In the past 20 years, the number of active priests serving the Diocese of Buffalo has dropped from 312 to 143. To keep parishes alive, deacons, religious sisters and even lay people are being asked to step into the role of head of the parish. In 2013, the diocese launched a pastoral administrator program to train qualified people to handle the temporal needs of a parish. This includes paying bills, fixing roofs and organizing lawn fetes, freeing priests to handle the duties only a priest can.
"You have priests, who are the only guys in the world trained spiritually, theologically and Christologically the way that they are. Then you have them spend 60 percent of their time figuring out who is going to wash the windows and cut the grass. Does this make sense?" asked Deacon David Clabeaux. "To me, the idea of a layperson, especially doing the business part of things, makes sense."
Parishes with pastoral administrators actually have leadership teams. A priest moderator serves as the canonical head of the parish, approving the major changes and expenses. A spiritual minister celebrates Mass and hears confessions. The pastoral administrator handles the day-to-day business decisions.
Deacon Clabeaux has been at St. Andrew Parish in Cheektowaga since 2014, first as a temporary administrator before getting the more permanent title of pastoral administrator. He was just completing the pastoral administrator program and serving as CEO of Buffalo Neurosurgery Group when the pastor, Father Fabian Maryanski, left the parish. "There was an immediate need, so they asked could I come right now. I kind of dropped what I was doing, left the old job. It worked out kind of neat. It was the right time to switch over to something new," he explained.
As a deacon, Clabeaux has limited faculties. Father James O'Connor, in the role of sacramental minister, celebrates Mass and hears confessions. Deacon Clabeaux will lead Communion services, celebrate weddings and hold funerals. He trades off with Father O'Connor preaching at Masses.
"The parish is lucky because we have the presence of this same guy on a pretty regular basis," he said.
This is full-time job and parish assignment for the deacon. A ministry of charity comes with the role.
"I go to the homebound and bring Communion, which is typically a deacon-type role. I visit everybody in the hospitals, nursing homes and those parts of ministry as well," he explained.
Pastoral administrators free up priests to be the priests they want to be, take care of peoples' spiritual needs without being weighed down with concerns over leaky roofs. In a one-hour interview, Deacon Clabeaux received three phone calls - one for a funeral, two for the alarm system.
The parish has not had to cut down on Masses due to this unique situation. But in the old days, the pastor lived on campus, so even in a snowstorm, he would be on hand to celebrate Mass or care for people who came to the church. Now, if the Buffalo and Cheektowaga schools are closed, they cancel Mass so Father O'Connor doesn't have to drive in from St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. West Seneca residents, Deacon Clabeaux and his wife, Kay, stay overnight at the rectory on weekends, so in a pinch he can do a Communion service to fulfill Sunday obligation for Mass. He has only had to do it twice in four years.
The parish is growing, with 30 or so families joining each year. The Clabeuaxs started a discussion series on Bishop Robert Barron's videos and a book club run by Kay, who also hosted an Advent wreath and calendar workshop that drew 80 people. They also held a strawberry social last summer. Deacon Clabeaux has found these activities, food and bingo brings people into the church. Once they're there, he drops some Christian wisdom on them, then he sees them come back.
"Those are the really fun things. Some people who haven't done anything like a book club or anything spiritual like this, to see them doing it feels good," he said. "People will stop me and say, 'Deacon, I have a question,' and ask me something about our faith. We'll talk for a little bit. This isn't a churchgoer. This is not a parishioner. They just come to play bingo. But, they have a question that's been bothering them. You answer the question. A couple weeks you talk a little more. The next thing you know, you see them up in church."
Sister Lori High, SSMN, had served in a variety of parishes and schools during her 40 years of ministry. She had also taken several courses at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. So, when the call for pastoral administrators came, she was well prepared.
"I thought it would be a good way of representing a new way of leadership in the Church. It was offered as that, and I thought, nobody better than myself to give it a try," she said. "I was in the right place in my life."
St. George Parish in West Falls seems to be the right place for her as well. She describes it as "small and easy to manage." It's also only nine miles from Queen of Heaven Parish in West Seneca, where she lives with sisters of her community.
St. George merged with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Colden in 2008 during the Journey in Faith and Grace. The merger caused tension between the two communities, but Sister Lori said things have calmed in her three years there.
"The Journey in Faith and Grace merger was difficult for people. There were hurt feelings and some of that wasn't healed very well. Father Jim (Wall, sacramental minister) and I were not part of that, so we brought fresh eyes and fresh spirit," she explained. "I would think over these three years, an awful lot of this grudge and resentment that had happened with the merge of the two parishes has been calmed down. It hasn't gone, but it certainly has calmed down considerably."
