From Tuesday’s gathering: Pastors Jeff Scheeler, right, and Gintaras Jonikas, left, greet Family members.
Families of Parishes
Fr. Jeff Scheeler’s extended family just got a lot bigger. And the same thing is happening to staffs, pastors, and parishioners across the Archdiocese of Detroit, Mich.
These families are groupings of parishes created under a plan the Archdiocese hopes will energize their worship life and equip them to deal with some harsh realities. “This is being driven in part by a priest shortage,” says Jeff, pastor of Transfiguration Parish in Southfield, “but they hope this process will reinvigorate us, that we will be more alive ourselves, and engaging and inviting” heading into the future. If this all sounds familiar, think, “Revitalization and Restructuring”, the process through which US-6 Franciscans are creating a coast-to-coast province.
In southeast Michigan, Transfiguration is one of 218 communities impacted by Families of Parishes, rooted in Synod 16’s call for a mission-focused Church and accelerated by a pandemic that severely impacted parish attendance and finances. Introduced at Pentecost 2020 by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, it draws from a similar Families plan implemented by the Diocese of London, Ontario, Canada, and widely studied by other major dioceses, including Cincinnati.
Over the next two years, 51 groups of three to six parishes will begin sharing staffs and resources while retaining their name and identity. Assigned to a “first wave” operational on July 1, Transfiguration is part of South Oakland Vicariate Family Five, which also includes:
– Divine Providence Lithuanian Parish in Southfield
– Our Lady of La Salette Parish, Berkley
– Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish in Oak Park
Jeff and his fellow pastors and deacons now belong to the Family. “We’re all pastors of each parish,” tasked with doing “whatever the Family needs,” he says. As the “Moderator” or administrator for his grouping, he’s right in the middle of things. Fr. Jeremy Harrington is Family Vicar, assisting with Masses.
Initially, “The Family priests got together and just started talking and shared information about what our parishes were like,” Jeff says. “For the first activity, we got staffs of all four parishes together. They came here for Mass and had lunch and we had a PowerPoint presentation. I have been preaching about it when it seems appropriate. I basically say, ‘We’re separate parishes but invited to much more collaboration in terms of staff.’”
At Transfiguration, founded by friars in 1930 as St. Michael Parish and merged with three other Southfield parishes in 2007, “There was a little bit of, ‘Here we go again,’” says Jeff. But this isn’t a cluster or a merger, he explained. “The goal is not to close parishes or reduce staff. I think it’s a creative way to respond to our current situation. It’s more than, ‘Let’s cooperate.’ It’s new language for new thinking, a whole new paradigm.” The word “Families”, with its kinship connotations, seems the perfect choice.
“My job is to read the signs of the times, get a sense of what’s happening, and when there’s an opportunity to drive, drive change. My world is bigger than it was,” he says, understating a role that is both complex and time-consuming. Right now, “I’m trying to get a lot of things started: sending letters to DRE groups, encouraging them to meet, setting agendas, sending out letters to pastors. At some point I’ll have to spend a little time in each parish once we get all of our people in place.”
The first priority is finding a Mission Support Director who will assist the Moderator in business and temporal affairs, like a Family Business Manager. Once that post is filled, “There are five areas in which we have to name people who are in charge of that area for the whole family,” such as religious education.
Much of this is explained in detail on a reader-friendly website with notes from the Archbishop and easy-to-digest Q & A tidbits (https://www.familiesofparishes.org/). “There’s all kinds of material,” Jeff says. “The Archdiocese is as supportive as they can be,” down to the appointment of a “Missionary” who helps with practical aspects like hiring and finances. “She checks in once a month and reports how we’re doing.” Kate Baumer Spore, Family Five’s Missionary, was an enthusiastic, relatable resource July 13 at the first informal Family Five Gathering at Our Lady of La Salette Church. “Raise your hand if you met somebody new,” she asked those in attendance, and was rewarded with a sea of hands.
In months to come, folks at Transfiguration might see a different presider or hear about programs and events happening at other parishes. “You’re not being invited to join another parish,” Jeff says. “Eventually, what we want to happen is that people who share the same ministry will get together and start sharing ideas.” For example, “We all think we can benefit from a common RCIA program.”
Admittedly, “We have a lot of work to do. We’re supposed to have a leadership team and Family Pastoral Council in place by the end of the year. Will there be challenges? Absolutely. But there is an opportunity. We can help each other.” One of Transfiguration’s unique gifts is the presence of friars. “We can bring our Franciscan spirit to the Family.”
The long-range goal of Synod 16, a 2016 brainstorming forum for clergy, laity and religious, was “a renewal of structures of our parishes to make them radically mission-oriented.”
Jeff echoes that call for renewal. “We’re not just about restructuring; we’re about revitalizing,” he says. “It’s about something bigger, picking up on the spirit of Pope Francis, ‘Going to the peripheries.’ By the very nature of the Families plan, we have to engage and work with people from another parish. Our world is broadened. Now we have three other parishes to get to know, to work with, to explore.”
Meet the Family
Transfiguration Parish in Southfield, Mich., part of Vicariate Family Five, is known for its Franciscan spirit, its diversity, and its respected outreach program. Moderator Jeff Scheeler is getting to know his fellow family members:
- Divine Providence Lithuanian Parish, Southfield: “The people have been very welcoming and kind; they strive to preserve Lithuanian culture. I learned to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Lithuanian, and they felt respected. The food’s been great!”
- Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Oak Park: “They have two church locations, one parish. All are welcome. There is a strong concern for social justice, a social justice committee with people actively involved.”
- Our Lady of La Salette, Berkely: “It’s the biggest parish and church. They tell us they have a strong sense of volunteerism, a lot of volunteers. They have a few more young people and a program for youth,” an asset for any Family.