Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (2023)

TACOMA – More than 900 priests, deacons, women religious, lay leaders and parish staff members filled the Greater Tacoma Convention Center Jan. 18 to learn about Partners in the Gospel, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s new strategic planning initiative.

“Today we embark upon a new moment to renew our local church, the people of God in our faith in Jesus Christ — the Risen One who makes all things new,” Archbishop Paul D. Etienne said in his homily during the Mass that began the daylong convocation.

It was the largest gathering of the archdiocese’s pastoral leaders “in decades,” the archbishop said. And it was a historic moment for the church in Western Washington, both for its size and the changes that Partners in the Gospel will bring in the coming years.

“We begin a significant process of restructuring, which at its core is an answer to the call to discern by God’s Holy Spirit how we are to be Church today — how we are to live our faith today,” Archbishop Etienne said.

That restructuring is at the heart of Partners in the Gospel, a strategic pastoral planning process that will take place at every parish in the archdiocese over the next four years.

Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (1)

Partners in the Gospel will place most parishes into a new “parish family” under the leadership of one pastor and one or more parochial vicars. From July 2024 to 2027, the parish family’s pastor, leaders and parishioners will work to discern how they can best come together, eventually becoming one canonical parish. It will be up to the parish family to address liturgical, operational, pastoral and outreach needs, and how to best use their combined resources of people, money and buildings.

Archdiocesan leaders explained the restructuring is needed for several reasons:

  • Fewer priests to serve the 174 parishes, mission and stations spread across the archdiocese’s 24,000 square miles of urban, suburban and rural areas. Currently there are 145 active priests in the archdiocese, including 80 pastors—a number projected to drop to 66 by 2036.
  • Diminishing Mass attendance and sacramental participation.
  • Nearly two-thirds of parishes operating at a deficit.
Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (2)
Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (3)

Putting Partners into practice

The convocation was infused with prayer, history and details about the Partners process, which will bring changes across the archdiocese.

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Change is inevitable in life, Father Gary Lazzeroni, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver and the archdiocese’s vicar for strategic pastoral planning, told those gathered. “But the transitions from what is to what will be can be very hard,” he said.

And change has always been a part of our faith, Father Lazzeroni said.

“From Abraham and Sarah, to the exodus, to the covenant, to the desert, to the Promised Land, to the hoping for a messiah — all of this involved the courage to change, to allow God to take people of faith to a new place,” he said. “If they had not been courageous, the church would not have moved out from Jerusalem to Rome and the ends of the earth.”

“Change is also at the heart of what it is to be a follower of Jesus,” Father Lazzeroni said. “We know that to really encounter Jesus is to be changed by him.”

Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (4)

Caitlin Moulding, the archdiocese’s chief operating officer, joined Father Lazzeroni on the stage to explain more about the reasons Partners in the Gospel is needed, and emphasized that the archdiocese isn’t alone in its predicament.

“What we are doing isn’t working,” Moulding said. “We are being called … to seek the guidance and creativity of the Holy Spirit, so that we may enter into a strategic pastoral planning process that enables a re-envisioning, a re-enlivening of parish life,” she said.

She and Father Lazzeroni asked attendees to imagine churches with full pews, active young adult and youth groups, vibrant faith formation offerings, facilities that are in good repair, time for pastors to provide pastoral outreach and enough volunteers and infrastructure to serve those in need in our communities.

Rather than telling the new parish families what their outcome must be, the archdiocese is allowing parish families the creativity to decide their futures, Father Lazzeroni explained. He gave some hypothetical examples:

  • One parish family with three churches may have enough resources to fund all its ministries and decide to spread weekend Masses among their church buildings, with youth and young adult groups meeting at one location.
  • A family of two parishes may decide to consolidate in one location so they can invest more in evangelization, social justice and outreach rather than maintaining two campuses.

What about layoffs?

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Questions submitted by participants during registration for the convocation were compiled for a Q&A session featuring Father Gary Zender, pastor of St. Louise Parish in Bellevue and the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy; Nicholas Ford, superintendent for Catholic Schools; Moulding; and Father Lazzeroni.

