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Dealing Emotionally With Parish Changes

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by Father Robert J Hater, PHD

How do parishioners cope with major changes occurring in their parishes? This question is especially significant when a member of the faithful is involved in parish affairs or has a long history with the parish.

We all experience life changes. Some are rewarding, like marriages, births and job promotions. Others, such as a spouse’s death or serious illness, lead to anger, fear and disappointment. Whether positive or negative, change brings emotional upheavals.

Similarly, uncertainty arises when parishes change, close or restructure, which is happening now throughout the country. With our own parish restructuring around the corner, we are naturally concerned about our own parish’s future.

I offer the following reflections as parishes shift focus to a Family of Parishes.

1. Be open to the inevitability of parish change.

Life is a process made possible by change. Our bodies transform as we grow, as do our social relationships. God never abandons us when we face the inevitable. When we recognize that God’s designs are greater than we can imagine, we can open our minds and hearts to the changes coming in our parish.

2. Be open to see God’s presence in what’s happening in parishes.

The disciples scattered after Jesus’ death, hiding and cowering in fear of the Romans. Their lives seemed shattered and their future uncertain. Then the Resurrection happened, and they experienced joy beyond their wildest dreams. Eventually, they realized God’s way was not their way.

Something similar happens when our lives are turned upside down. It’s easy to recognize God in changes for the better, but those that first bring fear and disappointment are difficult to fathom. They often leave us feeling far removed from what we experience as God’s presence.

The latter is how the faithful feel who have great concern over new plans for their parish changes. Some feel left out of the decision-making process and are angry and frustrated. It’s hard for them to see the blessings, especially if they believe the process was handled poorly.

Regardless, God is present in these happenings and eventually we’ll see His good from what may now seem tragic. The same God moves among us who transformed the early disciples’ fear and dread into hope. What’s happening in our parishes is bigger than any of us.

3. Be open to listen, as Church leaders and parishioners address parish changes.

The local bishop oversees the overall process that influences a parish’s future, assisted by priests, religious men and women and the laity. He is responsible for addressing the clerical shortage and other issues to support the faithful. To do so effectively, many factors are considered, including the number of priests available to minister in parishes and to celebrate the sacraments.

Today, both clergy and laity realize something needs to be done. Many loyal parishioners have valuable knowledge and skills that are useful for this decision-making. The starting point, however, requires Church leaders and parishioners to listen to one another: Listening to the bishop’s words, the archdiocese’s proposals, and the pastors and parishioners’ advice. Processes are most successful when everyone involved respects one another.

4. Be honest with one’s thoughts and feelings about what’s happening in parishes.

Effective communication creates opportunities for sharing both thoughts and feelings through a climate that welcomes everyone’s genuine input.

This is not easy! Some fear sharing their true thoughts because they believe leaders will not listen or that decisions are already made. Still others are naturally shy.

However, it is paramount with important issues that leaders create a climate of trust to encourage everyone to express their perspectives – otherwise, unarticulated thoughts and feelings, especially negative ones, may surface later and be harder to address.
When engaged in emotion-laden conversations, encourage participants to think through how to express themselves before speaking. This better enables a person’s true feelings to emerge.

5. Remember that the parish is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Although parishes have shifted and modified many times over the centuries, they remain the most successful means for maintaining community and proclaiming the Good News.

From the time I first celebrated Mass until today, I have witnessed numerous parish configurations. Each in its own way brought to the minds and hearts of the faithful God’s love and the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ.

As I watched parishes change over the years, the Holy Spirit gently guided both pastors and parishioners into the future. As with anything else, mistakes were made and feelings hurt, but God’s designs ultimately prevailed.

Let us pray that as we each enter into our new Family of Parishes, we continue to become more effective servants of Jesus’ mission to proclaim His Gospel to the world.

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