A decline in Catholic religious practice and other changes in western Washington state means parishes will have to merge so that parish life can sustain itself, the Archdiocese of Seattle said Sunday.

“The mission of the Catholic Church is at the heart of strategic pastoral planning,” Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle said Jan. 22. “To achieve our mission, we must reinvigorate the faith of our people and re-envision how we live our faith in our parish communities, which includes adapting to our current reality so that we can strengthen our relationship with Jesus, accompany one another in faith, and credibly proclaim the Gospel.”

Despite a growing overall population in western Washington, the number of practicing Catholics continues to decline, the archdiocese said in a statement. There are fewer households registered with a parish and fewer people attend Mass, receive the sacraments, and take part in parish life. From 2010 to 2019, the archdiocese said, Mass attendance fell by 11%, baptismal numbers declined by 30%, and weddings declined by 18%.

“With all of the changes that we’re facing today — globally, culturally, and within the Church — it’s very clear the status quo is no longer an option,” Etienne said.

The archdiocese’s strategic planning process, called Partners in the Gospel, is “a plan for how we embrace these realities with hope and confidence,” the archbishop said.

Under the planning process, most parishes will combine into a “new family structure.” Two or more parishes will become a single canonical parish under the leadership of one pastor and one or more parochial vicars. The pastor, parish leaders, and parishioners will then determine questions such as how to share resources, staff, ministries, outreach efforts, and facilities.

The Seattle Archdiocese has fewer resources, including priests, lay leaders, and financial assets. There are 80 diocesan pastors for 174 locations, but it predicts it will have only 66 pastors in 2036.

“We need to adapt to times,” said Jesús Gómez Sánchez, a member of the archdiocesan pastoral council. “The worst we could do is remain not doing anything about it and just seeing the numbers in our Church decrease.”

The archdiocese’s 2021 annual report said it had about 600,000 Catholics in its territory. There were about 182 diocesan priests, including 81 retirees, 118 permanent deacons, 17 religious brothers, and 292 religious sisters. That year there were almost 3,200 infant baptisms, 4,700 confirmations, and 849 total marriages.

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Caitlin Moulding, chief operations officer for the Archdiocese of Seattle, said the situation of Catholicism in the region has changed.

“We have churches that were built for many more people than are attending Mass, and most parishes have constrained resources with significant expenses to maintain facilities,” she said. “Many smaller parishes have fewer resources, so they can’t invest in the programs and the staff needed to bring people together and re-enliven their faith.”

The Minnesota-based PartnersEdge consultancy, which specializes in assessment, planning, and leadership, will aid the archdiocese in gathering data, analysis, and structural redesign.

The consultation launches this month. Parish and archdiocesan consultations will take place in spring 2023, while public comment on parish groupings will take place in fall 2023. The final “parish family” structures will be announced in early 2024 and will take effect in July of that year. By 2027, parish groupings are planned to merge into canonical parishes.

The archdiocese’s financial report for fiscal year 2020-2021 said parish collections drew in $93 million. The archdiocese financial report found a 3% decline in parish offertory giving on top of a 4% decline the previous year. The previous 10 years, however, showed “moderate increases” each year.

For 27 parishes and missions, especially in rural areas, ordinary income was under $100,000 each. About two-thirds of parishes operate at a deficit when income from rental properties and special gifts is excluded, the Seattle Times reported. The archdiocese as a whole is fiscally solvent with about $16.5 million in cash and investments.

The Seattle Archdiocese covers the western part of Washington state, from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade Mountains. At present, it has 72 Catholic schools and 174 parishes, missions, and pastoral centers. It celebrates more than 500 weekly Masses in eight languages.

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Washington state is among the most secular in the country. About 32% of its residents are religiously unaffiliated, the Pew Research Center reported in 2019. Still, 61% of Washingtonians are Christian. Evangelicals make up 25% of the population, while Catholics make up 17%.