What makes a parish worth sticking around?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Parish Life
When it comes to finding the perfect place of worship, U.S. Catholic readers say you’d better shop around.
When shopping for a new house, sometimes you know you’ve found your dream home right when you walk in the door. Other times, you have to see many places before finally finding the perfect match or simply settling on the least bad option. There are several questions to consider during this process. Does the house have a convenient location? Is it the right size for your family? How does the neighborhood seem? Most important, is this a place that you can see yourself calling home? 
 
U.S. Catholic readers and website visitors ask many of the same questions when choosing a parish. “The parish needs to be a ‘fit’ for the individual,” says James Pitassi of Johnston, Rhode Island. “The church should be a place where an individual feels that his or her spiritual needs can truly be met.”
 
Most readers say they arrive at their spiritual home after a search through many different houses of worship.
 
Only 39 percent of survey respondents say that they attend the parish closest to their home, suggesting that most people are willing to travel to find the parish that is the best for them. “We travel out of our immediate area for medical care or shopping—traveling a few extra minutes to a different parish should be no big deal,” says Jean Stokes of Flemington, New Jersey.
 
One third of respondents indicated a willingness to travel more than 30 miles to a parish if they felt it was right for them. For Terry Humenik of DeWitt, Michigan, attachment to a parish actually became a reason to move. “When I began attending this parish, it was 10 miles from my home. But about five years ago I moved closer to this parish because I spend so much time here.”
 
Involvement with and attachment to a parish is often directly related to whether a person has sought out that parish or is simply attending a church that is nearby. “I have both walked across the street to church and driven 10 miles,” says Joanne Koehl of Cincinnati. “I find that I have been more involved in parishes that I have intentionally chosen rather than the ones I have attended because of convenience.”
 
Though most respondents support shopping around for a parish rather than attending the geographically closest church, once they’ve found the right parish, they’re usually there to stay. Nearly 60 percent of survey takers say they have been at their current parish for more than five years.
 
Some parishioners, such as Willie Stevens of St. Louis, prefer to exclusively shop for parishes rather than settle down. “My wife and I travel and love to go to other parishes,” he says. “We occasionally go to other parishes in our city just to see what they are like.” Sixty-four percent, however, prefer to always attend Mass at the same church.
 
Forty percent of survey takers say that they need to attend a parish at least two or three times before deciding whether or not it is the parish they want to belong to. “Sometimes it only takes [one visit] to know that you would not be comfortable there,” says Fred Johnson of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It takes longer to know if it is a home.”
 
So what are the factors that help people decide which parish will become their home? For Karen Schmitt of Memphis, the answer is easy. “A parish should be open to new ideas, offer outreach to the poor, and welcome you where you are on your faith journey,” she says.
 
For 84 percent of respondents, quality liturgy is the most important factor for determining whether to stick with a parish or keep looking for somewhere else to attend. Pennsylvania resident Mary Curran specifically examined the quality of the preaching. “My search was based on finding homilists who were prepared and who enrich and challenge me,” she says.
 
“I prefer a parish where the priest treats the parishioners as his flock rather than his minions,” says Lon Hoepf of Toledo, Ohio. And for C. G. Ostlund of Portland, Oregon, it can make a difference whether the parish is run by a congregation of priests, with Ostlund having a personal preference for the Paulists.
 
Reasons for choosing a parish can be as simple as convenient Mass times for busy schedules or the style of music a parish uses. For Ivi Latronica of Brunswick, Ohio, the most important qualities for a parish are “good, solid Catholic teaching with opportunities to grow in the faith through service.”
 
Like Latronica, many people want to know that their parish is making a difference in the life of the community. Geri Collecchia of Pembroke Pines, Florida lists support of social justice initiatives as an essential quality to her ideal parish.
 
The crucial factors are as varied as the diverse community of the global church. When asked to list the qualities that are most important in choosing a parish, people included size of the parish, availability of a parochial school, parish decision-making strategies, accessibility for people with disabilities, and openness to gay and lesbian parishioners.
 
Sometimes the factors vary even within a marriage. “My wife has a different favorite parish, so we alternate,” says Bolingbrook, Illinois resident Gerry Czerak. “I chose mine because it offered opportunities to get involved, but she still prefers the liturgies, Mass times, and intimacy of the other parish.”
 
Still, others think that there is no reason to shop around for parishes, even if something has pushed you away from a certain parish. This should just be extra motivation to join that parish. Says Bill Barker of Colorado Springs, Colorado, “One who ‘shops’ is looking for a church for the wrong reason. If you don’t like what’s happening in the parish in your area, join in and help make it better.”
 
Paul Schwankl from Ann Arbor, Michigan agrees. “I think people should strongly resist the urge to go out of their territory,” he says. “If things aren’t great in their territorial parish, they should strongly consider staying there and trying to make the place better.”
 
