When Father Scott Gratton was deployed to serve overseas with the Vermont National Guard, Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne did not have another priest available to oversee the day-to-day operations at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Randolph and Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Bethel and Rochester, so he turned to his director of worship.

Josh Perry is now serving as pastoral associate for parish life — taking care of the administrative responsibilities of the parishes; he is believed to be the first lay person to be given this task in the Diocese of Burlington.

“Josh had done administrative work in his previous employment in other Dioceses and campus ministry. When the need arose in Bethel/Randolph/Rochester, he was ready and able to fill the position,” the bishop said. “He has been doing a great job there.”

Perry continues his ministry as director of worship but has added the one-day-a-week position at the central Vermont parishes.

Born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2003 and a master’s in Liturgical Studies from St. John’s University and School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 2009. He worked as the coordinator of liturgical celebrations at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis as well as director of worship for the 1,500-family St. Therese Parish in Deephaven, Minnesota. Before coming to Vermont, he was the liturgist at Villanova University.

Perry said his job at Our Lady of the Angels and Our Lady of the Valley parishes is “to keep people involved and active in Father Scott’s absence,” and he emphasized the important role played by the parishes’ full-time secretary, Elizabeth Stuart, in serving the 135 registered families in the parishes.

Perry, who officially began his work in the parishes in January, is usually onsite on Wednesdays and at one weekend Mass a month. A retired priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, Father John Carroll, handles the sacramental ministry, and area priests are available to help when needed during the week.

“Working with Josh has been very good. He is super helpful and knowledgeable,” Stuart said.

Having a lay administrator for the parishes allows priests to focus on their sacramental ministry while Perry and Stuart handle the everyday operations of the parishes. But the willingness of local priests to offer assistance when needed gives Perry — who attends monthly deanery meetings — the feeling he is “never on an island on my own,” he said, adding that “we are very much connected to the bigger Church.”

Although other lay persons may follow Perry into ministry as lay administrators for parishes, “this is in no way trying to replace the priesthood,” he emphasized. “The Church can’t survive without the priesthood.”

He sees his job is “to keep Father Scott’s seat warm” until he returns from his deployment and to empower parishioners, parish groups and committees “to keep doing what they are doing” in his absence.

Perry — who lives in Fairfax, about an-hour-and-20-minute drive from Randolph — does anticipate the Church will face a “reckoning to right-size our resources” because there are too many buildings unused or underused as well as the continuing clergy shortage. “That doesn’t necessarily mean closing down when we can involve the laity in both volunteer and paid ministries.”

Relating that to Bishop Coyne’s call to move from maintenance to mission, Perry said it is essential to involve lay people in that process. “We all bring skill sets to this one (Church) community.”

As for the skills and gifts he brings to his ministry as pastoral associate for parish life, Perry is organized and has a background in liturgy with exposure to other aspects of parish life. He is able to discern, he thinks ahead of what the ripple effects will be to a decision, and he has a practical prayer life. He is able to “meet people where they are,” and he likes working on budgets.

“I can’t imagine doing this without Josh,” Stuart said.

Father Gratton is expected to return to the parishes early next year, and Perry is open to another parish-based assignment. “It’s something that feeds me, and I get to do a lot of things I don’t do in diocesan ministry,” he said, like baptism and wedding preparation and interview candidates for confirmation. “I’m making personal connections, and I enjoy that.”

The Diocese of Burlington is planning to offer later this year a Pastoral Associate for Parish Life program. This is a 1-year formation program is designed to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to serve their parishes as a pastoral associate when it is not possible for the bishop to appoint a full-time parish priest. This service will take the form of parish administration, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, finances, sacramental preparation, liturgical planning and assistance, human resources, and faith formation. This ensures that Christian life and the evangelizing mission of the community is continued. For more information, contact Deacon Phil Lawson at [email protected].

—Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.