Parish life coordinator emerges as new model for parish governance

Sid Hastings

The clergy appointments announced in the paper this week include one that might sound unusual:

"Deacon John Schiffer, a permanent deacon assisting the pastor of St. Peter Parish in St. Charles, is released from that assignment, and appointed as Parish Life Coordinator of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in St. Charles ..."

Wait, parish life coordinator? What's that?

For the first time -- formally anyway -- Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has appointed a permanent deacon to this new role of leadership in the archdiocese. A parish life coordinator "has the responsibility of administering and overseeing the temporalities of a designated parish, as well as participating in and giving pastoral direction to the parish," according to the archdiocese's definition of the role.

In addition to providing guidance and direction, Deacon Schiffer also will "provide guidance and direction, but also to work with and for the dedicated members of the designated parish."

A parish life coordinator is to incorporate a team approach. Deacon Schiffer will work with lay staff and other clergy, including Father Mark Whitman, a senior associate pastor who will split his time between two parishes, and two permanent deacons and another priest in residence already serving at St. Robert Bellarmine.

Deacon Schiffer also will collaborate with Msgr. Ted Wojcicki, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie. Msgr. Wojcicki, dean of the St. Charles Deanery, has been named pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine, fulfilling a Canon Law that states a priest must be pastor of a church. But Msgr. Wojcicki won't reside at St. Robert.

It's a new model of parish management that could be applied in more parishes, especially as the number of priests in the archdiocese declines, said Father John O'Brien, director of the archdiocesan Office of Continuing Education and Formation of Priests.

Father O'Brien said this underscores the importance of the planning and viability study that began in parishes earlier this year. In fact, St. Robert Bellarmine sent 40 people to training sessions on how to conduct the process in parishes.

"This is exactly why we want parishes to take this seriously and engage as many of the parishioners as they possibly can," he said. "So that when we find ourselves in a situation precisely like this one, where we do not have the personnel, then we can fall back on the parish's other preferences for future structures of parish management."

There are similar examples of this type of parish governance already in place in the archdiocese. Since 2011, Deacon Allen Boedeker has served as pastoral administrator of St. Andrew Parish in Lemay. (See related.) Some priests, especially in rural areas, serve as pastor of a parish while also administering smaller neighboring parish communities.

Ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2008, Deacon Schiffer said all of the things he's done as a deacon -- weddings, baptisms, teaching and preaching, for example -- will still be a part of his new role. His new responsibility will primarily lie in the operations and governance of the parish. That means managing aspects of parish life such as accounting, employee contracts, insurance needs and guiding the ministries of the parish.

Although Deacon Schiffer said he likens this to "jumping into a pool of water and not knowing how far it is or how deep it is, I think it's going to be good. I go in there very humbled that I was even asked to do this and excited I get the opportunity to do something that might set the tone for the future in the archdiocese."

'All pitching in' at St. Andrew Parish in Lemay

Deacon BoedekerDeacon Allen Boedeker is somewhat of a poster child for the new model of parish governance that will emerge at St. Robert Bellarmine in the coming months.

In 2011, Archbishop Robert Carlson appointed Deacon Boedeker as pastoral administrator of St. Andrew Parish in Lemay. He works with a team, including a pastoral associate/director of religious education, pastoral musician, and another deacon. For the parish's sacramental needs, it relies on a short list of priests — many of whom are assigned to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He works closely with Msgr. Patrick Hambrough, resident pastor of St. Mark in Affton and canonical pastor at St. Andrew, Vicar General Msgr. Mark Rivituso and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice.

"I always say, 'This is not just me'" running the parish, said Deacon Boedeker. "We are all pitching in. The people here are really being called forth to use their talents and gifts to a much greater extent, and they're coming out and doing it, and they're being fed."

Like in most other parishes in the archdiocese, the parishioners are St. Andrew's lifeblood. Hopefully they will welcome the leaders who are assigned to the parish and embrace their gifts and talents, but also understand these leaders are not there permanently. "The people who are the parishioners here are the ones who are staying," said Deacon Boedeker. "It's up to them to continue as parish."

He stressed the collaborative nature at St. Andrew. Those in leadership roles — the parish council for example — are the "eyes and ears" of the parish. They "let me know what people are saying and how we can fulfill those needs and hopefully continue to feed people."

Deacon Boedeker often tells parishioners that "you are the parish, and the archbishop has no intention of shutting us down. We are the poster child for this new model, and he wants to see us succeed. Now that St. Robert Bellarmine is coming into this ... this speaks volumes of good as to the archbishop wanting that parish to continue." 

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