The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes

Since the publication of Rebuilt in 2012, there’s been an explosion of writing about what makes Catholic parishes prosper. Rebuilt itself charted the impressive growth of an American parish from 1500 to 4000 worshippers, and was closely followed by Divine Renovation (2014), with its focus not on the number of worshippers but on raising the level of engagement among 2000 Canadian worshippers from the typical 7-10% to well in excess of 40%. Divine Renovation in turn alerted readers to the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool with its embedded testimony of raised engagement, reduced hostility, and sudden prosperity for a nondescript New York parish.

Naturally the publishers of these “glory stories” realised that readers would want to learn more, so Divine Renovation has now been followed by its own Reading Guide, an application manual for parishes, and most recently an anecdotal account of how the new pastor there, Revd Simon Lobo, learned the art of pastoring through a rapid apprenticeship. Meanwhile Rebuilt, which was perhaps slightly more detailed in its original text and has more extensive online book-derived resources, has generated numerous extracts and specific applications so the spin-offs include advice on rebuilding youth ministry, confirmation, preaching, 10 steps for getting started and 75 tips for applying the Rebuilt approach generally. Both sources have extensive websites (RB, DR) and now issue regular podcasts: (RB, DR)! Rebuilt hasn’t established much of a presence in the UK, but through its strong ties with Alpha, Divine Renovation now has a UK promoter (Hannah Vaughan-Spruce) and regular UK conferences.

There are many other thriving Catholic parishes. In 2016, Bill Simon published Great Catholic Parishes, based on studies of 244 vibrant parishes, and discovered four common factors at work. First, successful parishes don’t leave it all to the pastor – they have leadership teams. The mix between employees and volunteers, full-time and part-time varies hugely, but in some way, leadership is distributed. Secondly, parishioners are intentional about coming together to pray and to share the work of the parish. Thirdly, Sunday Mass is a high point yet clearly integrated into the lives of those who attend, with welcomers and architecture to draw them in, and mental, electronic and printed take-aways to embed that Sunday’s message in the week to come. Finally, thriving parishes look outwards and are conscious of their role to support fellow Christians in poorer areas. These findings are promoted by the Parish Catalyst organization, which also produces study guides to help apply this material.

In 2013, two businessmen, Patrick Lencioni and John Martin, recognised the need to apply leadership expertese in service of Catholic parishes. They set up the Amazing Parish movement. The on-line resources focus on helping parish priests to recognise the need to work as part of a team, recruit the right members, and start working together effectively.

Finally, an honourable mention must go to the Dynamic Catholic movement (also launching in the UK). Matthew Kelly has written about the importance of raising levels of engagement. Some critics have accused his approach as shallow, since he speaks of the call to holiness as “becoming the best version of yourself”. This kind of language can be a useful, and motivating, bridge to the unengaged, but also needs careful unpacking in the light of a Catholic understanding of what a truly good life looks like.

Listening, Learning Leaders

All successful parishes have a pastor (parish priest) who works as part of a team. In a team he can be challenged, offered alternative perspectives, and be held accountable. Every pastor has blind spots. The other team members might be fellow clergy, paid staff, volunteers or some mixture of all of these. The leadership team is not the same body as the Parish Advisory Council or the Parish Finance Committee; it will be a smaller group which meets more regularly and where the members share a common sense of the mission (what are we here for?) and vision (how are we going to achieve it?) of the parish.

Evident Expectations (Engagement & Evangelisation)

Any parish serious about raising its levels of engagement will make clear what it expects of its members. Not all parish activities foster engagement or evangelisation – engaging is more than “coming to activities”. To engage, an activity has to help participants commit emotionally to the mission or vision of the parish. To evangelise, an activity has to explicitly invite a deeper relationship with Christ. The next two pillars (fostering volunteers and sharing groups) are integral to deepening engagement. If you have a congregation with too few engaged members to take on any special projects, your only viable starting point is raising the engagement level in the weekend congregation.

Vibrant Volunteers

Successful parishes make good use of their available staff and volunteers. The right people are affirmed and promoted; the wrong people are moved out of ministry positions where they are not effective. There will be some kind of pipeline to enable people’s gifts to be recognised, leading to a trial season in some suitable role, and an annual review of whether to continue in that ministry.

