Recently, our Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger Fellow of Parish Life, Bobby Angel, interviewed Fr. Jonathan Meyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, on the topic of parish mergers and how these painful situations can be opportunities for creativity and growth.
Ordained a priest in 2003, Fr. Meyer has been involved in the formation of youth and young adults through speaking, leading retreats, and promoting World Youth Day initiatives. Tasked with managing several parish mergers, he has led this renewal through creative and innovative ministry. All the while, Fr. Meyer maintains a presence on the internet with homilies regularly posted on YouTube and coaches track and cross country at public schools.
Bobby Angel: Hi, Fr. Meyer. Can you give me a quick rundown of your vocation story and the kinds of pastoral assignments you’ve been given?
Fr. Jonathan Meyer: I was born and raised a Catholic, and even though I never missed a Sunday Mass or CCD class, like many in the 1970s-1990s, I was poorly catechized. In my teens, I was pro-choice, unaware of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and unfamiliar with the Rosary. Sports were my god. In college, I experienced the love of God at a non-denominational praise and worship service; it was at this same time that God planted the seed of a priestly calling. Eventually, the only way I could reconcile a call to the priesthood and this newfound love for Jesus was to believe God was telling me to convert lukewarm Catholics to become on fire in their relationship with our Lord. Long story short, I entered the seminary as a pro-choice man, having never prayed the Rosary or gone to Adoration. In seminary, I was confronted, for the first time—in a good way—with the beauty of life, our Lady, the Eucharist, and the fullness of our faith.
My background of not having understood the faith has given me a new perspective and a great desire for renewal. I have this sense that “normal” does not work. Thinking outside the box is in my bones. Every priestly assignment I’ve had has been an opportunity for pastoral change. For my first five years, I served as the Director of Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese; it was the first time a priest had been in this position. The bishop “charged” us that the office become Eucharistic and catechetical in nature. After that, my first parish assignment was to link three parishes that had never worked together before. And then I arrived at my current assignment, All Saints Parish, where four parishes had been closed and were forged into one. In just a few days, I will be shepherding three more parishes while remaining at All Saints. That will now be seven churches in total!
You have had to deal with the painful process of parish closures and mergers. Can you tell me a little about that process?
The “formal process” has never been good. In fact, I do not know of many or any programs out there that have it all figured out. What does work: listening; taking the time for true understanding; creating new opportunities for faith, joy, and truth in the midst of the pain; and putting authentic renewal, compassion, catechesis, and hope at the forefront of every little move.
It’s an emotional process for the faithful, isn’t it?
It is real; people hurt because people love! They love their parish, their encounters with our Lord, their history, their previous priests, their buildings. In each of the situations to which I have been assigned, I always keep this in mind: their passion is rooted in a deep love, and that love is good. It is my mission to take that love, expand it, and redirect it. It is never my job to end or stifle it.
You’ve also brought some creative solutions when it comes to parish mergers. How did you “think outside the box” with your latest assignment?
All Saints Parish was founded in 2013. It was originally four parishes, all founded in the 1800s. They had been operated as separate parishes, often sharing priests in different configurations but always remaining separate, in competition, and replicating a lot of work and ministry.
When faced with having to close or merge parishes, we decided to form one parish with four campuses. This new concept has created one parish with a parish council, finance council, ladies sodality, youth ministry, religious vocation ministry, and so forth while keeping all four church buildings open.
Our parish thus has seventy-four acres and twenty buildings. In the past seven years, it has blossomed in ministry, outreach, and impact. As an analogy, a general of an army can choose to bring all his soldiers into one camp, or he can choose to send them out to several outposts to conquer a land. The concept of All Saints is to be a united parish located all throughout Dearborn County, Indiana. In another analogy, it is like McDonald’s—different buildings but the exact same product. When you come to one of the four campuses of All Saints Parish, you will receive the exact same proclamation of the Gospel, reverently celebrated Mass, youth ministry, etc.
Sometimes, we need to accept that normal does not work. Thinking outside the box is a concept rooted deeply in my conversion story. I had followed the norm of “check the box” Sunday Mass attendance / CCD and ended up pro-abortion and did not know our Lord or our Lady. Deep in my bones is the idea that thinking outside the box is really good.
We need to accept the reality that what has been “normal” is not working. People are leaving the Church in droves; all the data points toward it. One of my mottos is if you are not doing something new, you are most likely failing, because normal is toxic. Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Now, in no way am I speaking of doctrine, the sacred liturgy, or tradition, but how we make it accessible is clearly not working, effective, or reaching the masses. We need to find a way to bring the beauty of the Mass to the masses.
On a slightly lighter, but related note, you are also a coach—how does that work inform your efforts at reform and renewal?
I have been blessed to be able to coach cross country and track at public high schools for the last eleven years. This experience has allowed me to enter into the world of young people, their families, and school administration in ways beyond my imagination. There have been great graces of conversion and renewal due to this open door; it also keeps me running, healthy, and motivated.
I love that you’re thinking about what it means to be a parish right now and how a parish is bigger than just the physical buildings. We often identify more with “brands” than we do geographic spaces. Where do we go from here?
I think there is so much out there that we are already behind on something when it comes to parish renewal and restructuring. Where is the research and development department of the Catholic Church? In 2019, the R&D expenses of Amazon were around $36 billion, compared to $16.9 billion of Microsoft. Interesting right? Where are the best practices? Where is the R&D in the Catholic Church? What are we doing differently, or are we just literally creating insanity by doing the same thing over and over expecting different results?
We are not selling products; we are dealing with eternal salvation and honor and glory to our Lord. We can do better, we must do better, and we all can be part of the solution together.