are available, 14 parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino are being led by pastoral coordinators. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is following a similar path.

Q U I C K S C A N

Why This Diocese?
'Why Is the Bishop Punishing Us?'
The Priest Minister at San Gorgonio
Meet Four More Pastoral Coordinators
Peter Newburn, Sacred Heart Parish, Rancho Cucamonga
Deacon Dick Heames, St. Patrick Parish, Moreno Valley
Sister Maureen Chichoine, R.S.C.J., Coordinator of Three City Parishes in San Bernardino
Kirsten Thorstad, St. Frances Cabrini Parish, Yucalpa
Los Angeles Takes a Similar Path
What Is the Ultimate Solution?
The National Picture

 

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

EACH SUNDAY after Mass, Lynn Zupan greets people in front of church at San Gorgonio Parish in Beaumont, California. She is a mother to four grown daughters and grandmother of three. And she’s the parish’s pastoral leader! Officially known as “pastoral coordinator,” Zupan is the top administrator and spiritual leader of this rapidly growing parish community of over 2,000 families, some 75 miles east of Los Angeles.

Standing next to her each week and also greeting parishioners is Father Paul Boudreau. Although he presides at the Eucharist, hears confessions, leads funeral Masses and sometimes officiates at weddings, he is not the pastor of San Gorgonio Parish. His official title is “priest minister.” He lives about 30 minutes away from the parish.

San Gorgonio Parish (named after a fourth-century martyr) is one of 14 pioneering parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino that is pursuing a new model of parish leadership in parishes without a resident pastor.

This phenomenon is not new. The practice has been quite common for years in this country, especially in the Midwest, Appalachia and the South and in many rural regions. In many Midwestern dioceses, for example, deacons and religious women, especially, have been appointed to serve as parish administrators.

Why This Diocese?

The Diocese of San Bernardino, headed since 1996 by Bishop Gerald R. Barnes, has only 97 parishes. The Catholic population in this diocese, however, is growing rapidly even as its number of active priests is dramatically declining.

When the diocese was created in 1978, some 100 diocesan priests were serving 235,000 Catholics. Today, there are more than 1.5 million Catholics living in the area, while the number of active diocesan priests has dropped to 59. Though the diocese has been successful in recruiting seminarians and “now has 28 seminarians—its highest number ever—our numbers for the future will not be sufficient,” Bishop Barnes told St. Anthony Messenger last December. “Even if we had 100 seminarians, we would still not have enough!”

Given the scarcity of priests, says Barnes, “Canon Law 517 provides that the administration of a parish can be entrusted to a deacon or some other qualified person. This person can be a religious or a layperson.”

Looking squarely at the numbers prompted Bishop Barnes and the leaders of his diocese to search for alternative models of parish leadership.

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'Why Is the Bishop Punishing Us?'

Although Lynn Zupan at San Gorgonio Parish would likely cringe at the title, a colleague once referred to her as the “poster child” for the pastoral coordinator movement of their diocese. Though her colleague’s comment was lighthearted, there are reasons why Zupan might, indeed, be considered a good candidate for the title. She has been pastoral coordinator at San Gorgonio for nearly four years. She was featured last October 14 in The Tidings (the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles) in an article entitled “New Ways of Being Church With Fewer Priests.”

In February of 2004 and again in 2005, Zupan had shared the speaker’s platform with Bishop Barnes in Anaheim, California, as they described the pastoral coordinator model of parish leadership in the San Bernardino Diocese. They gave these presentations during the annual Religious Education Congress of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, one of the largest religious education gatherings in the United States. In March of this year, Zupan was back at the same Congress with Father Paul Boudreau, her ministry partner at San Gorgonio, to give a similar address, entitled “The Odd Couple: Can a Laywoman and a Priest Run a Parish Without Driving Each Other Crazy?”

In an interview at San Gorgonio Parish last December, Zupan told St. Anthony Messenger about her experiences as the parish’s first pastoral coordinator. She recalled that when it was announced to parishioners that they would no longer have a resident priest as pastor but, instead, a lay pastoral coordinator, “There were many questions of concern. One of the reactions was: ‘Why is the bishop punishing us?’”

