The Archdiocese of Seattle has requested that all parish pastors submit their resignations from office, as part of a years-long parish consolidation process across the archdiocese, which is expected to reduce the number of parishes by more than half.
Archdiocesan officials say the move comes after considerable consultation with clergy, and is meant to streamline a complicated process of joining parishes.
But some in the archdiocese have said the request was unsettling — and their concern points to the challenge of making diocesan changes amid dwindling clerical trust in diocesan bishops.
In an Aug. 27 email, Seattle’s vicar for clergy notified priests that the archdiocesan parish consolidation project, called Partners in the Gospel, would require that all priests in parish ministry be formally reassigned next year — even those who will continue serving the same community in which they are presently assigned.
“Whether you stay at your current location or move to another, your assignment will be changed to reflect the new parish family,” the email said, “everyone will receive a new assignment on July 1, 2024.”
Addressing pastors specifically, the email explained that “if you are a pastor in the middle of your term, you will be receiving a letter in the mail in the coming weeks, with a request to resign effective June 30, 2024.”
That letter will include a “form-response letter for you to sign along with a prepaid postage envelope for you to send back to Archbishop Etienne.”
Father Gary Lazzeroni, vicar general of the Seattle archdiocese, told The Pillar that the request for pastors to resign their offices was meant to make easier the appointment of new pastors in a coming stage of the Partners in the Gospel consolidation process.
That process will see some 136 parishes grouped into approximately 60 “parish families,” which will eventually give way to newly erected parishes, with those currently in existence suppressed.
Lazzeroni emphasized that the request for pastors to resign is not meant to replace “discernment” with priests about their next assignments.
The priest said that resignations will not become effective until after new assignments are given next spring. As a matter of canon law, that timeline means that pastors who wish to withdraw their resignations will have time to do so before facing new assignments.
Still, the vicar general said, “with the way we’re approaching this, new assignments aren’t going to be a surprise.”
“We are really committed to an ongoing conversation [with priests] in this placement process. We want the best fit for the right pastor in the right parish family. And the only way that's going to happen is if the pastor feels really good about the parish family where he is going to be pastor. So it does not serve us well at all for a pastor to go someplace where he doesn't want to go.”
Caitlin Moulding, chief operating officer of the Seattle archdiocese, said the consolidation process should take about three years of consultation and planning before new parishes are erected in the archdiocese.
A “public consultative process” will begin Sept. 23, “where we will gain input” about the right groupings of parishes.
“We don’t have a final number right now, but in January we will announce how many parish families we’ll have.”
Once they are established in 2024, parish families will be expected to discern what their eventual merger will look like — and which of their church buildings should close, if any.
Parish families will “determine how to re-envision themselves, both pastorally and strategically. So they will be looking at leadership and governance. They will be looking at properties and administration and other infrastructure. They will be looking at evangelization and discipleship and how to bring to life in a new way as a parish family,” Moulding told The Pillar.
Whether churches will remain open, close and be sold, or be repurposed for other parish needs, will “be determined at the parish family level over a period of time through a consultative process,” she added.
Moulding said that parish pastors in the archdiocese have been asked to resign as “a “canonical step” in the process, which “allows the priest personnel board to look at assignments once the parish families are finalized.”
The archdiocesan priest personnel board “is talking to every priest multiple times to understand their hopes, fears, desires for the future — where they see themselves within the context of Partners in the Gospel,” she added.
“So there is a whole process that is happening through our priest personnel board,” Moulding explained.
The consolidation process is meant to respond to Seattle’s declining number of priests, with only 80 presently serving as pastors, and others serving as parish administrators.
Lazzeroni, the vicar general, told The Pillar that the Partners in the Gospel parish will improve the lives of Seattle's priests.
“This will be enormously better,” the priest explained.
“Partners in the Gospel is going to allow for a newly ordained priest to really live into his priesthood, and then have experience for several years, rather than one or two years before being made the administrator in a parish. So we see it as a great advantage for the younger guys,” the vicar general said.
“It will be another huge change that no pastor will serve by himself through Partners in the Gospel. There will always be at least one parochial vicar working alongside each pastor.”
While Fr. Lazzeroni told The Pillar that Partners in the Gospel has involved extensive consultation with priests, some sources in the archdiocese questioned the substance of that consultation.
“The consultation the archdiocese has undertaken is largely performative — like asking questions about our ‘hopes’ or ‘anxieties,’ which don't affect the decisions or process, using planned time for consultation to recap old information, and otherwise limiting 'consultation' to a forum for expressing feelings,” one priest told The Pillar.
The process might also leave priests responsible for the hardest moments of parish consolidation, one priest said.
“We all know — clerics and laity alike — that parishes and schools must close, staff will be laid off, and more. But the archdiocese has consistently refused to say the hard truths about what this all means, preferring a kind of rosy — often piously flavored — optimism that leaves all possibilities open. And we priests are going to be left holding the bag, having to make hard decisions [like church closures] that have been promised — implicitly or explicitly — never to happen.”
