Ten counties: a path forward

For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another

(Romans 12:4-5)


Ashley Wiskirchen
573.635.9127, ext. 231


2207 West Main St
Jefferson City, MO 65109-0914

Due to several factors, including changing demographics; fewer priests, deacons and vowed religious; and delayed maintenance and aging of church facilities, it is necessary for us to work together to maximize resources. Bishop McKnight has identified ten counties that will more than likely see a reduction in the number of priests serving them with the new clergy assignments in July 2021.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is this discernment process for ten counties?

Due to several factors, including changing demographics; fewer priests, deacons and vowed religious; and delayed maintenance and aging of church facilities, it is necessary for us to work together to maximize resources. Bishop McKnight has identified ten counties that will more than likely see a reduction in the number of priests serving them with the new clergy assignments in July 2021. The ten counties, which contain 29 parishes, are: Chariton, Cooper, Crawford, Howard, Monroe, Phelps, Pike, Pulaski, Ralls, and Saline. Catholics in these areas are being asked to enter a discernment process with the priests of the diocese, parish leadership and Bishop McKnight in determining the future for the Church in their communities.

“How the Church is present in these 10 counties will change,” the bishop wrote in a Making Connections column announcing the process. “Indeed, it must change, for the Church to continue to be present in these 10 counties.” 

Why can’t Bishop McKnight just recruit some more priests?

Our Vocation Office, Bishop McKnight and many others continue to encourage and support people discerning a vocation to the priesthood. However, even if we had more priests tomorrow, there are other concerns regarding how we can be the best stewards of the gifts and talents of parishioners and the care of the temporal goods given to the Church.

Having more priests in a parish, while an essential element, is not the only factor necessary for a parish to flourish. Our focus is to bring a vibrancy back to parish life. When a community becomes so focused on basic maintenance of facilities, or must depend upon the diocese or the generosity of vendors to meet basic financial obligations, it becomes difficult for a parish to fulfill its primary mission. Pope Francis eloquently describes that mission in No. 28 of The Joy of the Gospel: “In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”

What does “merging” parishes mean?

This is a term we hear more frequently in the United States these days, so it seems like something new for us, but the Catholic Church has codified how it responds to changing needs. Over the centuries, many parishes have been formed, been suppressed, or transitioned in other ways, as demographics have changed. In other words, our diocese is no different than any other diocese of the Catholic Church.

There are two canons in the Code of Canon Law which guide the merging of parishes. Canon 121 addresses the situation when two or more parishes, in their entirety, are merged to create a new one. Often in this situation, a new name is realized for the new parish. The property of the former parishes is either disposed of or continues to be used by the new parish. The new parish has a new pastoral council, finance council, and develops ministries which serve all within its boundaries. Sometimes the church buildings continue as chapels, with Masses and other services held in them. Often the new parish’s staff work from one building, but sometimes they rotate among the campuses of the former parishes. Sometimes the new parish determines it is best to build a new church or to obtain new property and move all parish functions to the new location.

Another model, addressed in Canon 122, is when a parish is suppressed and neighboring parishes assume the care of those within the former parish’s boundaries. The remaining parishes usually retain their name and property, but they encourage their new parishioners, once part of the suppressed parish, to become active members in a variety of ways. The use or disposal of the property of the suppressed parish is determined by the bishop, usually in consultation with local parishioners and the consultative bodies of the diocese, to ensure good stewardship of these temporal goods.

Who gets to decide what happens in our situation?