There were other fears and concerns about the parish being led by a laywoman. “Once the change was implemented, however,” says Zupan, “the fears began to dissolve. Now parishioners are amazingly supportive!”

The following episode bears this out. After Zupan and Father Boudreau had been serving the parish as pastoral coordinator and priest minister for about two and a half years, it was announced by Bishop Barnes during Sunday Mass, January 1, 2005, that both of them would be reappointed in June for another six years. A standing ovation from the whole parish immediately followed the announcement. Zupan called it “a tearjerker moment!”

“My greatest satisfaction as a pastoral coordinator,” she says, “has been the closeness I experience with the people in the parish, sharing their joys and challenges.” She also believes that, when parishioners see a layperson like herself in an active leadership role in the parish, “they seem to realize their own baptismal call and really come forward to volunteer and participate.”

Zupan is quite visible at the weekend Masses. She makes the announcements before Mass and always helps with Holy Communion. She joins the priest in the recessional after Mass. During the course of a typical week, Zupan visits the sick, helps parents prepare for the Baptisms of their children, helps families plan funerals, leads prayer services and supervises the parish staff, which includes two deacons, two religious women and several laypeople. She meets with the pastoral and finance councils. The two deacons on her staff celebrate weddings, baptisms and graveside services. Two retired priests celebrate the Sunday Mass in Spanish and anoint the sick.

“Hospitality is a big thing for me,” says Zupan. “I want people to know the doors are open to everyone, and everyone is treated with a sense of welcome and accepted for who they are.”

The Priest Minister at San Gorgonio

Father Paul Boudreau was ordained for the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, where he served for over 20 years as pastor. Boudreau is on loan to the Diocese of San Bernardino and does not seek to be pastor or chief administrator of a parish.

“Lynn is a wonderful pastor,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. For his part, Boudreau says he loves preaching and serving the parish each week as sacramental minister. He is happy that Zupan takes care of other spiritual and administrative responsibilities there. This frees him to prepare the liturgies and homilies, as well as to fulfill writing commitments. Boudreau spends a major part of his time each week as a writer for several well-known Catholic publications.

“A collaborative style of ministry is really needed in parishes following the lay pastoral coordinator model of leadership,” says Boudreau. Some priests accustomed to a more traditional model, he believes, might not find it easy collaborating with a layperson in charge. “The model has to be collaborative,” he says. “One has to defer to the other out of love for Christ. If I were administrator of the parish, I might want to follow different priorities or directions. Both sides need to let go of their own agenda, at times, and defer to the other for the good of the parish.”

As Bishop Barnes has pointed out, “Each parish has to have a pastor,” and this applies as well to parishes like San Gorgonio, which are led by pastoral coordinators. A pastor is needed, for example, to delegate permissions, such as for a visiting priest to celebrate a wedding at the parish. In the Diocese of San Bernardino, a priest known as an episcopal vicar serves as the canonical pastor in these instances.

Last December 4, I attended the 9:45 a.m. Sunday Mass at San Gorgonio and experienced a happy rapport between the parish and its leaders. After Mass, Aurora Perry, who has been a member of the parish for 20 years, told me about the fears and concerns of parishioners when the pastoral coordinator model was first introduced. “Now,” she says, “the new model of parish leadership is going well, and my husband, Steve, and I are 100 percent behind it. We realize how blessed we are.”

Meet Four More Pastoral Coordinators

During my December stay in the Diocese of San Bernardino, I visited four additional pastoral coordinators and the California parishes they serve:

Peter Newburn, Sacred Heart Parish, Rancho Cucamonga

A native of Iowa, Peter Newburn has been lay pastoral coordinator at Sacred Heart for three years. At this writing, he and his wife, Joy, have two children and another on the way. Newburn holds a doctor of ministry degree from The Catholic University of America. Involved in Church ministry for 21 years, Newburn was director of faith development in a large Houston parish when he read an ad in the National Catholic Reporter, indicating that the San Bernardino Diocese was looking for a pastoral coordinator.

