Leadership takes on new look - Catholic Courier

Leadership takes on new look

Among the three of them, Sister Diane Dennie, Father Norman Tanck and Father William Kamau will soon oversee 11 diocesan churches.

This trio comprises a Sister of St. Joseph, a Basilian order priest and an extern priest from Kenya. None is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester.

Yet they will lead parishes that, with few exceptions, have been headed by diocesan clergy throughout their existence.

Such is the rapidly changing landscape of parish leadership. In recent years a noticeable growth of pastoral administrators — nonpriests holding parish administrative duties — has occurred. To a lesser degree, more externs — priests from other dioceses — are serving as parish leaders as well.

These developments stem from Pastoral Planing for the New Millennium, the process by which parishes share their resources in response to the priest shortage. Gone are the days when the norm throughout the diocese was one priest leading a single church with one — or more — assisting priests in tow. Rather, some parish leaders now oversee as many as six churches simultaneously. Depending on the availability of additional sacramental assistance, they may have to travel substantial distances and rearrange Mass schedules.

Father Michael Conboy, diocesan director of Priest Personnel, said that when he was ordained 45 years ago “it was entirely different” and these alternative styles of parish leadership are “a much more modern phenomenon.”

City and rural parishes have been most greatly affected by pastoral planning, but thinning priest availability is starting to show in the suburbs as well. Father Tanck, for instance, is about to begin his 10th year as pastor at Irondequoit’s Christ the King Church, which has been served by Basilians for most of its 50 years. Yet his pastorate also is expanding to include two neighboring parishes, St. Salome and St. Thomas the Apostle. This marks the first time any of the three churches have shared a pastor.

“We are getting less and less priests; we must accept it,” remarked Father Kamau, whose new pastorate at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Livingston County will cover five churches and a campus ministry. He added that the faithful need to accept these transitions because ‘the only thing that does not change is change.”

Growing models

One change many parishes have experienced has been the presence of pastoral administrators, who began serving in this diocese in 1994. There are currently 27 people qualified for this role; 16 are serving in assignments, and the rest are in a pool for future openings.

Sister Dennie acknowledged that she certainly couldn’t have foreseen herself in such a role when she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1961. But pastoral administrators began to flourish during her 21-year tenure as principal of St. Lawrence School in Greece, and so she began considering this new way to employ her leadership skills.

“I was excited at being able to have a share in that,” Sister Dennie said.

Since 2000 Sister Dennie has led St. Bridget/St. Joseph Parish in East Bloomfield. Now she is about to lead three parishes instead of one, as she prepares to take over St. Michael Parish in Lyons, St. John the Evangelist in Clyde and St. Patrick in Savannah.

In an interesting twist, a diocesan priest, Father Joseph Marcoux, will serve as parochial vicar for the three churches. According to Barbara Pedeville, diocesan director of management and staff services, this role reversal from yesteryear is becoming more common as priests concentrate on the sacraments and nonpriests serve as parish leaders.

Overall, since the pastoral-administrator model began in this diocese, “it is being received in a much more positive light as people experience the pastoral gifts of the administrators,” Pedeville said.

Extern priests, as well as pastoral administrators, can now be found serving in every part of the diocese. There are nearly 30 externs here overall, mostly from Africa. Their appointments are generally worked out between Bishop Matthew H. Clark and the bishop of an extern’s home diocese.

For many years externs have come to this diocese to study at area colleges while assisting at parishes. Father Kamau, for instance, arrived in 2004 to pursue a master’s degree at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

His new pastorate at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish will cover St. Patrick Church, Mount Morris; Holy Angels, Nunda; St. Thomas Aquinas, Leicester; St. Lucy, Retsof; and St. Mary, Geneseo, as well as the campus ministry at SUNY College at Geneseo.

Other recent examples of African priests in parish leadership roles are: Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia of Kenya, pastor of Church of the Epiphany/St. Rose of Lima/St. Mary of the Lake in Sodus, Sodus Point and Ontario (as of June 2007); Father Paul Gitau of Kenya, administrator at Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget in Rochester; and Father Stephen Karani of Kenya, administrator of Holy Family, a parish with four worship sites in northern Steuben and southern Livingston counties.

Extern priests — among them Father Karani and Polish priests Father Adam Ogorzaly, pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish in Rochester; and Father Felicjan Sierotowicz, sacramental minister at Sacred Heart/St. Ann in Auburn and Owasco — occasionally become incardinated into this diocese.

Many times, externs come from “positions of major authority in their own diocese. And if their bishop gives his blessing, we’re not going to say no,” said Karen Rinefierd, a liaison in the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. In his home diocese of Murang’a, Kenya, for example, Father Kamau has taught at a major seminary; begun a school; and even served temporarily in a bishop’s role.

Extern leaders here are “very anxious to see the pastoral approach in this country,” Father Conboy said. “They are anxious to learn from us how church is exercised here. You might say it’s a win-win situation.”