Further, not all priests in the Archdiocese of Seattle are convinced that the resignation of all pastors is the right step in the process.
While a request that all parish pastors in a diocese resign is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Other U.S. dioceses have made similar requests amid consolidation projects.
And soon after his 2016 installation in Memphis, Bishop Martin Holley requested that all parish pastors resign their offices, and subsequently transferred nearly 75% of them to new parishes.
That move, along with other unusual personnel decisions, prompted complaints from the diocesan presbyterate about Holley’s management style. In 2018, after a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation, the bishop was removed from office.
In Seattle, one pastor told The Pillar that while he believes parish consolidation is necessary, the request for resignations from all pastors seems to undercut the stability of office extended to parish pastors in canon law — and a pastor’s right to due process before being removed or transferred.
But the priest also acknowledged a broader trend — that across the U.S., diocesan priests report low levels of trust in their diocesan bishops.
The priest said declining trust has impacted the way priests see the resignation request, and the entire consolidation process underway in Seattle — and is likely impacting other major projects in dioceses across the country.
“I don’t trust the archbishop or his representatives to care for me. Not the emotional kind of care, nor the saying of caring things, but the actual caring for me - making sure that I'm supported actively, publicly, and consistently in ministry.”
“Partners in the Gospel pokes hard on the woundedness of the broken trust between priests and the archbishop — but it is not the source of that woundedness,” he said.
Another Seattle priest told The Pillar that he is very supportive of the Partners in the Gospel process, because he believes structural changes will help the archdiocese to better evangelize.
“We spend so much time just trying to focus on how to keep things open, and with that question out of the way, we can actually evangelize instead.”
“I just saw the [request to resign] as part of the process, to make it possible for the chancery to make the assignments that they need to make, so I am fine with it, and I really want Partners in the Gospel to be successful.”
But the priest said he understood why some Seattle clerics are resistant to the request.
“The presbyterate was brought into the Partners of the Gospel process after it was already underway, and there is a feeling among a lot of priests that we have not been consulted.”
“And there are priests who don’t trust the archbishop, or think that he has not been present to us, and I think there is some validity to that. But some priests take that, and see Partners in the Gospel through that lens, and they’ll react harshly no matter what happens, without much rational conversation.”
“The biggest problem is trust. We don’t trust each other in the presbyterate, and we don’t trust the archbishop. That’s a long-standing problem — and I don’t think it’s unique to Seattle,” the priest said.
“But I don’t know how you tackle something that big — and it’s not something Archbishop Etienne did, because this issue of trust has been a problem for decades in this archdiocese.”
Lazzeroni, the vicar general, told The Pillar that he understands some priests are wary of an uncommon request for all pastors to resign. But the vicar general said he believes that most pastors are on board with the parish consolidation project.
“While I understand the concerns expressed by [some priests], what I’ve heard from the vast majority of priests that I’ve talked with is a real sense of gratitude that they’re actually not being left out to dry and they're really being communicated with very, very well,” Lazzeroni said.
With pastors now discerning the request to resign, it is not clear what steps will be taken if pastors decline to resign from their parish assignments.
Moulding told The Pillar that despite the archdiocesan request, “[the pastor] has the right not to resign. I think he’d probably have a conversation with the vicar for clergy, to help him understand the reason for it. But he has the right not to resign.”
While the resignation request itself cannot be appealed to the Vatican, it is not clear how Vatican officials might respond if pastors who do not resign in Seattle are removed from office or transferred to other responsibilities.
Moulding said the archdiocese is working to make the consolidation process a success for all Seattle Catholics, including clergy.
“It's a massive change, and so there's understandably anxiety,” she said.
“We are doing our best to communicate as we go through it, and I am sure there's skepticism, but I hope they'll be pleasantly surprised at the kind of thought and diligence and effort that's gone into anticipating, preparing and supporting pastors.”
“We have a number of models that we’ll be sharing [to assist pastors] with administrative leadership at the parish family level. We also will have liaisons, who can walk with the pastor, and tools and resources. … And we are continuing to evolve our process in terms of our support model… we are really trying to anticipate how best we can be prepared to help navigate through this change.”
“Our intention is not to overburden and leave out in the cold our priests,” she said.
For his part, one priest in the archdiocese told The Pillar that “while something had to be done” about a future with declining numbers of priests in the diocese, he said he knows local Catholics will struggle with the changes incumbent in a massive consolidation process.
“We need prayers, both for future vocations,” he said, and for local Catholics, “who are sure to struggle throughout all of this.”
Editors’ note: The Pillar initially reported that, according to Caitlin Moulding, the Seattle archdiocese did not wish to leave its priests “out in the hole.” In fact, Moulding said that the archdiocese does not wish to leave priests “out in the cold.” Our error has been corrected.