Five habits of highly effective parishes

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Article Parish Life
How do bustling parishes stir up so much activity and enthusiasm? Experts share a few key ingredients that have proven to be a recipe for success.

It’s a good man, or rather a good deacon, who sees remodeling a parish bathroom as a great opportunity to attract new parishioners. But then Deacon Jesus Espinoza sees most everything as a chance to welcome newcomers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha, a suburb of Portland, Oregon.

Quinceañeras celebrating girls’ 15th birthdays and Our Lady of Guadalupe processions are obvious prospects, but Espinoza saw the bathroom project as having just as much promise. The work didn’t need permits, so there was no problem recruiting parishioners to pitch in.

Espinoza and others made announcements from the pulpit, asking for help laying tile, painting, and so on. St. Elizabeth’s Spanish-speaking parishioners are disproportionately women and children, so Espinoza hoped that his call for help might bring in some men who otherwise weren’t involved in the parish. He wasn’t disappointed. Women stood in line to sign their husbands up. “We’ll make sure they come,” the women promised.

The men did come, and Espinoza kept track of their names as he swung a hammer along with them as the remodeling progressed. And when the work was done, it wouldn’t be the last time Espinoza saw his helpers. “Now those guys come to Mass,” he says.

“Why this project succeeded,” says Jesuit Father Tom Sweetser, director of the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project, “was because of the wives who got the men to come in the first place. Details like that turn the tide, and often it is the little things that make the difference. Whether it is the liturgy, religious formation, a service project, or a presentation, the details make it happen.”

Sweetser offers a wide range of suggestions for shaking up the ordinary in parish life: singing a song as a round at Mass, sending a thank-you note via the children to get parents’ attention, serving cocoa to volunteers after shoveling snow for the homebound, sticking a dollar under a front row seat to get people to sit closer for a talk.

“These small, creative gestures are what people remember and get them to show up in the first place, and has them coming back for more,” he says. “The best parish practices are the little things that are done with imagination and forethought.”

Following best practices in parish life means considering changes in several crucial areas: welcoming new parishioners, getting people involved, providing solid faith formation, and that all-encompassing, ever-challenging category of communication. Not to mention remodeling bathrooms in a way that communicates welcome, gets people involved, and forms faith through one single community effort.

There aren’t hard and fast rules on these sectors of parish life, but strategies like these are at work in vibrant parishes across the country. From the success of those parishes, five key strategies emerge.

1. Making a good first impression

While growing up at Church of the Nativity in Baltimore, Kristin Costanza witnessed the parish in decline. In the late 1990s, 96 percent of parishioners said in a survey that “convenient parking” was the parish’s top attraction. The parish building wasn’t being maintained; the congregation’s lack of giving meant deferred maintenance was the norm despite its location in an affluent area. Kids didn’t enjoy religious education, and there was no youth ministry.

But today the parish is out of space, having tripled its registration numbers. Though it took a lot of work to turn the parish around—which pastor Father Michael White and his associate, Tom Corcoran, detail in their books Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter (Ave Maria) and Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better (Ave Maria)—one of the most important changes was in how Nativity welcomed newcomers. As one reviewer of Rebuilt recounts on the book’s Amazon.com page, a Mass she attended at Nativity included “a video screen, a pre-Mass talk show, friendly greeters, soul-lifting music, and a message that spoke to my very heart!” Her kids literally begged to go back to the so-called “rock and roll church,” she says, leaving her parents a little skeptical about whether the church was actually Catholic.

That may be because Nativity has imported some best practices from successful Protestant megachurches, but Costanza, now the parish’s director of communications, explains that those elements don’t actually interfere with the celebration of a Catholic Mass. “Sometimes we get confused with what’s actually Catholic theology and what’s just there for outdated cultural reasons,” she says. “We humans tend to stick close to what we know. But some of this isn’t working. You really have to look at certain things and ask, is this just the way I want it, or is it core to the Catholic faith?”