Canon law holds the diocesan bishop as the one person responsible for creating, suppressing or altering parishes. However, Bishop McKnight takes to heart the church’s teaching of the co-responsibility of the clergy and laity in these important matters. He has outlined the discernment process and timeline as following:

  1. After Labor Day weekend, pastors and parochial administrators of parishes in the ten counties will begin consulting their parish pastoral, finance and school councils on considering their parish’s situation.
  2. A survey of all parishioners 18 years and older in these counties will be conducted in September to consult them on the options available to continue the mission of the Church in their county. The survey will also provide respondents with the ability to propose solutions not found in the questionnaire.  It will be immensely helpful if respondents use the on-line survey to speed up the process of developing a report, but hardcopy questionnaires will be made available to those who need them. The survey is available in English and Spanish.
  3. The results of the survey will be reported to the parishes, and the deans will convoke a meeting of the priests and lay leadership councils of the parishes in each county before the end of October to discern a proposal to be submitted to Bishop McKnight by the end of November.
  4. During December and January, Bishop McKnight will consult the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council on the proposals received and make a final determination of the path forward to vibrant ecclesial life in the ten counties.
It seems as if it's already been decided what is going to happen. Why bother with all this?

The only matter which has been decided is the reality that there will be fewer priests to serve the 29 parishes in these ten counties. Everything else will be determined in the consultative process outlined above.

What happens to the people if their parish is “closed?”

If we understand Catholic theology and the canons based on Catholic theology, we can understand that there will always be a parish wherever there are Catholics.

A parish is defined by a region or a group of people. It is not reduced to a building. While it is possible to close a site (“close a parish”), the Catholics in that territory will always belong to a parish.

A diocesan bishop is responsible for the pastoral care of all people who live within his diocese. Therefore, he must ensure that people have access to the sacraments and to a Catholic community. If a church building is closed, or a parish is suppressed, those who once used that church  building or were members of a suppressed parish must be given the opportunity to celebrate their faith in another location and within another parish.

What about the staff?

As the situation becomes clear regarding the future for these communities, pastors will begin working with current staff and parish leadership for the transition.

What about the schools?

Seven of the 29 parishes in this process have a Catholic school attached to it. Ensuring a Catholic education with high academic standards, a strong Catholic identity and a commitment to the stewardship model of discipleship for all our children is a priority and must be considered in the re-visioning of our parishes. It is also the responsibility of every Catholic to support our parish schools. All these aspects much be addressed in considering the viability and vitality of our schools.

What about our cemeteries and sacramental records?

Canon law directs that the care of cemeteries and the maintenance of sacramental records carries forward to the parish or parishes remaining in the area.

Where will the money go if my church is sold?

Canon (or church) law provides clear guidance on this. The bishop is required and empowered by church law to ensure that the patrimony of the parish follows the parishioners to their new parish or parishes. This includes money in the bank account, sale of property and all other material goods. None of the money or other assets will be used for any purpose other than the needs of the local parishes.

How does that work on a practical level? The parish carries out its work in the name of the Church. Consequently, the property and goods managed by the parish cannot belong to a private individual. In canon law, the pastor oversees both the pastoral work of a parish and the management of its temporal goods. He must submit a financial report each year to the bishop.

The bishop is recognized by both civil and canon law as a juridic person. He bears the responsibility ultimately of deciding the use of the money realized from the sale of church property. In this situation, Bishop McKnight will be returning funds realized from the sale of any property to the local parish, whether that is a new parish or several parishes with the responsibility of caring for the former parish’s people.

Why can’t we just continue what we’ve been doing?

We can, but the projected outcomes don’t look good. In general, we have seen a decline in sacramental participation in our diocese for several decades now. (You can find your parish’s information here.)

We are realistically projecting that within five years there will likely be 11 fewer active priests in our diocese. The average age of our active priests, excluding international clergy, is right now over 60.

Our demographics fit a trend we are seeing across the United States. In general, most Catholics no longer attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis. The number of sacramental marriages is declining steeply, with fewer infant baptisms following. There are many societal changes which continue to feed this decline, and the current pandemic is exacerbating the decline.

But there is much we can do, if we are open to new possibilities. That requires us to determine what we must cease doing to make room for new growth. Scripture tells us new life comes from letting go of old habits and ways of being.

Pope Francis reminds us we cannot be so burdened with the past that we cannot birth the future Church: “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ (The Joy of the Gospel, No. 28)

The ten counties, which contain 29 parishes, are: Chariton, Cooper, Crawford, Howard, Monroe, Phelps, Pike, Pulaski, Ralls, and Saline.

Ten Counties Highlighted Dio Map NoCounties NOBG