For most people, the overarching reason to find and commit to a parish is the value of community. “I’d sometimes like to visit other parishes, but I know I’m missing out on the life of the community I know well if I’m not there,” says Shannon O’Donnell of Tacoma, Washington.
 
Ultimately people want to find a parish that feels like home to them, with a welcoming environment. According to Charlene Dumitru of Orange, California, “Mass is not an act of individual worship. I need a sense of community and an active parish that encourages participation and offers opportunities for spiritual growth and formation.” And Sandra Douglass of Memphis says of her parish, “I love the spiritual family that I have there. I feel that it is my ‘home.’ I enjoy interacting with fellow parishioners and getting involved in parish activities.”
 
“A parish is a faith community, not just a purveyor of services and sacraments. It has to fit you,” says Ona Daugirdas of Burr Ridge, Illinois. Jim Sullivan of Seattle agrees. “A parish is not a ‘fast food’ eucharistic drive-in. It is a community and only survives when its members participate in the community’s life,” he says.
 
After shopping around for the right parish, Elizabeth Begley of Suffern, New York believes she has come to find her spiritual home. “I have found a faith community that nourishes and challenges me,” she says. “It’s not perfect, and neither am I, but in our own ways we struggle together to live out our baptismal call.”
 

"And the survey says..."

1. I have been attending my current parish for:

59% - More than 5 years.
17% - 3-5 years.
7% - 1-2 years.
7% - Less than a year.
10% - I am not currently attending a single parish.

2. I prefer to visit different parishes regularly rather than always attending Mass at the same church.

18% - Agree
64% - Disagree
18% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“Sometimes my schedule requires attending Mass at a different parish.”

3. The parish I most frequently attend is the one closest to my home. 

39% - Agree
58% - Disagree
3% - Other

4. As long as I can attend Mass there and receive the sacraments, any parish is fine with me.

15% - Agree
78% - Disagree
7% - Other

5. I have had a negative experence when attending a parish for the first time that kept me from coming back.

52% - Agree
48% - Disagree

6. Looking for a parish that suits your personality causes you to miss out on the rich diversity of the church.

20% - Agree
69% - Disagree
11% - Other

7. Because a parish should be committed to its community, Catholics in that area should likewise be committed to that parish. 

35% - Agree
50% - Disagree
15% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“Ideally, yes. But when the parish isn’t committed to the community, it is justifiable to go beyond that geographic area.”

8. The important factors for me in choosing a parish are:

84% - Quality of the liturgy
69% - Effectiveness of pastor
63% - Extent of lay involvement
60% - Music
55% - Parish programs
46% - Diversity of parishioners
42% - Proximity to home
37% - Mass times offered
27% - Youth/young adult engagement
13% - Church architecture
16% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“A sense of community and openness to people at all stages of their faith journeys.”

There were open-ended questions that we asked our readers as well. Out of respect to respondents' privacy, we have not included their names or locations, but their answers to our questions provide an interesting look at why Catholics choose to attend the parishes they do.

The reason I stay at my current parish is . . .

I never leave without having been touched by God.  

People are joyous. They make the Mass a celebration.

Because we’re a family here. It’s what Jesus intended.

I care for, and feel cared for by, my pastor and fellow parishioners.

Location, location, location!

Everyone participates in the Mass because we all want to be there, not because we have to be there.

The pastor works at relating the readings to the day-to-day life of the parishioners.

It is the only Catholic church in town.

There is no sexism from the pulpit.

It is in my neighborhood, full of my neighbors.

They have an amazing religious ed program for my children. It is not a fight to get my children to attend.

A reason I decided against continuing to attend a certain parish was . . .

Women and girls were not allowed on the altar. 

Liturgy often was more performance than worship.

The pastor telling me that he hates hearing confessions because it’s like having a garbage truck dumped on you.

Being told how much my offering should be.

A new pastor came and rebuilt the parish in his own image.

When the pastor told me to take my young children into the sacristy because they “bothered” the adults.

Arriving five minutes late I was greeted by an usher at the door and told I could not enter because the church was full.

The choir sang all the congregational parts and no hymnals were provided for the people.

Politics from the pulpit.

I came in as a stranger and left as one. 

I know I’ve found the right parish for me when . . .

I feel safe there—comfortable with the community and safe in expressing myself and my vulnerabilities.

When I can disagree with the homily and still feel respected.

I see a vibrant community who is excited about being present and worshipping
and gathering together.

The Spirit stays with me when I leave.

When I find a welcoming community and a priest who is able to minister to all members of the parish.

At the beginning of Mass I hear the words “All are welcome.”

I feel welcome and needed.

I look forward to the Sunday Eucharist there.

Getting the whole family to church isn’t an ordeal—even if there is still minor grumbling from time to time from the peanut gallery.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 4, pages 31-34).

Photos by The Claretians
Graphic by Angela Cox