Four key areas studied, eight characteristics identified
Washington, DC (June 2, 2020) — Catholic parishes that are welcoming and missionary create real vitality in the life of the parish says a major new study titled, “Open Wide the Doors to Christ: A Study of Catholic Social Innovation for Parish Vitality.” The research was commissioned by FADICA, a unique peer network of philanthropists supporting Catholic activities, and conducted by Marti R. Jewell, D.Min. and Mark Mogilka, MSW, MA
“Parishes with vitality send people out in service to others in the community, letting go of parochial barriers,” Dr. Jewell said.
“Without denying the challenging realities for many parishes, what we also found was hope-filled parishes, whole communities excited about their parish and their future,” said Mr. Mogilka.
“As parishes begin to re-open, we are pleased to be releasing the findings of this timely study,” said Alexia Kelley, FADICA President & CEO. “Perhaps one outcome from this period of pandemic could be that pastors and parish leaders equipped with the study’s findings might find life-giving strategies relevant to their own context,” said Kelley.
FADICA’s member Working Group on Church Vitality focused on how Catholic social innovation might foster vitality in U.S. Catholic parishes. In 2018, FADICA produced a groundbreaking study titled, Catholic Social Innovation in the Global Refugee Crisis. This second study on parish vitality further articulates the concept of Catholic social innovation.
FADICA’s working group chose to focus the research on best practices and innovation in four distinct areas: Welcoming, Young Adults, Lay and Religious Women in Leadership, and Hispanic Ministry. The research entailed a review of more than 200 initiatives, websites and books, and more than 65 interviews with pastoral leaders and innovators across the country. The research team also explored more than 20 different metric tools designed to measure parish vitality.
“We believe there are amazing assets in the diversity of the Catholic community, said Gabriela Smith, President and Founder, Crimsonbridge Foundation, a funder of the study. “By learning from dioceses and parishes experiencing parish vitality in these four areas of focus, we can share and replicate successful practices and communication strategies that support active and inclusive parish communities,” she said.
Based on this in-depth study, the report highlights seven key characteristics which together generate vitality in Catholic parishes, as follows:
- Innovation. Pastoral leaders engage in a variety of innovative processes to address difficult challenges they face. Use of digital tools like the parish website and social media are considered important ways to connect with people, especially young adults.
- Have excellent pastors. These pastors have a desire, qualities and skills to work collaboratively and co-responsibly with staff and parish leaders.
“One of the most important findings is that pastors need to be ‘relational’ in every sense of the word,” said Jewell. “They need to be adaptive and open to new ways of doing things and being relational can be a learned skill,” she said.
- Have leadership teams. The essential contribution of lay leaders – both staff and volunteers, share responsibility for the life of the parish with the pastor.
“Pastors realize that they can’t do it all and they need a team,” said Mogilka. “In parishes with much vitality, we found pastors who are collaborative, servant-pastoral leaders who know how to identify gifts and talents, to affirm those gifts and talents and to empower lay people,” Mogilka said.
- Possess a holistic, compelling vision. Pastoral leaders have a vision for parish life that includes engaging in relational ministry, fostering authentic relationships within the parish community.
- Place priority on Sunday experience. An importance is placed on gathering for Sunday Mass to hear God’s Word, celebrate and share the Eucharist, and being sent forth in service.
- Foster spiritual growth and maturity. A variety of entry points are provided for all people to build their relationship with Jesus that sustains them on their journey.
- Live the faith in service. Parishes live out the call to form missionaries by enabling parishioners to meet the spiritual and human needs of the marginalized, hungry and homeless; and to care for our communities and creation.
- Utilize online communications tools. The parish website is the doorway – the first place people “check out” the parish. Good, interactive, and culturally sensitive websites are critical, as well as the proper use of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Researchers Jewell and Mogilka studied the four specific areas of parish life selected by the FADICA working group and drew these conclusions:
Welcoming Parishes. Not surprising, parishes with vitality have a welcoming spirit and are intentional about the “process of welcoming,” starting with trained greeters, identifying special opportunities to publicly welcome newcomers, e.g., at weddings, baptisms and funerals, outreach and invitation initiatives found on the parish website and offered via social ministry.
Young Adults. Keys to engaging this group of parishioners include really listening to young adults, building relationships and responding to their needs, ensuring that young adults are integrated into the leadership groups at the parish, paying attention to the engaged and married couples and young families, and using social media and personal contact to build relationships.
Women and Women Religious in Leadership. Parishes with vitality hire lay and women religious at all levels of leadership responsibility, support and affirm their leadership and ensure balanced representation by women and men on councils and committees. The researchers encouraged bishops to deploy Canon 517.2, which allows the appointment of “deacons and others who are not priests” to provide pastoral care of parishes in cases when there is a shortage of priests. The study pointed out that over 3,300 parishes lack a resident priest, but the number of dioceses using this option is declining.
Hispanic Ministry. Parish diversity is seen as a grace for parishes with vitality. Pastoral leaders are sensitive to the variety of cultures present, provide cultural sensitivity training for staff and volunteers, offer bi-lingual liturgies, as well as printed and digital materials, and specific devotions and celebrations for feast days for the entire community.
“The recommendations of the parish vitality study are practical, relevant, and speak directly to the success that investments in communications capacity building can have towards building thriving, inclusive, and engaged parish communities,” said Danielle M. Reyes, Executive Director, Crimsonbridge Foundation.
“The pandemic has really caused pastors and parish leaders to stretch themselves and to be open to new ways of doing things,” said Jewell.
The study concluded that parishes with vitality are open to listening and designing new and creative ways to respond to the changing culture with enthusiasm, intentional hospitality, and who welcome diversity as a grace.