Having spent the last three years working with pastors through the organization I started in 2013, Parish Catalyst, I know Drucker got it right. The job was hard enough in St. Peter’s day when he exhorted elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you.” But today pastors must be accountants, fundraisers, human resources pros, and building managers as well — and all this while modeling Christ to anyone with whom they happen to come into contact.
After interviewing pastoral leaders from 244 flourishing parish communities across the country, we learned about the leadership styles, sources of inspiration, exciting opportunities, and most pressing challenges facing parishes today. My new book, “Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive,” shares our findings. While there is no single thread by which we can connect these unique parishes, our research did produce 49 findings which we then distilled into four foundational practices these parishes follow:
Vibrant parishes share leadership.
When I was growing up, most lay Catholics saw their role in the parish as simply “pray, pay, and obey.” This is no longer the case – not by a longshot. With the growing priest shortage and recent financial setbacks, the need for lay leadership in the parish has dramatically increased. Today, lay men and women perform tasks which were once the near-exclusive domain of priests, from parish administration to faith formation. Pastors of vibrant parishes know they must deploy all the gifts available in their parishes if they are to handle successfully the complex realities of parish life today.
Vibrant parishes foster spiritual growth and plan for discipleship.
More than 90 percent of our pastors considered the spiritual growth of their people to be the strongest characteristic of their communities, while at the same time 70 percent saw a need for improvement. This may be a paradox, but is no contradiction. Spiritual growth is a journey rather than a destination. Pastors of thriving parishes do not take the spiritual growth of their people for granted and actively look for ways to address the spiritual hunger that is in all of us. This involves setting spiritual growth as an explicit goal for the parish community, and dedicating the required resources just as intentionally as if they were planning a new building. One pastor we interviewed hired a new staff member for whole-parish faith formation, while another inaugurated a family religious education program that brings parents and children together once a month and uses digital tools with more appeal.
Vibrant parishes provide a great Sunday experience.
While the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, leaders of flourishing parishes understand that a good Sunday experience beyond the spiritual nourishment of Mass is the key impetus of growth for most parishioners and requires careful preparation. These pastors ensure a warm welcome is offered to all, provide the best music their budgets will permit, spend the time needed to craft excellent homilies, and oversee a physical environment that speaks of community and hospitality. Indeed, the Sunday experience actually begins on Monday these days, as pastor, staff, and volunteers communicate all week long to plan for an organized, edifying Sunday.
Vibrant parishes face outward.
As one of the pastors we interviewed put it: “We can no longer leave the light on for people; we now have to bring the light to them.” Pastors, senior staff, and key members of the parishes we looked at are comfortable discussing their faith with others and are intentional about inspiring, training, and providing opportunities for people to serve. This includes deploying technology and social media effectively to draw visitors.
All of the practices described above have one goal: Discipleship. In Revelation 3, Jesus proclaims to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” A church can appear to be healthy on the surface with a high level of activity and beautiful liturgical celebrations, but for it to be truly alive, parishioners must be growing to be more like Christ. Our most inspiring interviews were when pastors spoke joyfully of long-term parishioners being re-awakened to the desire and thirst for a deeper relationship with Christ, and a greater understanding of what it means to be a disciple.
Parishioners who are growing spiritually in this way will have a higher level of engagement in their parishes. Engagement stands at somewhere around 7 – 18 percent in most Catholic parishes across the United States, so there exists a huge opportunity to help millions move from spiritual quiescence to a life rich in prayer, Bible study, volunteering, generosity, and simple kindness toward others. That’s what a healthy parish is all about.