The parish has had a series of short-term pastors and administrators in the past 25 years, which Sister Lori thinks has made the community autonomous when it comes to decision making. They know what they want to run and how they want to run it. They're also motivated to keep things running smoothly and efficiently.
After accepting the position, but before it was announced, Sister Lori attended a meeting at St. George where she heard a buzz about a new pastoral administrator coming. The parishioners seemed curious, but accepting.
She made a good impression her first day. After seeing the paint peeling from the trim on the chapel windows, she found a ladder and began painting.
"That's how people first saw me," she said. "That was a good thing. People saw me on the ground doing something. I think that helped break the ice with a few."
The farmer's in the community appreciate seeing people do hard work.
Whereas Deacon Calbeaux has his role as a spiritual minister, and Deborah Brown, at St. John the Baptist in Alden, has a background in pastoral work, Sister Lori said she takes care of the bricks and mortar. She does have a pastoral role in bringing Communion to shut ins and visiting hospitals when parishioners have surgery. She also writes a blurb for the parish bulletin.
She made an agreement with Msgr. Wall that he would only have to celebrate one Mass a day. She doesn't want to overtax the 81-year-old priest. On special occasions, such as Ash Wednesday, she'll hold a Communion service in lieu of a second Mass.
She goes to Msgr. Wall and Father Robert Wardenski, priest moderator, for advice when an issue pops up.
"I get very good council from those guys and I use them as much as I can," she said.
Things have not run so smooth for Deborah Brown, who just completed her first-year probation as pastoral administrator of St. John the Baptist in Alden. She describes the past year with the words of Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
"I am absolutely convinced I am right where God wants me to be. I can point to many blessings. I can point to many successes and joys, but there has been an element here that has been very much opposed to my being here, which has made things difficult," she said.
Brown believes because the pastoral administrator program is a new model for parish leadership, and the parish wasn't properly prepared for a layperson in lieu of a pastor, everyone got off on the wrong foot.
"They didn't know until I was introduced that I was coming," she said. "I showed up one day and they had no idea a new person was coming in." She adds that, "The vast majority of people here have embraced it."
Still, some people do not like the idea of being without a resident priest serving as pastor of the large parish and school. One of those people made a claim of sexual harassment against Brown.
"A group has become very much committed to finding a priest instead of me and recognizing that this was a probationary year for me, they have had meetings. They have begun a campaign to run me off. It's a small but vocal group," Brown said. "It's part of a campaign to make me think twice about coming back."
Brown was investigated by the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney, and the Diocesan Review Board, who declared the claims unfounded. "I've been evaluated thoroughly in the process of being a pastoral administrator," she said, adding she hopes to heal the rift over the next three-year term.
Another struggle involved the priest moderator, Father Joseph Gatto, being put on administrative leave in September. Brown now relies on the diocesan chancery to canonically administer the parish.
On top of all that, sacramental minister Father James Walter had a freak accident in November that involved falling on a knife. The 76-year-old is still out of action. Brown has had to rely on Father Richard DiGiulio, who also serves as sacramental minister, and a host of other priests to fill in.
"We really struggled in the month of November. I think we had 14 different priests who said Mass here over the course of the month. That also added fuel to the fire," Brown said.
All three parishes with pastoral administrators can call on Christ the King Seminary staff to fill in for Mass when needed.
The parish has had some sunshine in the storm. The school, which teaches 100 students has been declared sustainable by the diocese. Brown cut $100,000 out of parish budget. A pew count across the diocese in April found that St. John the Baptist is slightly above the average attendance at Mass.
"This parish is certainly functioning and functioning well. The idea is to move forward and heal this family, which has really been broken by a lot of things," Brown said.
The three pastoral administrators call themselves the Cohorts and meet throughout the year.
Dennis Mahaney, director of Evangelization and Parish Life for the Diocese of Buffalo, also serves on the Pastoral Administrator Board, which oversees the functioning of the Cohorts. Mahaney meets with each administrator once a month during their probationary years. He also writes six- and 12-month assessments, and provides all the diocesan services they require. "So that the model succeeds and that person and that parish succeed with it," he explained.
After that first year, when the administrator knows his or her way around the parish, Mahaney's role becomes more of a consultant. "With a pastoral administrator, we make sure there is good ground before we let them loose," Mahaney said. "So, that first year we watch them and shepherd them, kind of accompany them more closely to make sure they have all the necessary services."