A German diocese is experimenting with new non-priest-centred parish models.

– Bishop wants to identify leadership structures appropriate for individual situations

This week the Diocese of Münster began sending out handouts to all of its parishes encouraging them to consider new models of leadership for the local Church which do not depend on the figure of an ordained man, or at least maintain him in a secondary role.

The basis for the innovations in the Münster diocese is the provision in canon law (517 §2) which explicitly states that in the face of a shortage of priests, a layperson or a community of laypeople may be entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish, although always with the figure of an ordained man in the background to moderate.

Not, though, that Münster bishop Felix Genn is simply interested in applying loopholes in the Church’s legislation. On the contrary.

“I would like to encourage the development of leadership structures that are appropriate for the respective situation”, Genn wrote to his parishes, explaining that it was time for individual Church communities to take responsibility for the organisational and administrative structures that work best for them.

Genn added that he was hoping with the new project to clarify “which concrete responsibility and decision-making authority can be transferred to the people who give the Church a local face”, and also to promote “a higher degree of participation” in parish life on the part of laypeople.

“As different as parishes and congregations are, as different may their forms of leadership be”, added for his part Klaus Winterkamp, the vicar general of the Münster diocese.

– Push to “strengthen the awareness of the common vocation of all the baptised to serve the mission of the local Church”

The Münster diocesan handout – which is the fruit of a months-long pilot program of experimentation and consultation – contains various models of possible non-priest-centred parish organisation.

The brochure speaks of various leadership figures including deacons and full- and part-time pastoral workers and volunteers working individually or in teams, and also contains suggestions for how to incorporate into parishes new models of decision-making, responsibility, accountability and balance between administration and pastoral care.

The new models for parish organisation are designed to “strengthen the awareness of the common vocation and ability of all the baptised to serve the mission of the local Church”, the diocese affirmed in its presentation of the handouts.

All of the information in the brochure is also being made available by diocesan officials on a special website, where they also plan to publish further materials, ideas for best practice and success stories.

But as much as the diocese is encouraging parishes to move to these new models of co-responsibility between priests and laypeople, officials have also stressed that no community will be forced into adopting any particular new model, with the emphasis being always on what fits best in particular situations.

– Non-priest-led models of parish management enable smaller churches to stay open

New parish models based on the provision in Canon 517 are being experimented with in different places in Germany, for example in the Diocese of Osnabrück, where 52-year-old woman Christine Hölscher was appointed last November as the new leader of the parish of Bad Iburg/Glane.

At the time of the appointment of Hölscher – who to comply with canon law works as parish leader in concert with a “moderating priest” who does not have to live on site – Osnabrück bishop Franz-Josef Bode explained the step as a “process of pastoral orientation”.

The principal advantage to non-priest-led parishes such as in Osnabrück – where, with Hölscher’s, there are now two – is that it keeps open smaller churches that might otherwise fall prey to the waves of parish mergers that are increasingly sweeping over dioceses in Germany and beyond.

More stories on Novena on lay leaders taking the reins in the Church:

French Catholic women push bishops for German-style ‘synodal path’ “to envision the Church of tomorrow”

Canon lawyer backs Catholic women’s proposal that laypeople preach in Masses

New lay female ‘episcopal vicar’ in Switzerland says women’s diaconate should be priority for Church

New female Catholic “pastor” making history in Germany urges other women to follow in her footsteps


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.