A pioneering German layman is taking on the role of ‘pastor’ of a parish, saying that his appointment to a role usually reserved for priests “is only the beginning of new paths we are taking” in the Church.

– “A nice feeling”

“I’m happy about the challenge and it’s also a nice feeling”, Werner Heckmann, the new ‘pastor’ of the parish of St. George in Saerbeck, told Domradio about his appointment in an interview July 13.

Heckmann – for many years a pastoral assistant in this parish in the diocese of Münster – was tapped for his new role last week.

After the previous pastor of St. George’s retired, the diocese found itself with a problem. “There are simply not enough priests” for a new cleric to be appointed to the Saerbeck parish, auxiliary bishop Christoph Hegge admitted in a press conference to present the new local church leadership team.

The diocesan human resources director, Karl Render, added that in the Church “we must rethink this point” of having a priest always in charge of a parish, since in the face of the vocations plunge “holding on to old structures no longer does justice to the changed situation”.

Hence the new model of parish leadership at St. George’s with layman Heckmann at the helm and aided by a priest – living off-site – who to comply with Church law will take on the role of parish administrator.

– “Images of the Church will change”

Though Heckmann admitted to Domradio that his new role would be demanding, he also acknowledged that “the challenge is not so big, because I have been here for many years, I am very familiar with the village and with many people”.

“I worked together with the previous pastor for many years and in this respect I have of course already had a large share in the leadership of the church”, the layman added.

Asked whether his becoming the first lay parish ‘pastor’ in Germany could open the gates to a flood of similar appointments, Heckmann said “I certainly believe that this is only the beginning of new paths we are taking” in the Church and that, consequently, “images of the Church… will change”.

Change “is often the case in normal life. And in the Church, unfortunately, sometimes too; things change when the need is great”, the lay pastor acknowledged.

– A woman next?

As for how the people of the Saerbeck parish are taking the news of his appointment, Heckmann said that there’s “a feeling of loss” and bewilderment, on the one hand, since “we won’t get a pastor anymore”, but on the other hand there’s also happiness “that you are doing this”.

Heckmann summed up his appointment by stressing that having a layman at the head of a parish “changes the image of the Church”, but acknowledged that for him personally, “it is only a transition anyway”.

“Next spring I will retire, and my successor is a woman”, Heckmann said, referring to current pastoral assistant Anja Daut, who will continue in that role and help Heckmann organise the life of the parish.

Daut’s becoming ‘pastor’ of St. George’s next year – an assignment auxiliary bishop Hegge and HR director Render have already agreed to, in theory – “might change something again”, Heckmann observed wryly.

More stories on Novena on the lay revolution in the Church:

Layman Werner Heckmann takes joint charge of Münster parish as auxiliary bishop admits “there are simply not enough priests”

“Has no future”: Austrian priest theologian blasts clericalist Church that infantilises faithful

French Bishops’ head ‘gets it’ on rights for women, laity: “The Church cannot act as if humans were children who must be held by the hand”

“A good thing for the whole Church”: Spanish Bishops’ Conference names first laywoman subcommission secretary

New Irish bishop declares “the Church of the future is about the increased involvement of lay people”


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