Newburn has his hands full at Sacred Heart. The parish has 2,000 registered households and is growing rapidly. A key part of his task is overseeing the building of a new church to seat 1,450 people.

The parish has a school (K-8), 12 full-time staff members and four part-time staffers. Like many parishes of this diocese, Sacred Heart has a multicultural makeup: 35 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Filipino, as well as immigrants from Vietnam and Nigeria and a good number of Anglos. The full-time priest minister who assists Newburn is Father Edward Molumby, a Trinitarian.

On December 3, I attended the Saturday evening Mass at 5:30 p.m. The parishioners were friendly and hospitable. Before Mass, Newburn spent several minutes publicly welcoming the congregation and making announcements in a warm, informal style.

In an interview after Mass, he said, “It is important to understand that the role of the pastoral coordinator is not just administrative—overseeing budgets and staff, hiring and firing. It is also pastoral—articulating the spiritual vision of the parish.”

What is Newburn’s greatest satisfaction? “To build a community,” he replies, “where people are growing in their faith and using their gifts in the service of others and of the world. I hope I’m building a welcoming community. I hope I’m modeling lay leadership and, in so doing, encouraging others to step up and get involved in the parish and build a more collaborative Church.”

And yet there are challenges. “It’s a challenge to balance parish responsibilities with family and children. I am very blessed that my wife, Joy, is very supportive.”

Deacon Dick Heames, St. Patrick Parish, Moreno Valley

Born in northern Ohio, Dick Heames was ordained a deacon in Tucson, Arizona. After serving as deacon in two parishes in that area, he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he served two more parishes. Then he was invited by the Diocese of San Bernardino to become pastoral coordinator at St. Patrick Church in Moreno Valley. Heames holds a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Tucson’s Kino Institute. He and his wife, Marianne, have eight children, including a son studying for the priesthood.

Although his assignment as pastoral coordinator at St. Patrick began only last July, the affable deacon is delighted with his new role. “I love this job and can’t believe how wonderful it is! I feel I have been trained for the job. I have learned so much from the priests I’ve worked for. They’ve been great mentors. I’ve also learned a lot from my 24 years serving in the U.S. Navy,” says Heames, explaining that he retired from the Navy with the rank of commander.

Like many places in the San Bernardino Diocese, Moreno Valley is very much a desert town, but multicultural and growing rapidly. The parish center seats 850 people. Hispanic Catholics make up about 60 percent of the congregation, with Anglos, Filipinos and Vietnamese also making up significant percentages.

Their six weekend Masses include two Spanish Masses. “The 10 a.m. Sunday Spanish Mass overflows with over 1,000 people,” Heames says. Members of the LaSalette Order, most of them Filipinos, serve as the priest ministers. A Spanish priest celebrates most of the Spanish Masses.

As in many parishes of the diocese, plans are under way for a new and larger church. Overseeing the construction of the new church, of course, will be an important part of Heames’s responsibilities as the pastoral coordinator.

Heames describes his key tasks as deacon at St. Patrick as “to marry, to bury, to baptize and to preach. Once a month, I preach at all the weekend Masses.” As pastoral coordinator, he also supervises the eight full-time members of the parish staff.

Sister Maureen Chichoine, R.S.C.J., Coordinator of Three City Parishes in San Bernardino

Sister Maureen Chichoine has been a pastoral coordinator for 12 years in the Diocese of San Bernardino. A native of St. Albans, Vermont, of French-Canadian and Irish background, Sister Maureen served as a religious educator for several years in a New York parish and then at a parish in San Diego. Both parishes were trilingual. Sister Maureen, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, came to the Diocese of San Bernardino in July of 1995 as pastoral coordinator at St. Mary Magdalene in Corona, California.

