Us, Them, and the Creation of a Parish Culture

Ten years ago, my diocese created a new parish by merging two parishes that are in the same zip code, but on opposite sides of a state highway.

On the weekend of our no-longer-new parish’s tenth anniversary, which would be commemorated by a parish picnic on Sunday afternoon, the Saturday-evening Mass was celebrated by a beloved former pastor of one of the churches.

He’s retired, and will be helping out occasionally on the weekend (we’re a one-priest parish with two buildings and four Masses each weekend) and holding down the fort in a few weeks when our pastor is scheduled for surgery.

I’m going to say right here and now that this is going to set the creation of our parish culture back, in a big way.

Father F (F stands for Former Pastor) celebrated his first Mass as a weekend assistant at the church he used to lead, decades ago. He was mobbed before and after Mass by people happy to see him again — and that’s fine.

Not so fine, the applause at the beginning AND end of the homily.

Father C (C stands for Current Pastor) has mentioned more than once that there is a definite difference in the cultures at the two churches in our parish. I agree. As a musician, I’m bounced around among Mass times and locations. There’s only one Mass out of four that the folk group doesn’t play, and that’s 8 AM on Sundays.

It feels like we’ve still got competing parish histories, warring allegiances, and there’s still (after ten years) reluctance on the part of many people to cross the highway to attend Mass at the other church.

After ten years, people still identify themselves by the church they used to attend — the one that’s now part of our merged parish, which has a new name. The churches within the parish kept their original names, which makes things complicated but you have to identify places somehow.

After ten years, we have not yet begun to create a new parish culture. We have two separate cultures duking it out in the background of every little thing, from the location of daily Mass to whether parish musicians are volunteers.

Here’s the thing about a merge: you’re going from two lanes to one. You’re not still traveling in separate lanes.

I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the announcement that Father F would be around to help out every now and then until I started hearing people talk about how wonderful it is that he’ll be back.

He’s not here to be in charge; he’ll probably be celebrating one Mass per weekend except when Father C is sick or away. I’m not sure people get that, though. It seemed to me that people were ready to dig his old office chair out of the basement and put his nameplate back on the door.

There was lots of nostalgia, which is nice, but nostalgia is the last thing we need right now.

We’re ten years in. It’s time to invest our hearts in the culture of our new parish. The first ten years have been largely focused on administration — how things would get done, by whom, when, and where. That’s all figured out. And that’s fine for the first year or two — not the first ten (it hasn’t helped that by year 7 we were on our third pastor). I think it’s come at the expense of the spiritual and community life of the parish, which is important too. Without it, there’s going to be nothing to administrate.

It’s nice that we will have a weekend assistant, but I wish the bishop had assigned someone else to the task, someone who doesn’t have a connection to only half the parish. There’s too much emotional baggage involved, and I don’t think this will be a good thing.

We need to find a way to get rid of the idea that we should still be traveling in separate lanes.

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Photo by Jenny Bennett (2008) via Flickr; all rights reserved.

Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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