The other day I received a letter in the mail from a company that said it has helped other Catholic Parishes in my diocese to sell their empty buildings. Those in my office had a hardy laugh at that as we are in desperate need of more space. My office is supposed to be our living room and our new headmaster of the Academy has his office in an old storage room (another thing we are desperately short on.) We are beyond being imaginative for space. We are out.
In Florida and in other parts of the country they have to have a shoehorn ministry. Even with large buildings and large schools there isn’t enough room for everybody to fit. The Catholic population is growing too quickly. In the magic triangle (Chicago, Washington D. C., Boston) we have the opposite problem. As our parishioners are moving out, we are left with too many large, empty buildings.
Traditionally, in our diocese (Cleveland,) the emphasis has been sacraments and education. So generally there is a church and attached to it a rectory, convent, and school. With a downturn in the student demographic many of the schools (public, parochial, and private) are finding themselves with too few students to stay viable. Hence the number of empty buildings.
Many people wring their hands and think that there is nothing here but gloom and doom. If all you want is a traditional Cleveland parish with a church and school; it is. They will still exist into the future but will become rarer.
There are two directions in which one might go. The first is the viable position that as Catholic parishes we are trying to do too much. In some cases we are running small city states providing often redundant programs already made available by the state. In many people’s opinion, we should scale back to what a parish is supposed to be doing: sacraments, education, evangelization, social action. Shedding the burden of buildings and their maintenance would free us to focus on being disciples for the world. So let the school go down, sell (or rent) the building, ramp up your CCD program.
Prepare for a different future. While your school and parish is still strong, start imagining new programs that could take up space if and when the school starts to shrink is size. This cries for extreme imagination, risk taking, and the idea that it is Okay to fail.
When imagining such things, take stock of what is going on in your neighborhood and city. What is needed? What institutions can you partner up with? What would bring life and notoriety (helpful when evangelizing) to the parish? What can bring some income? What is your demographic? What skills do your parishioners have?
Once a building is empty, it deadly difficult to start up anything like a school again. You may have been grandfathered on a whole bunch of new regulations that may kick in for you if you try to open back up. It is vital to keep a smooth transition from one type of ministry to another.
At St. Sebastian we have three programs simmering that could easily take up much of our space if it ever came to that. (Fortunately, it does not seem to!) For the foreseeable future, we should never have a dark room (and, in fact, if I could, I would build.) It can be as scary as missionary work - going into unknown territory and not knowing what exactly to expect. But where would we be today if we didn’t have missionaries willing to fail in our past?