She left Corona in 2004, after being assigned as pastoral coordinator for both Christ the King Parish and Our Lady of Fatima Parish in San Bernardino. A year later, she became coordinator of an additional parish, St. Anne, also in San Bernardino, where she now lives. All three parishes are challenged by inner-city issues, such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and gangs.

The diocese plans to merge all three parishes. A 14-acre piece of land, central to the three churches, will serve as home for Our Lady of Hope Parish, which will serve some 5,000 families.

At present, two full-time priests celebrate 13 Masses each weekend at the three parishes as the priest ministers, with assistance from three retired priests. Each parish has its own multicultural makeup. St. Anne Parish serves some 1,600 families, estimated by Sister Maureen to be 55 percent Hispanic.

Father Luc Tron, a Vietnamese priest, resides at St. Anne and celebrates Mass for some 500 Vietnamese Catholics. English-speaking people of diverse backgrounds also worship at St. Anne. The other two parishes have a multicultural character as well, with even larger Hispanic majorities.

Sister Maureen believes that religious education is the “biggest single program” for building up the Catholic faith of the various Catholic communities under her care. Despite the daunting challenges surrounding her, she takes her hectic life in stride. She calls herself the “resident gringa” and describes her greatest satisfaction as pastoral coordinator as: “I love the folks! I’ve worked all my life with immigrants. I feel that I can relate well with them as I try to serve as a bridge between the different cultures.”

Kirsten Thorstad, St. Frances Cabrini Parish, Yucaipa

Born into a military family in Milwaukee, Kirsten Thorstad has moved often with her family, first to Southern California as a child, and later to Hawaii. For several years in Colorado, she was regional manager of six furniture stores.

In 1992, Thorstad, a laywoman, came to the Diocese of San Bernardino to be closer to her father, who was ill. Before long, she became more interested “in the Church world than in the business world.” She became the director of religious education and youth ministry at St. Patrick Church in Moreno Valley and the following year was named pastoral associate at that parish. In 2001, she became the first pastoral coordinator at St. Patrick, a position she held until Deacon Heames was asked to assume that post in July of 2005.

Thorstad then became the first pastoral coordinator at St. Frances Cabrini in Yucaipa on July 1, 2005. Last December, she told St. Anthony Messenger that the parish has 1,800 registered households. “Nearly 70 percent of the congregation is Anglo,” she says, “with Hispanics making up close to 30 percent of the parish—and growing.”

Native Americans, Asians and African Americans, she adds, also worship at the parish but in smaller numbers. A principal focus of Thorstad’s energy at St. Frances is “raising funds for the construction of a new church, for which we hope to break ground within a year.”

Thorstad, who is working on a master’s degree in pastoral theology, believes that the pastoral coordinator model is a good fit for the San Bernardino Diocese, given its current realities. “Though it is still a pioneering model, the model is very welcomed here in this parish.”

At the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass (December 4) at St. Frances Cabrini, the people were friendly and hospitable. Outside the church after Mass, the parishioners seemed genuinely happy to greet Kirsten Thorstad, their lay pastoral coordinator, as well as Father Joseph Cornely, who celebrated the Mass.

Also after this Mass, I spoke with Michael Gross, a layman serving as volunteer music minister for the Mass. A member of the parish for 55 years, Gross has participated in its music ministry for over 30 years. He believes that having “a lay pastoral coordinator—especially one familiar with the business world—is a good thing.” He thought this to be especially true at the present time as the parish prepares to build a new church. “We’re talking about collecting big money,” he says. “It could be difficult for a priest to be the CEO of a parish in such a situation. I feel very comfortable with the transition to a lay pastoral coordinator. It’s a good model for this time in the diocese.”

Father Joseph Cornely, a Trinitarian priest, is the full-time priest minister at St. Frances Cabrini and lives at the church rectory. “The people of the parish have come a long way in accepting the pastoral coordinator model,” Father Cornely says. “The collaborative style, which is part of this model, is wonderful! It frees me to do priestly ministry. I don’t have to worry about finances and administration.”

Los Angeles Takes a Similar Path

For some time, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, San Bernardino’s big neighbor to the west, has also been trying out new structures of lay leadership in parishes without resident pastors.

