“Churches changed during the pandemic and many aren’t going back” we read in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. Leaders like Dan Cellucci from Catholic Leadership Institute are sounding the warning that we have not returned to normal. One of the reasons stated is that we are “out of the habit” of going to Mass. Another observation from CLI’s DiscipleMaker Index is that few of our most active parishioners share their faith with others or invite people to Mass. We are struggling to get people to Mass, let alone form them to “be sent out”.
The extensive research ACS Technologies has done through MissionInsite and American Beliefs Study research offers some clues about what has been happening. The findings indicate that many parish leaders do not know who is in the community around their parish. In some cases, parishes have adopted an attitude of decline based on the limited observation of parish leaders. That culture became magnified during the pandemic.
“In relation to twenty-first century culture, many dioceses and parishes have become museums – sometimes literally, in places like North America and Europe. Museums eventually can become mausoleums, and I have been to several churches that are such.” — Fr. James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Beyond the Parish
The Diocese of Green Bay has been employing the data to help parishes understand more about their opportunities. Barry Metzentine, Director of Parish Operations and Mission Planning, explains: “we also show them insights, literally, in their community, their boundaries, the demographics, and then we compare that to their parishioners. And that’s where the “aha” will really come to light. Because oftentimes a parish that is trying to understand why are they seeing fewer people. Why is the average age of their parishioners 60 years old? And if that’s all they see and experience, they develop a mindset of decline… it’s like you’re in poverty.
So in the planning process, we’re trying to get them to focus and say, whether you believe it or not, you have the opportunity in your community. And so now the question is, how are you going to approach that? So you have 273 people 18 to 39 in your community? How are you going to approach that?”
In his book, Divine Renovation: Beyond the Parish, Fr. Mallon starts with the Berkana Institute model of the dynamics of organizational change. This model provides useful insight into how a parish might move from growth to stasis and decline. A very normal response in decline (along with denial and anger) is to hang on more tightly to what we are currently doing.
Fr. Mallon offers three strategies for Church interaction with the world: accommodation, engagement, and isolation. Too often we decide that “our target community’s inability to understand is not our problem; it is their problem.” As a result we become irrelevant to our target community. The one strategy that yields real fruit is missionary engagement. Mallon goes on to say “the disposition of incarnational missionary engagement, on the other hand, spurs us to change our methodologies so that we can best accompany and engage the people God has called us to serve.”
The challenge for us as parish leaders is to be sure the parish remains connected to the mission. When we lose that connection it can become too easy to focus entirely on ourselves; to want to spend time with others who are spiritually mature, and avoid spending time with people who are still seeking God. We retreat into the “Catholic Club” and neglect our call to be missionaries. Part of what keeps a parish vital is the invitation and influx of new people who are in different states of understanding and formation.
So have our churches really changed or are we just seeing what has been happening for some time? Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have all encouraged us to be a missionary Church. The Bishop’s pastoral letter for Stewardship defines seven steps to success for dioceses and parishes. #3 is Hospitality, Evangelization and Outreach. This shift also requires a more personalized accompaniment for each person’s faith journey.
This is a time to do your Advent preparation for the coming of Christ. It is also a time for us to look objectively at our parish communities. There are great examples of parishes that are an inspiration for their parishioners and are welcoming people from the community, such as St.Isidore parish in Macomb, MI, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Shawnee, KS and Holy Martyrs in Medina, OH. This is a time for our parishes to be motivators and missionaries to our communities rather than museums!
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.