The Hidden Cost of Consolidation

Your parish survived the latest round of mergers, and will do the absorbing, instead of being absorbed. Great! You feel bad for your neighbors, of course, but your church — your legacy — will live to fight another day.  Time to celebrate, right?

Well, maybe not.

It's true that consolidation brings a host of challenges. The surviving parish has to integrate two sets of parishioners and parish leaders. It has to maintain additional facilities. It also has to manage another set (or even multiple sets) of spiritual records. No easy task, as new parishioners may be hard to convert, and limited manpower makes the added administrative and maintenance challenges even more difficult. 

One aspect of consolidation, though, is particularly damning. And, unfortunately, it's the one that gets the least amount of attention:

The "winning" parishes assume the finances of their fallen brethren.

That's right, every debt, deficit, balance sheet and broken account is now yours. It's not much of a problem if your compatriots were financially responsible. But if they weren't — and not all parishes are — you now have to clean up after them. The administration(s) that created the problem move on scot-free, and you're left holding the bag.

Not a very just reward for being on top of your game, no?

I bring this up because of Olney's St. Helena, my childhood parish. While I am no longer an active member, I still have some friends there. And in a recent conversation, it became clear that the recent absorption of Incarnation of Our Lord has not gone particularly well, and that St. Helena is starting to creak under the burden.

Not only is Inky itself falling apart and in need of securing and surveillance, which St. Helena now has to pay for, but the parish is also now saddled with Inky's finances, which were left in poor shape (pun intended) by the previous couple of administrations there.

St. Helena is no shrinking violet, mind you. It has good attendance numbers, a sound church building, and the regional school. It has also benefited from steady, solid leadership with little turnover. But even that leadership has been compromised by the sheer effort of trying to clean up after a parish that was basically run into the ground. 

And that's the rub, really. Many parishes struggle to be smart and responsible, and just like *that* they can have it undercut by being forced to pay off debts that they never accumulated.

Will this doom St. Helena and others like it? I hope not. But you know, it doesn't take much these days for churches to go from green to red. No parish has so much of a cushion that it can afford these kinds of distractions. 

I realize the Archdiocese itself has very little money these days, but there needs to be a better solution to these debts than to pawn them off on the dwindling number of surviving parishes. Especially if your plan is ostensibly about strengthening what's left, but instead creates a vicious downward spiral from which few parishes will be able to emerge.