Costanza admits that some parishioners left because of changes at Nativity, which she considers a natural part of the process. “We want to love God, love others, and make disciples,” she says, quoting the parish’s mission. “We’re going to do that with the best methods possible. We don’t want to offend anyone, but we are going to be growing and changing. We also want each parishioner to grow. And if you can’t grow at Nativity, then there are other churches close by. We don’t take that as a hit. We’ve had numerous parishioners who had left but then came back a few years later, and told us they love what we’re doing. We’re always welcoming people back.”

For parishes that aren’t quite ready to implement all the changes at Nativity, Sweetser offers a seemingly simple system change to make people feel more welcome: having greeters go to meet people instead of waiting for people to come to them.

Physical spaces too can feel welcoming or unwelcoming. St. Hugh Parish in Huntington Station, New York, hadn’t thought much about their doors—some closed, others open; some labeled, others more mysterious. Active volunteers knew the difference between, for instance, doors leading to the religious education office and the youth ministry office. It wasn’t as easy for newcomers.

Then Msgr. Vincent Rush put up signage, mapping out which door led to which office. Parishioners and staff realized they’d unwittingly put out an unwelcome mat to newcomers and made it harder to get involved instead of easier. “It was just a sign, but [parishioners] thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Rush says. “We needed the imagination to see what a new person would see, so we could be more hospitable toward them.”

2. Metrics matter

Keeping track of results is part of understanding whether those little changes are actually doing any good. “By talking about systems you explicitly acknowledge that everything connects to everything else,” Rush says. “So by making a change in one place you’re likely to have a change somewhere else. The good news is that by changing something small, you may be able to see a dramatic result for a minor investment.” Or as Sweetser says, pay attention to the details.

Rush is now pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in tree-dappled West Babylon on Long Island. Parishioners there have been measuring their parish’s spiritual health since 2007 through engagement surveys from the polling group Gallup. “It tells us how committed spiritually we are, where we’re doing a good job, and where we’re not resonating,” says Rush, who considers the survey worth its cost. “We can’t just run things by anecdote.”

Gallup places parishioners in one of three categories. They’re either “engaged,” that is, organizing their lives around the church; “not engaged,” i.e., satisfied with the parish, usually attending, but often more for social than spiritual reasons; or “actively disengaged,” coming to Mass only a couple times a year and often unhappy with the church, parish, or both.

Gallup’s research finds that only 16 percent of all U.S. parishioners are “actively engaged.” In contrast, 49 percent are “not engaged,” and 35 percent of parishioners are “actively disengaged,” i.e., absent or complaining all the way to the altar if they do come.

Knowing how connected parishioners are—or aren’t—is essential, Rush says, since belonging leads to belief, rather than the other way around. The survey helps parish leaders understand where parishioners are in terms of commitment: from “what am I getting,” then to “what can I give,” and finally to the point where they are actively evangelizing, making noise, and taking the church into the street. These are the folks who, as Pope Francis puts it, reflect joy rather than showing “the face of a pickled pepper.”

Lumen Christi Parish in St. Paul, Minnesota has signed on to another of Gallup’s surveys, its StrengthsFinder tool, to help parishioners be better disciples. The survey identifies a person’s top five strengths or talents to help better discern his or her calling, which ties in with the parish’s message that stewardship isn’t just about money. In fact, Lumen Christi now refers to it as “discipleship” instead of stewardship.

“It doesn’t just mean what you do at the parish,” says Joan Gecik, pastoral administrator. “We ask, ‘What gives you life?’ The Eucharist calls us together to feed our souls so that we can go out to use our gifts. Maybe that means taking care of our extended family, our children, helping our neighbor rake leaves, or putting our faith into the work we already do.”

Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit and now the publisher of GEMS (Great Endeavors Mined & Shared), a parish best practices newsletter, says she’s seen the StrengthsFinder tool used in several parishes to improve welcoming and calling people into ministry—both elements of faith formation. Calling forth people’s gifts helps them use those gifts for others, either in the parish or the broader community, and gives them a sense of ownership and belonging, Schaeffler says.

Last year Lumen Christi parishioners were asked how they were using their gifts outside the parish and found that some served on the boards of nonprofits, helped with fund-raising at their children’s schools, or raised money for starving children in Africa. “We come together as a parish because we want to be disciples of Jesus,” says Gecik. “But then how do we live out those gospel values in our day-to-day lives? Leadership comes out of discipleship, and if we’ve laid the groundwork, some will become leaders.”

3. Faith formation is a family affair

Sue Ann Saltarelli, coordinator of faith formation at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Tonawanda, New York, knows what it’s like to lose parishioners after making a change.

Nine years ago the parish revamped its classroom-based children’s faith formation program in favor of intergenerational catechesis for the whole family. “There was no longer the option to drop your kids off and go,” says Saltarelli.

The first year, they lost families. The next year, new families came on board. The third year saw some of the families that had left come back. “A number of parishes are doing that,” says Schaeffler. “It’s a way to realize that formation is more than sitting in the classroom, and it brings parents into their role as evangelist and teacher.”

Lumen Christi also encourages families to volunteer for ministry together. Families sign up to host coffee and doughnut gatherings and, during the weeks that Lumen Christi serves as a shelter for people experiencing homelessness, parish families come to host and have supper with them. Families serving together as greeters is especially popular; parishioners love it when the sincere 5-year-olds greet them, bulletin in hand, saying, “Here—I’ve got this for you.”

Faith formation, says Schaeffler, is what turns cultural Catholics into intentional Catholics. “When I was growing up, being Catholic was just something I inherited, like my ethnicity,” she says. “People never really made the decision themselves, never really owned their faith. That’s not the case today. It’s harder to be an intentional Catholic, but it means that people are asking themselves important questions: What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, and how do I live that?”

Reflection is another best practice within faith formation. “There need to be follow-up sessions,” Schaeffler says. That can be done in many creative ways, from group gatherings to e-mail conversations. Ongoing discussions can also be held online for people who cannot commit to coming back to the church for meetings on a regular basis.

But being creative doesn’t necessarily mean using new technology. Sweetser’s Parish Evaluation Project highlights a pastor who added a question-and-answer period during the liturgy. Once a month the pastor picks a previously submitted question and gives a two-minute answer—enforced by a timer—during Mass. Afterward parishioners can further discuss the issue over coffee and doughnuts.

“Everything that happens at the parish is formative,” says Schaeffler, noting that includes the liturgy, how the parish responds—or doesn’t—when someone dies, even the way the secretary answers the phone. “We need to have more intentional things, but the reality is that everything a parish does is adult faith formation.”

4. Plucking people from the pews

Lori Krep, now the events department manager at Oregon Catholic Press, recalls how Joan Gecik first helped her get involved at Lumen Christi Parish in St. Paul. “She plucked me out of a pew,” says Krep. “And look where she is now,” Gecik teases. In fact, even before Krep’s Oregon gig, she was hired on as a parish leader in St. Paul because of skills she first discovered and developed as a volunteer.

Gecik says she sees the parish as a number of concentric circles: a small circle in the middle, then a circle that’s a little bit bigger, then another that’s bigger still, and so on. People inside the innermost circle are involved in several ministries; the people in the next circle out may be involved in just one or two things; the people in the third circle come to Mass and volunteer only on occasion. People in the fourth circle just attend Mass; and the people in the fifth (Gallup’s “actively disengaged”) are parishioners in name only.

“Our strategy is to see nonsolid lines between the circles,” Gecik says. “We want to make sure there’s plenty of space to move through to a different circle, and we’re always looking at bringing people into the next circle in, so that people in the center aren’t there for their whole lives.”