Intentional Interactions

Successful parishes expect their members to attend some kind of regular small-to-medium sized group. It is here, not in the large Sunday congregation, that members will build strong relationships and be challenged to deeper conversion. Some parishes may do this by setting clear expectations for existing parish groups (e.g. UCM, Legion of Mary) rather than erecting new ones.

Superb Sundays

Sundays (and Saturday evenings) are your shop window. Everyone who comes should have a superb experience. This requires radiant hospitality which begins at the parking lot, first rate hymns and musical support, and a clear homily which has been prepared and polished to give a clear pithy message, including elements of humour and personal vulnerability, and possibly supported by visual aids and/or a clear take-home message in the bulletin, website, and social media feed.

Where should I begin?

If you are a parish priest with no leadership team supporting you, you would be wise to build a team before attempting to discern or do anything else. The Amazing Parish resources focus most strongly on this.

Once you have a team, if you don’t already have a large pool of engaged parishioners, you will need to focus on raising engagement before you have people ready to work with you on anything else. If you have enough money to invest in doing this, you might find the Gallup approach (on-line questionnaires and personal coaching) or the Called & Gifted approach (on-site discernment workshops) gives your parishioners a strong sense of being active members of the congregation with gifts to offer. Alternatively, and especially if you are comfortable with personal prayer ministry being offered to your parishioners, you can use Alpha or Discovering Christ to prepare parishioners for a “Holy Spirit Day” (or weekend). Rebuilt has its own Small Groups model.

If you do have a pool of people who share your sense of vision and mission, you have more options. You might still choose to focus on expanding enagement in your weekend congregation, in which case study Divine Renovation more deeply, and make use of the ME25 tool.

On the other hand, if you want to focus your resources on evangelisation, you can use the sequels to Discovering Christ or the Relit program to form your parishioners, and consider becoming a host site for the New Evangelisation Summit (which will provide world-class motivational speakers and some basic training content). You then have numerous options.

One factor that might help you discern which way to go, is the question of how comfortable the pastor and people are with an explicit reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. Those ready to risk this will find great fruit from Alpha or Discovering Christ, and will intuitively embrace the Divine Renovation approach and be open to all that Called & Gifted can offer.

Pastors and leadership teams who are not comfortable with this approach might find a safer, more palatable, route through the Clifton StrengthsFinder, and a study of Rebuilt, which is not noticably associated with Alpha or prayer ministry.

Finally, it should be noted that surrounding any major parish initiative with prayer is so fundamental that this is treated as a given, not as a pillar; and that for some parishes, an integral part of their stated expectations is an “outward looking” focus to the social needs of the local community and/or the developing world. This is not a pillar, because in other thriving parishes the energy available for outreach is poured primarily into explicit evangelisation efforts. Ultimately, the pastor and his leadership team must judge what seems appropriate, and what’s actually working, in any given situation.

Great Expectations: Volunteer (Leadership)

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2017.

volunteerWould you rather be a King or a Wise Man?

Today’s Gospel reading is not easy to translate into English. The New American Bible says the Christ-child was visited by “magi”, which is just an attempt to pronounce the Greek word in English. Our Jerusalem Bible calls them “wise men”. If you’ve been to any nativity plays in our schools, you’ve probably seen three kings with crowns – but nothing in the Gospel says they were kings, nor says how many visitors came; only that they brought three gifts. All that we know, then, is that a group of star-studying scholars from East of the Holy Land came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Today, we have gathered to honour Christ in this church, carrying our own gifts – and the gifts I am referring to are the talents and abilities God has given us. Around the church, we have six banners representing our six values as a church, and one of them is to “Volunteer” – to use the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others.

It’s important that some of us volunteer outside the Church community, so that we can do good and show God’s love to the wider world. This makes it particularly appropriate that our “Volunteer” banner is near the exit – but I’ll talk about that another day.

It’s even more important that many of us volunteer for Church activities, because there’s no-one except us who are available to do the work of this church. Now, as we settle into 2017, I will invite all of you who volunteer for any parish role to renew your commitment to serve – as readers, extraordinary ministers of communion, and in the many other parish roles we have – we’ll do that at the end of our bidding prayers.

