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Seattle archdiocese pulls back pastor resignation request

Seattle’s archbishop withdrew on Tuesday his request that all pastors submit letters of resignation, as part of a parish consolidation process across the archdiocese, expected to reduce the number of parishes by more than half. 

The move drew praise from several Seattle pastors, who expressed hope for more consultation in the consolidation process.

Archbishop Paul Etienne. Credit: Archdiocese of Seattle.

Archbishop Paul Etienne said in a Sept. 12 email message to pastors that while reassignments will eventually be made as parishes are consolidated, “we will wait until such a time as we are prepared to make phone calls asking priests to take new assignments to have the conversation about the need for each individual to consider the specific request.”

“This will allow the conversation about new assignments to be specific and concrete, removing any questions about what is being asked of you,” the archbishop said.

“Each of you know the importance of the success of Partners in the Gospel, and the generosity of heart which is required from all of us, from the clergy to the People of God,” Etienne added.

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Etienne’s announcement came one week after The Pillar reported that all archdiocesan pastors in Seattle had been asked by email to sign form letters of resignation, which would take effect in June 2024, when priests are expected to take up new assignments as parishes in the archdiocese are grouped into “parish families.”

The Pillar reported that some pastors in the archdiocese said that the request for resignations was unsettling, because it came as a surprise, and amid a parish consolidation process which some priests say has lacked substantive and serious consultation.

Some pastors said they were concerned that resigning from their parishes nearly a year before being reassigned would undermine the intended canonical stability of a pastor’s ministry — and a pastor’s right to due process before being removed or transferred. 

Canon law specifies that pastors are to have stability in office, either indefinitely or for a defined term of office. While bishops can request their resignations, or remove or transfer pastors, canon law provides clear processes and causes for such actions, which are usually expected to be effected on a case-by-case basis. 

“Pastors aren’t supposed to be just pieces you can move around on a chess board,” one priest told The Pillar this week, “nor is it a small thing to ask them to resign their pastoral responsibilities, without understanding fully what will happen to their parish, or their parishioners, in a new configuration — because the pastor has a responsibility to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners.”

Etienne’s Sept. 12 email did not mention directly The Pillar’s reporting, or the questions raised about stability in office. 

Instead, the archbishop cited pushback to the proposed plan, and problems with mailing the form letters that pastors were asked to sign.

“In the light of the recent attention this received on social media, and more importantly, of my own staff fumbling the official mailing, not once, but twice, I am officially taking the request off the table at this time.”

“I apologize that this mailing was not handled in an efficient, professional manner,” the archbishop added.

“If you have already signed the resignation letter and returned it, thank you. However, given that I am withdrawing this request, we will shred any letters that are returned.”

St. James Cathedral, Seattle. Credit: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

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Because the previously requested resignations would not have taken effect until after new assignments were made — giving pastors with concerns time to rescind their resignations — the request’s withdrawal might be more symbolic in Seattle than practically important. 

But some pastors in the archdiocese told The Pillar Tuesday that they appreciate the gesture.

One pastor who had previously expressed concerns about the request told The Pillar that “I'm grateful for the archbishop not only walking this back, but committing to individual conversations with priests. That's a big step in the right direction.”

“Withdrawing [the request] telegraphs that priests’ concerns — about potentially being treated unfairly or even being forced into a bad situation— are being heard and responded to.”

Another pastor who spoke with The Pillar agreed, suggesting that Etienne might not have made personally the initial decision to request resignations. 

“In my estimation, Archbishop Etienne is a very capable administrator, and he accomplishes that through a lot of delegation.”

“I have incredible respect for him for making this reversal. I was not in the camp that thought asking for the resignations was wrong, but any man who is willing to change his mind given new information, or who is willing to trust his employees to take responsibility right up to the point that something is untenable, earns respect from me either way,” the pastor said.

Still another pastor — who had previously expressed concern to The Pillar about the substance of consultation on the consolidation process — said it was “encouraging to see the the archbishop take some personal responsibility for the way this has been mishandled. The impersonal approach on this issue up to now has been hurtful, and questions our value as priests of this diocese.” 

“I can only hope that the reference to dialogue will come to fruition,” the pastor said. 

The Seattle archdiocese on Wednesday told The Pillar that the decision was meant to mitigate confusion and stress in the archdiocese.

“The early request of a required canonical step aimed at easing the overall transition process caused confusion and unnecessary stress at this time. Archbishop Etienne promised to be as flexible as possible during this process and felt the right thing to do was to rescind this request at this time,” spokesperson Helen McClenahan told The Pillar.

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