Two parishioners write workbook about how to navigate the emotional upheaval of parish reconfiguration
By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
The current downsizing trend in the Catholic Church — fewer parishes, fewer priests and greater involvement of lay leaders — has led to massive reconfiguration throughout the country.
The Syracuse Diocese is no exception. Changing demographics, declining number of priests and decreasing revenue spurred then-Bishop James Moynihan to ask for written plans for restructuring parishes to be submitted by Thanksgiving 2006. Since then, a good number of parishes have closed, merged or been linked with one another.
Two parishioners from the Syracuse Diocese have recently published a workbook to help make dealing with the turbulent emotions inherent in the reconfiguration process a little easier. Christina Brassie and Marie Pagano wrote the workbook, entitled I Didn’t Think God Ever Closed!, over this past year. It was written to assist in the development of a process for identifying the needs of a parish and for formulating a practical plan for implementation of the diocesan directive for reconfiguration.
Father Joseph Scardella, diocesan Director of Formation for Ministry and Liturgy, edited the book and provided guidance to the two women as they wrote it. Father Scardella thinks the workbook will be extremely helpful to parishioners who are undergoing the reconfiguration process.
“It’ll give them a focus while they deal with the issues and it will serve as a spiritual guide for them,” Father Scardella said. “God is willing us to a new spiritual journey.”
Brassie explained how the idea for creating the workbook got started. When her church, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Warners, closed June 30, 2008, she was enrolled in the Formation for Ministry program, along with Pagano. “I remember thinking that our church closing was like being told that you were dying,” said Brassie. During the four to six months preceding the church’s closing, Brassie took copious notes about the ways that the parishioners planned to meet their spiritual and physical needs. She also commiserated with Pagano, who was struggling with change at that time as well. Her parish, St. Charles Borromeo, was linking with St. Ann’s, both in Syracuse.
Brassie, a certified diabetes educator and registered nurse, noticed that her parish family was experiencing the same stages of grief that her patients had experienced and that different age groups had different perspectives that were appropriate for their ages and social needs.
Pagano, a clinical nurse specialist in the gastrointestinal field, said that with the nature of their profession, they were accustomed to having a goal and a process to accomplish it. Both women were perplexed about how to deal with the parishioners’ feelings.
“We went on the Internet, but we couldn’t find anything about how to deal with the ‘people part’ of the reconfiguration process,” said Pagano. “We prayed that we would be open to the Holy Spirit and to be open to growing more into acceptance.”
Brassie proposed the idea of compiling the workbook to Father Scardella. He was very excited by the concept. “I think the book will help people to go through the process in a very healthy way,” said Father Scardella.
Brassie and Pagano wrote the workbook as the fulfillment of a requirement of 30 hours of supervised ministry for their Formation for Ministry project.
Pagano said that the notes Brassie took when her parish went through the process of closing were invaluable when they were deciding what format and topics they would include in the workbook.
They based the workbook on three premises: the developmental and social phases of the life cycle, the stages of grief as applied to the “loss” experience and the Old Testament Scripture for spiritual guidance.
The two women felt it was important to include the developmental stages of the life cycle in the workbook in order to give some insight into different age groups and what is important to them. Specific examples and recommendations of the age groups’ issues, concerns and spiritual needs are listed for consideration in the book.
The introduction of the workbook states, “The intention is to stimulate discussion within your parish as you begin to develop your own unique plan and process. It is our belief that the stages of grief as applied to the death and dying process can be applied to the emotional and spiritual phases of a parish community in the process of closing, merging or linking. The ongoing focus must be toward understanding this is an opportunity to experience the love of God and to grow in faith.”
Pagano and Brassie said the process begins by identifying key persons within the parish who will lead the course of action and to pray for God’s guidance. They said it is extremely important to develop a clear channel for reporting back to the pastor to keep the process focused, on task and reverent.
Pagano said that when her parish linked with St. Ann’s, she found the regularly scheduled “town meetings” between the pastor and parishioners very helpful. “It was because the lines of communication were clear and were being utilized,” said Pagano.
“All of us have to take ownership of the process,” added Father Scardella. He was impressed by the way Our Lady of Good Counsel handled the process when the parish closed. “Art Luke and Sister Ellen Lindsley, CSJ, did a phenomenal job,” said Father Scardella. “Through their combined efforts, they kept the community together through open communication.”
The workbook also includes examples of worksheets for working with the parish council and for each stage of the life cycle — elementary school age, teenager, independent adult, adult and senior. Two blank worksheets are also included in the workbook to be used as a tool for parishioners to focus, plan, implement and pray about the process of reconfiguration.
“This is a very upbeat, positive book,” said Pagano. “It’s a prayerful approach. This is how you bring yourself through the grief and pull yourself together.”
Father James Lang, Vicar for Parishes and board member of the Conference on Pastoral Planning and Council Development, was impressed when he read the workbook. “Christina and Marie embrace the pilgrimage of discipleship,” said Father Lang. “The Church of Jesus Christ does not close, its parishes and structures, however, inevitably are changed by the circumstances of history. Change is always a challenge. Their useful tome helps one to embrace the key human issues of change and to move forward with a sense of meaning and hope. Their thoughts about change and life cycles are important contributions to our future. Reconfiguration is not simply linking or merging. Pastoral planning is about disciples building healthy vibrant parishes and structures in a changing world.”
Pagano and Brassie believe that their journey through the Formation for Ministry program influenced their choice of the content for the workbook. “We stopped every so often to pray,” said Brassie. “We asked the Holy Spirit to help us.”
Brassie and Pagano will be commissioned on Sept. 13. “I would like to encourage people to join Formation for Ministry,” said Pagano. “Every adult could benefit from it. It deepens your faith and broadens your knowledge.”
“None of this would have been possible if they hadn’t been involved in Formation for Ministry,” said Father Scardella.
The workbooks will be available at the Journey of Faith Conference at the OnCenter in Syracuse on Sept. 26. To order a copy, go to email@example.com.