Today, I’d like to focus on a special kind of gift – the gift of being a leader. How many of you are directly responsible for managing other staff members or volunteers in the place where you work? How many of you are responsible for training colleagues when they start working alongside you? Quite a few – so many of us are comfortable at being leaders in the workplace.

But how many of us are comfortable with leading within the Church community? How many of you lead teams and train people for our parish?

One weakness of the Catholic Church is that we’ve become comfortable with leaving all the power in the hands of the parish priest. But one priest can’t directly manage lots of volunteers. We have many volunteers in this parish. On our parish database we have more than 120 people who have some kind of volunteer role – that’s fantastic, because it’s nearly half of the 300 people who come to Mass here on a typical weekend. But volunteers need leaders. When we have members of the parish who are comfortable leading projects, we become a strong and active parish – when everything gets left to the priest, we are throttled by a bottleneck.

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Wisdom is a gift that God gives to us for particular circumstances, but all of us who are baptised share in the dignity of Christ the King – and whenever we take on a position of authority, in the Church, in the workplace or in our families, we live out our responsibility to be a king with Christ. It’s not without meaning that today’s psalm shows many kings coming to pay homage to one King, and a King paired with the son of a king.

We are called to be a community of leaders, carrying out the work of Christ our King – and the Gospels leave us in no doubt that God will expect us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given, including gifts for leadership. In today’s reading from Ephesians, the writer of that letter knows that the gift of God’s grace he received was so he could bless other people. When Isaiah writes of “gifts being brought to Jerusalem”, that too has the poetic meaning of putting our gifts at the service of the Church.

Why is it, then, that so many of us, who have the right gifts to lead in the workplace, are reluctant to take responsibility for leading projects in our church community?

Is it that we’re worried about things going wrong?

Sometimes, bad consequences are unavoidable. Despite all their wisdom, the travellers from the East assumed that King Herod would be an ally to the new-born king. Instead, their visit to Herod caused many innocent children to be massacred. God knew this was unavoidable when He sent the star as a sign, yet He allowed it to happen. We mustn’t let unintended consequences stop us from doing good.

Is it that we feel we don’t know our faith well enough?

If we have professional jobs, it’s likely we’ve done full-time study into our early 20s before being given that level of responsibility, and we also take part in continuing professional training. It’s a fair comment, that we need to know our faith better. But that’s precisely why we’re offering opportunities to explore our faith this year – Alpha starting weekly on Tuesday, and our monthly Connect & Explore groups beginning the following week. I’m very excited about the kind of parish we can become when more of us get ready to be used as leaders!

Is there something in us resisting the invitation?

When I was a student worshipping at a university chaplaincy, it was sometimes my responsibility to organise the procession with bread and wine. I found that when I approached students I didn’t know personally, they were quite likely to politely refuse. But if I asked one of the young women to ask them, they would be much more likely to say yes. I can’t imagine why!

It’s easy to make excuses. In our human brokenness, we want to be asked personally, and we like a bit of positive feedback and encouragement from our leader. But that’s precisely why one priest can’t manage everything that goes on in a parish with 120 volunteers. I can give that support and feedback to a small group of leaders – and those leaders in turn can affirm those on their teams. Please don’t wait to be approached personally – recognise that the parish needs you and accept my invitation now. Prepare to be a parish leader!

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Because of your baptism, you are already a king under Christ and with Christ. As for wisdom, training for volunteers is on offer. You are invited, and the Lord is expecting you. Is this the right time for you to say yes?

Legitimate Diversity: Carrying on and stepping aside.

In the Radical Catholic Centre Ground, there is room to handle leadership in more than one way.

There is room for a leader to give the courageous witness of offering every last breath to the ministry entrusted to him. Blessed John Paul II courageously did this and is loved for it.

There is room for a leader to realise that if he chooses to give such a witness, the institution he loves may suffer from a lack of those qualities which only a robustly healthy person can bring to the task. Pope Benedict XVI has decided that this is his current situation, and has chosen to resign. I believe that Benedict XVI will be loved for this courageous act of leadership, too.

In the Radical Catholic Centre Ground, it is possible to welcome Pope Benedict’s decision without implying any desire that he should have set aside his leadership for any reason other than failing capacity. In this sense, I welcome his decision.

May God bless our Pope and grant guidance to those charged with discerning his successor.