PHOTO BY Tom Gennara, FAITH Magazine
Bishop of the six-county Diocese of Lansing
Earl Boyea, 65, has been Bishop of the six-county Diocese of Lansing since 2008. He oversees 86 parishes, 33 schools, three cemeteries and dozens of departments and outreach efforts. Born in Pontiac, he has been a priest since 1978 and was Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit before his Lansing appointment.
Can you talk about leadership?
For me, as Bishop of the Diocese of Lansing, the primary goal is to create unity. It is one of the great qualities of a church – oneness. Our unity is pivotal. Our parishes are not franchises, but have independence; they belong to the whole church. My job as bishop is to try to keep them together; to maintain that unity. And my role as bishop is to maintain unity with the Holy Father.
So you have to lead up and down and to the sides.
Exactly. I can’t think of any other aim or quality that is the role of the bishop. There are all of the things that you do to facilitate that, but fundamentally I am here to help achieve this unity.
You said your parishes are not a franchise. So how do you keep everyone and everything on message?
It’s primarily through relationships, just as you would be with any organization. Fundamentally, it’s my relationships with the priests. When I came to Lansing I was struck by how well they got along. We don’t have a lot of backbiting, which you are going to have with any human institution. My job is to further those relationships.
My role as bishop is to be this center of unity within the dioceses and beyond. I have to talk about that a lot. It’s easy to lose sight of, to become parochial and to focus just on your parish or even smaller divisions within a parish.
In fulfilling your mission, you have to balance faith and finance. How does that work?
Obviously the faith is the foundation; I pray every morning, I say Mass every day – everything really flows from that. My connection with the Lord is the basis for all of this. Now there are obviously very practical things that have to be done. I insist that parishes have functioning parish councils and finance councils. A lot of them do and they work really well and can help a pastor a great deal. That’s the mechanism by which we keep together the faith and the finances.
Do the ripples from the change in church leadership – Pope Benedict to Pope Francis – influence how you lead the Lansing Diocese?
It affects every bishop in terms of the big message. Just as I have to do a lot of talking to reinforce certain things, he is doing a lot of talking to reinforce things as well. Particularly this year of mercy, reaching out to the margins, caring for the poor, the needy. I hear that. Everybody hears that, and so I think there’s been a greater tendency to try to be responsive to that. If you don’t talk about it a lot, it can get set on the side burner.
Your Faith in Flint is bold, innovative and timely, reflecting the message of Pope Francis. What’s your assessment so far?
It’s going pretty well. We were planning this before Pope Francis was even elected, so it had nothing to do with him. There are a lot of silos building in Flint and there has been for decades; not a lot of cooperation, even among our parishes.
It just so happened that about a year ago there were going to be a lot of vacancies in these parishes. I could have just named priests to all of these parishes and continued on as we did. Instead, I lumped them all together with a pastor. There are five of them now together and they are responsible for the whole ecclesiastical reality there. It’s going to be a slow process because they have several aims: One is to get the parishes to work together, many of whose members don’t live in the city. They come in from outside. The second aim is to get them engaged, to go door-to-door, invite folks to be part of our endeavor. We’re not going to solve all of the civic and practical issues of that city, but we can bring the light of faith and charity to an environment that needs it.
For the Diocese, is something like Faith in Flint a rallying point, even a branding opportunity?
That’s possible. I do think that it has stimulated a lot of our parishes. There are people who want to do something. Faith in Flint is a lesson for all of us to look beyond our comfort zone.
Does Faith in Flint offer an opportunity to mobilize people who might be drifting?
Young people love to do Christian service. But will that be a commitment to take on a leadership role? I do think a big part of it is that we’ve got to be more intentional in seeking out young people and saying, “Hey, get involved in this.” They are incredibly reluctant to make commitments to anything. It’s generational. We see it across the board in society. It’s not just the church.
Many organizations must do more and more with less and less. What’s your approach?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is a task that falls to the priests. They have to learn how to better use the resources they have. That is, their own people. Some of our priests are not very good at doing that. They have to do everything themselves. But others are very good at this, tapping into the talents and enabling the gifts of so many different people. I think that’s the key.
You deal with religion, which is more and more difficult to sell. How do you manage through that?
The only thing you can do is pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. We had an assembly in 2014 to try and build up the household of faith. This year, we’ll have another assembly on reaching out to fallen away Catholics. None of that is going to address those who are on the fringes. There is no way under the sun people who are on the edge, can have their faith deepened. You’ve got to work with the ones you have and try to deepen their commitment.
Sounds like a strategy of hope.
Yes, it is. But if you can get people more engaged in what they are doing, then that sells itself, as it were. That’s a critical issue.
Do you worry about that trend?
It does worry me. When I came to Lansing in 2008 one of the media people asked me what my vision was. I said it was to get everyone to heaven. That’s the aim and the goal. But I can either spend all of my time worrying, or I can say, “let’s do something about this,” however little it is. It’s like Flint; I can’t solve everything up there. My goodness, it would be impossible.
This conversation with Bishop Boyea has been edited for space and clarity.