In a pastoral statement on lay leadership, “As One Who Serves,” released in September 2005, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, predicted that new forms of parish leadership would soon “increase considerably” in the archdiocese.

In a March interview, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gerald E. Wilkerson told St. Anthony Messenger: “About three years ago, Cardinal Mahony and his auxiliary bishops began to look at the decreasing numbers of our priest personnel and the continuing growth of the archdiocese. We knew we needed to act quickly to provide for the needs of our people….I was named at that time to head a task force that would develop formal policies for parish life directors in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.”

Parish life director is the term used for non-priest pastoral administrators in Los Angeles—parallel to the term pastoral coordinator, used in San Bernardino.

Bishop Wilkerson explained: “For some 10 years now, we have had about five parishes that are twinned with a nearby parish and are served by one pastor. About seven years ago, we named a religious as the leader of a very small and remote parish. That was our first experience with a non-priest ‘pastor.’ About four years ago, we named a woman religious as a leader of a moderate-size suburban parish.

“In the last six months, we have added three more parishes to the list of those with a non-priest pastor (and which are now led by parish life directors). Of these three, two are led by a woman religious and one by a permanent deacon. On July 1, we will add another parish that will be led by a layman. We expect these numbers to increase as our priests die, retire or become ill.”

In developing policies for parish life directors in the archdiocese, Bishop Wilkerson said, “We looked at models from throughout the country. San Bernardino, however, has been using parish coordinators for many years now, and so we relied very much on their experiences.”

According to Bishop Wilkerson, because an important priority of the task force was the education of priests, parish staffs and the lay leaders of the archdiocese, they sought the help of Bishop Barnes of San Bernardino. “There is no doubt that Bishop Barnes has led his diocese in this model and is probably the ‘lead’ bishop here in the West regarding new models of parish leadership,” Bishop Wilkerson observed.

“Our archdiocese held half-day workshops in each of our five pastoral regions, using a team that Bishop Barnes picked from his diocese. Bishop Barnes led each of the sessions and was accompanied by Lynn Zupan and Father Paul Boudreau of San Gorgonio Parish. Over 1,200 people who attended were asked to return to their parishes and engage their parish staffs in discussing this new form of parish leadership. Cardinal Mahony also attended one of the sessions.”

Bishop Wilkerson said that he and his task force took what was best not only from San Bernardino but also from other dioceses throughout the country in determining their own models of parish leadership. A very significant end result of the task force’s efforts was the formation on January 1, 2006, of the Office of Parish Life—a new office for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “This office,” explains Bishop Wilkerson, “is charged with the continuing oversight and ongoing development of parish life directors in the archdiocese.”

What Is the Ultimate Solution?

No one I talked to in preparing this article suggested that the pastoral coordinator or parish life director model of parish leadership was the one and only solution to the declining number of priests.

As the Church continues to promote vocations to the priesthood and weighs its other options, one thing is clear: Those who have experienced these new models of parish leadership seem pleased with a vision of the Church in which a greater spirit of collaboration and harmony exists between laity and clergy.

The National Picture

by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Parishes without a resident pastor are found increasingly, though not exclusively, in rural areas of the Midwest and the South.

According to a 2005 study for the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City, approximately 10 percent of U.S. parishes have a non-resident pastor, reported Ed Lambro in Origins (November 17, 2005). Since 1990, the percentage of parishes under the care of someone other than a priest grew from 1.9 percent in 1990 to 3.6 percent in 2005. Using statistics from the 2006 Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Alamanac, this equals 695 parishes. When this percentage is added to the percentage of parishes where someone other than a priest provides the day-to-day pastoral care, the number of affected parishes rises to six percent.

On November 15, 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry.” This document very briefly addresses pastoral coordinators. (See www.usccb.org/laity/laymin/co-workers.pdf.)

 

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this magazine and editor of Catholic Update. His latest books are A Retreat With Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid and Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People (both by St. Anthony Messenger Press).


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