The first question was about potential layoffs under the parish family restructuring.

“We couldn’t do this without lay ecclesial ministers. I can’t imagine wanting to lay people off,” Father Lazzeroni said. Although “it’s not a guarantee,” he said, “parish staff are going to be crucial.”

Archbishop Etienne also addressed that question in his remarks at the end of the convocation.

“Partners in the Gospel is not meant to diminish the number of Catholics,” the archbishop said. “Quite the opposite. It is to help us answer the challenge of the new evangelization. So, we need all of our lay ministers!”

Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (5)

Another question was about how Partners in the Gospel could affect schools.

“I see our Catholic schools playing a critical role in the vibrancy of our parishes,” Ford said. “I don’t see closures, but I see opportunities” for collaboration, he said.

Concerns were raised about multicultural and multilingual ministries being forgotten in the process.

Father Lazzeroni’s response was met with applause: “We have to ensure that everybody that needs to be at the table when decisions are made are there. We have to reflect the diversity we see in this room.”

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Hope, uncertainty

After the convocation, some participants expressed a mix of hope and uncertainty. Veronica Brambila of St. Edward Parish in Shelton said she left the day with hope.

“Now we can see working together with different cultures and languages,” Brambila said.

Matt Jordan, pastoral assistant for administration at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Tacoma, said there are a lot of questions as the process begins, adding, “I firmly believe that keeping focus on the mission of the organization and clear commitment to pastoral care are some of the keys to the success of the process.”

Members of three small, more rural parishes said they left the convocation with some uncertainty over how their parishes will be served under the new model.

“We have already gone through a similar process twice in the last 25-plus years,” said Jodi Hadaller of St. Mary Parish in Castle Rock, explaining her parish was part of a parish partnership before becoming part of the current cluster that includes parishes in Longview, Kelso and Cathlamet.

“I am concerned that Partners in the Gospel will precipitate still another big change for our parish cluster and as we all know, CHANGE IS HARD!” Hadaller wrote in an email. “All I am certain of at this time is that Partners in the Gospel will provide every parish, every priest and every parishioner many opportunities to turn to God in prayer as we weather these new challenges.”

Historic gathering launches Partners in the Gospel restructuring effort (6)

Toni Williams, chair of the finance council at St. Lawrence Parish in Raymond, said she was happy to hear that parish families will decide their futures. She also appreciated hearing that rural parishes “can’t be left behind,” but felt that currently “they have no plan for the rural communities.”

The initial reaction at small parishes may be “fear and frustration for how this reorganization might impact them,” said Mark Rose, a member of the finance council at St. Joseph the Worker in Yacolt, a parish with about 40 families that is a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Battle Ground. But Rose expects they will feel “a bit more at ease” after learning more about Partners in the Gospel and understanding the archdiocese’s willingness “to include every (parish) and every parishioner in the decision-making process.”

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‘We are in this together’

It’s that sense of walking with each other — and with God — that Father Lazzeroni sees as a takeaway.

“In the months and years ahead there will be joy and grief — and we will have to accompany one another, and our parishioners, through all the ups and downs that lie ahead,” Father Lazzeroni said. “But we do not do this alone. (Jesus) told us that he is with us — and we trust that he is and will continue to guide us.”

Archbishop Etienne also addressed the challenges ahead, and some of the hardships that have led to a need for restructuring.

“For years we’ve been asking our priests to stretch — and to stretch some more — in order to provide for the sacramental needs of our people,” the archbishop said.

After a recent meeting of the priest personnel board, the archbishop said his “homework” was to call two retired priests to ask if they would consider a temporary active assignment.

“Honestly, I could not do it. I could not do it,” Archbishop Etienne said, his voice cracking with emotion.

“Now it is time to ask every member of the Church to stretch for the good of the whole Body of Christ,” the archbishop said. “We are in this together — because we are Partners in the Gospel.”

Jean Parietti contributed to this article.

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Learn more about Partners in the Gospel

  • Visit the website: archseattle.org/partners, where you can watch the Partners video and sign up for the Partners newsletter.
  • Read the Northwest Catholic article.

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