A recent “Houses of Worship” editorial in the Wall Street Journal is titled, “A Thriving Church Can Save a Faltering One.” In the article, Ron McCoy, Executive Director of the ROGO Foundation, makes a compelling case for partnering or merging a failing church with a thriving one. But it’s not simply about bringing money and staff together. It’s about new models that help parishes thrive.
”The future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us.’ We all need each other.”
With only 28% of Americans attending church regularly, many parishes are caught in a spiral of decline. The urgent need for basic temporal resources becomes a driving focus, yet the answer must include a willingness to look at the parish and consider making changes. Parishes find it very hard to make changes even though their community has changed. In the case of parish partnerships and mergers, the “thriving” parish may not be the one with all the financial resources. The newly formed parish must be a place full of the Holy Spirit, with welcoming parishioners and opportunities for people to engage in the parish community. McCoy writes: “Churches must ask themselves: Does this look like a place people – and especially those who don’t yet know Jesus – could engage? Is the music current, or have we been singing the same songs since the early ‘70s?”
The Diocese of Bridgeport is at the forefront of dioceses exploring what might work for parishes. Bishop Caggiano and his leadership team use data to understand what is happening in parish communities. With this information as background, they engage their pastors in conversation about what their parishes need to thrive. One of the outcomes of this work is five models of collaboration as ways to foster vitality in parishes:
- Merger: close one parish and merge into a single parish
- Diocesan financial services: provided to parishes in place of staff at the parish
- Shared function: Maintain two campuses and share administrative staff or pastoral staff. They have examples of parishes sharing youth ministry and sharing a gym
- Parish Partnerships: Invite a healthy suburban parish to partner with a struggling inner city parish.
- Co-located diocesan mission: locate diocesan missions within parishes. And invest in the missions which in turn helps to revitalize the parish
While all the models are being used, most notable is the very positive response from suburban parishes willing to devote “overage” contributions to inner-city parishes. As it turns out, the suburban parishes have been inspired by the thriving faith communities in the inner-city parishes. The Holy Spirit is truly at work in the Diocese of Bridgeport!
The co-located missions are also working. The diocese has set up four types of missions to date: an Institute for Catholic Culture at a parish, a bereavement ministry, an Institute for Immigration Services, and a partnership with Catholic Charities. The missions are priority ministry for the diocese. By housing them in parishes, the diocese can secure resources that support both the mission and the parish.
These models are great examples of how our Catholic Church can get creative. They are derived through data-informed discernment. In his article, McCoy states: “They also have a movement of the Holy Spirit…that provides the momentum and makes them thrive. These churches also make efforts to remain relevant. ” Being “relevant” does not mean reducing or altering the tenets of our Faith. We can keep the Mass as the source and summit of our faith experience while being relevant as people bringing Christ to the surrounding community. To accomplish this means we are aware of our parish community and how well we resemble and understand the surrounding community.
The Diocese of Bridgeport accomplishes this by combining data with the learned experience of the local pastors. Bridgeport and other dioceses actively implementing collaborative or family of parish models use a combination of sacrament and giving trends and MissionInsite to get a full perspective. MissionInsite is a tool that allows them to select geographic areas around parishes to see lifestyle, belief, and demographic information about the people in the community. Armed with information about people in the community compared to people in the parish, leaders can begin to define what changes might be appropriate or what mission areas are potential priority.
New models are an option to help the Holy Spirit thrive in our parishes. Of course, our pastors and parish leaders must be open to trying some new things and using the available information. As St. Catherine of Siena said: “ Be who God intended you to be, and you will light the world on fire!”
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development and growth, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine FL, as cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. and recently as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.