Gecik never stops asking people to get involved. She recalls one parishioner whose wife was active, but his involvement was limited to attending Mass. Gecik sat near them one day and heard him sing. She collared him after Mass. “You need to join the choir,” she told him. He’d never been asked, but he’s been in the choir ever since.

Before inviting people to join a ministry, however, Gecik says it is crucial that the parish has a clearly defined outline of what the person is being asked to do. “We have job descriptions for everything,” she says. “And we ask people on each committee to invite others, because personal invitation works best.” The job descriptions explain what qualities and time commitment are involved. She requests a one-year commitment from volunteers, except for the parish and finance councils, which are three-year commitments. “People need to know what’s expected of them before they can make a commitment,” she says.

There’s also a ministry fair, where parishioners sign up—or re-sign up—for their ministries. “I think you have to do that,” says Gecik. “Otherwise they’re afraid they’ll be stuck.”

She stresses the importance of flexibility; saying yes, for example, to the three teenage girls who wanted to cantor together. “It worked out beautifully,” she says. “You need to listen, and that way people can become involved at the level that they’re able to be engaged in, and you can support them in that.”

And if a ministry is no longer viable because there just aren’t enough volunteers to sustain it? “If you expect a particular ministry to be done the same way it’s always been done, then you may need to retire or reconfigure,” Gecik says. “Parishes can’t be all things to all people. It’s important to step back and consider what’s essential to your parish: What is it that you actually need, that you have the resources to do? Then see how a program can be restructured in a way that it works.”

5. Communicate the right message

“Nothing beats the personal contact with the people,” says St. Elizabeth’s Espinoza. “We’re so focused on sacramental ministry that sometimes we forget the power of talking with people. We shouldn’t just talk with the person who is crying, but also with the kid who is not crying.” Sweetser notes that kind of humility and accessibility seem to be working for Pope Francis. “Maybe the rest of us should give it a try,” he says.

But in this era of social media, communication means far more than just personal interaction. At Baltimore’s Church of the Nativity, Costanza is at work every day communicating via the parish webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and Vimeo, a video service where viewers can access a weekly live webcast of the Mass and more. “It doesn’t take a genius to see where people are: on their computers and cell phones,” she says.

The parish team instituted the broadcasts of Mass because they knew some people felt uncomfortable in a church. They needed a stepping-stone, a way to get comfortable with Mass before coming in person. “We’ve had some people who check it out and then join,” says Costanza. “But other audiences have also benefited: people who are homebound, or in the hospital, or travelers.”

One medium that Nativity doesn’t use is a bulletin. “We found that not many people read it, but if they did, they were reading it during the homily,” says Costanza. “The website is such a better option for us. But we’re still figuring it out.”

The parish does offer a “message card” at Masses, with art for the message—a kind of faith formation series—for the week. On the back is the Mass schedule and a breakdown of what the week’s message is about. There’s also a computer at the church and a facilitator to help parishioners who don’t have computers or are uncomfortable with them.

Costanza’s advice on communication best practices? First, know your community of believers. Second, remember that just because something worked for another parish doesn’t mean it will work at yours—don’t feel pressured to replicate success. Third, know that you’ll make mistakes. That’s unavoidable. While it’s important to try new things, it’s also necessary to admit when something’s not working.

There’s another important message that’s being broadcast to Catholics worldwide—the words and actions of Pope Francis. “What is likely to change the parish scene more than anything else is our new pope,” says Sweetser. “He is reshaping the best practices of our church from concentrating on those in church to those outside the walls. That is a big shift.

“Change is never easy, but done in small doses and in baby steps, it can be done,” Sweetser adds. “Every parish can do it. We now have permission from the pope to think big and then carry changes out in small, creative ways. The little details will keep adding up until suddenly, the entire parish operation has a new focus.”

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 3, pages 12-17).

Want to read more ways to help your parish become a thriving and engaging community? Here is our Special Section: Best practices for parishes.

Image: ©iStock/Christopher Futcher