A layman has taken joint charge of a parish in the German diocese of Münster as an auxiliary bishop there has admitted “there are simply not enough priests” to take on the duties of pastor.

– On the lack of vocations, “holding on to old structures no longer does justice to the changed situation”

Auxiliary Bishop Christoph Hegge and head of the diocesan department for pastoral care personnel Karl Render presented July 8 a new leadership model for the parish of St. George in Saerbeck.

That new team consists of priest Hans-Michael Hürter and, for the first time as joint head of a parish in the Münster diocese, lay pastoral assistant Werner Heckmann.

The new arrangement in the leadership of the St. George parish has been made immediately necessary by the retirement at the end of June of former pastor Peter Ceglarek, but also – as Bishop Hegge explained at the presentation of the new team – by a broader lack of ordained men in the diocese to fill Ceglarek’s shoes.

Whereas Hegge in his remarks insisted on the lack of vocations, Render gave layman Heckmann’s new charge a more positive spin, situating it in the context of the ongoing attempts in the Münster diocese to strengthen the leadership of laypeople.

“We must rethink this point” of having a priest necessarily in charge of a parish, Render explained. “Holding on to old structures no longer does justice to the changed situation”, he added.

– An experiment to strengthen co-operation between clergy and laypeople

Both Hegge and Render emphasised during Wednesday’s presentation that the new model of pastoral leadership in the St. George’s parish is an experiment conducted in the light of that diocesan “process” towards greater lay-clerical co-responsibility in the Church and with the possibility of reviewing in a few months “what works… and what doesn’t”.

But both diocesan leaders, too, said they saw the new arrangement in the Saerbeck church as a chance to strengthen co-operation between full-time and part-time parish workers and volunteers, and that much without shifting any extra burdens onto the latter.

Along with priest Hürter and layman Heckmann, pastoral care in the St. George parish is also provided by vicar Ramesh Chopparapu and pastoral assistant Anja Daut, with this last laywoman already being primed to take over Heckmann’s new responsibilities at the head of the parish when he himself retires next spring.

Though Hürter retains the title, for canon law purposes, of parish administrator of St. George’s, the priest confessed Wednesday that he finds that title – usually given in the diocese to priests who temporarily lead parishes, for example until permanent pastors are appointed – to be irritating.

The reason for Hürter’s discomfort with the term, as he explained, is that he prefers to see himself as the spiritual companion of the parish, and at most as a moderator.

Whatever the title, the White Father looks set to be a very hands-off leader in the parish – residing not in Saerbeck but in nearby Ladbergen, and continuing with other duties in the diocesan curia: a situation that will foreseeably give even more space to layman Heckmann.

– Wider controversy in Germany over laypeople leading parishes

The question of laypeople leading parishes has proven to be a particularly thorny one for the German Church of late.

Even though full-time lay leaders of parishes can be found in dioceses such as Osnabrück or Rottenburg-Stuttgart, the Vatican recently nixed a plan in the Trier diocese to implement a large-scale joint lay-clerical leadership model in all of its parishes, reaffirming to Trier bishop Stephan Ackermann that only priests can exercise ultimate authority in local churches even if administrative tasks can be shared.

Bishop of Essen and of the German Military Ordinariate Franz-Josef Overbeck became the latest prelate to weigh into the controversy in a webinar with young Catholics July 7, in which he affirmed his conviction that priests should be the ones to lead parishes by virtue of their ordination.

For that assertion, Overbeck immediately faced resistance in the webinar from his co-chair of the “Power and Separation of Powers in the Church” ‘synodal path’ forum Claudia Lücking-Michel, the vice-president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

Lücking-Michel agreed that traditionally parishes are headed by pastors. “But then we must discuss exactly which groups from our Church have access to this office”, the laywoman said, noting that women, for example, are excluded from becoming priests and hence pastors of parishes “not because of personal qualifications, charisms, vocation and spirituality, but simply because they are women”.

More on Novena on chances for laypeople with the shortage of priests:

German bishop blames mass Church desertions on tired old parish-centred pastoral model

“A bit depressed”, German bishop rethinks parish mergers after “massive Roman intervention”

German diocese of Münster experiments with non-priest-centred parish models

German archbishop demands Church increase quota of women in leadership positions

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