Pastoral-administrator and extern leaders are helping greatly in an era when pastors are increasingly being stretched. Next month 18 diocesan parishes will be joined into seven clusters — two or more individual parishes that share their leader. At this point more than 50 percent of diocesan churches are in cluster relationships or have gone a step further — combining all staff and finances into single parishes with multiple worship sites.

Further groupings of this sort are expected to continue, based on projections of available priests. According to Carol Dady, diocesan coordinator of priesthood vocation and awareness, only two seminarians are in formation for the diocesan priesthood at this time. While two men, Deacon Jeffrey Tunnicliff and Deacon Hoan Dinh, are being ordained to the priesthood this year, five pastors are retiring.

Another potential hurdle is that the pastoral-administrator and extern models aren’t foolproof. Pedeville pointed out that the appointment of a pastoral administrator always hinges on having a priest available to celebrate the sacraments, and that pastoral administrators cost more to parishes in salary and benefits than do priests. Meanwhile, externs — unless they become incardinated — can be called back abruptly to their native countries by their bishops, or simply wish to return home after a few years here. Father Kamau, for one, said he only plans to serve as pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish for two years at most before going back to Kenya.

“I would love to go home,” he said, noting that whenever he talks to his mother by telephone she asks him when he’s returning.

Neither can order priests, who constitute a handful of pastoral leaders in this diocese, be counted on.

“You’re not going to see (local parish leaders) come from the religious,” Father Tanck remarked, saying the orders are all struggling with their own shortages.

As it is, Father Tanck carries a bit of apprehension about his expanded pastorate in Irondequoit.

“Three communities have not been done in the past, and I have not done it in past,” he said.

On the positive end, he will have two assisting priests, including fellow Basilian Father Joseph Trovato. Father Tanck also observed that Basilians in Canada oversee one parish with many worship sites.

“So we know it can be done,” he said.

And Father Kamau pointed out that back in Kenya, it’s common for a parish to have a mere two priests covering up to 20 local churches, perhaps getting to celebrate Sunday Mass once per month at each church. So, his pastorate in Livingston County is a comparative walk in the park.

“For me it is not foreign at all,” he said with a laugh.

Lay involvement is key

But new models of parish leadership may still be foreign to lots of folks around here, and Father Kamau understands that.

“Here, they’ve had it good and now they feel threatened,” he said.

“It depends on if (the parishes have) been affected or not,” Rinefierd said, adding that new leadership styles remain difficult “for those who haven’t experienced a different model.” On the other hand, she said pastoral planning has helped get parishes more accustomed to working in larger groups and considering more alternatives.

Sister Dennie suggested that current parish leaders alert their faithful to major changes as early as possible. She credits Father John Philipps, who retired from St. Bridget/St. Joseph the year she arrived, for alerting the parish to the oncoming transition.

“That still didn’t mean people didn’t grieve the loss of him. (But) as a community they worked well with the change,” Sister Dennie said.

Since both priests and pastoral administrators may apply for all pastoral-leadership openings, it’s not a given as to which model will arrive at any one church. Rinefierd noted that the bishop’s first preference is to appoint a priest when possible, but that “each appointment is made with the needs of the community and the needs of the diocese in mind.”

“One thing the bishop wants is for all communities to be educated to receive any model,” said Deb Housel, who also serves as a diocesan pastoral-planning liaison.

How will parish leadership be represented in the years to come? Rinefierd and Housel noted that some Midwestern parishes only celebrate Sunday Mass every six weeks — conducting Communion services in between — and in other parts of the country, pastoral administrators are leading parishes of 4,000 families.

In Rochester, diocesan and parish leaders are calling for parishioners to take leading roles as well.

“The name of the game in the church today is collaboration — calling the faithful to be a part of the faith community in operation,” Father Conboy said.

“The church is going to look different. There’s a chance for a new vibrancy,” Sister Dennie said, noting that she will regard her new pastoral-administrator role as “a position of leadership and also one of lots of listening. They (parishioners) are the church.”

Father Kamau contended that parishioners in this diocese are “depending so much on the priest for their faith.” He said he will challenge the people of St. Luke “to put their faith into their own hands — the community is the parish.”

“I’m not the owner of this job. I’m going as a servant,” he remarked. “I can see the whole thing changing, more people taking over leadership.”


By the numbers


Here are some key statistics on parish leadership in the Diocese of Rochester, as provided by Deb Housel in the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning:

* Current number of parishes: 139 (includes clusters as well as single parishes with multiple worship sites)

* Number of parishes in 1997: 160

* Diocesan, extern and religious-order priests assigned to parish ministry: 148

* Pastors: 79

* Parochial (priest) administrators: 10

* Pastoral administrators (nonpriests): 16

* Priests who say Mass weekly at more than one church: 49

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