Thankfully, God is raising up people like William Simon to give answers to these questions through the long work of gathering and analyzing the data and offering thoughtful conclusions.
Mr Simon heads up “Parish Catalyst,” a consulting and research entity whose mission is building vibrant Catholic parishes through research and peer collaboration. The tagline under their logo reads “A Platform for Pastoral Excellence.” Nice.
Simon’s new book is “Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.” A blurb from the website sums it up: “By soliciting advice in all regions of the country and by conducting visitations, William E. Simon Jr. and his researchers chose 244 of the greatest parishes among us. His researchers then conducted rigorous interviews, asking his respondents, ‘What makes a Catholic parish ‘great’?’ An unprecedentedly high percentage spoke of four distinguishing marks.’
The book is well-written and an easy read. I especially like the extensive quotes from pastors, which have an unscripted and down-to-earth feel. They sound timely, honest and real. I also like how he has two sections for each of the four practices: one for the victories, and one for the challenges. This provides balance and realism and can keep pastors who are behind (ahem) from becoming too discouraged.
“I don’t run the parish; I lead the parish,” says one representative pastor. Winning pastors identify gifted people and let them take responsibility. They identify strengths and place people in positions to excel. Whether it be as “collaborators, delegators, or consulters,” winning pastors have a knack for fitting the right people with the right roles. They also put a high priority on self-care.
The challenges with shared leadership involve: finding qualified people for staff; finding the money to pay them; identifying strong leaders; and finding the methods to best train and equip them as disciple makers. Maintaining staff harmony and getting rid of difficult staff are also mentioned as challenges. One pastor summarized it well: “This is not my parish. It’s their parish. My job is to do what I can while I’m here.”
Ninety percent of the pastors interviewed identified the spiritual growth of their parishioners as the number one strength of the parish. But “to pursue spiritual growth toward maturity for the parish, parish leaders must declare it a goal.” Here is where intentional and strategic planning is necessary. And financial resources. A surprising finding was that “involvement in parish activities does not necessarily equate to growth in spiritual development.” Only the RIGHT activities foster growth, and the criteria needs to be: what IS fostering maturity?
Spiritual apathy, or “sleepwalking through faith,” is a major challenge identified by the pastors amid their congregations. One survey currently in use indicates that only 18% of Catholic parishioners are “engaged members.” As a former investor, the author saw a silver lining: by targeting the “next” 18% - the low-hanging fruit who are a short distance away from deeper involvement - the opportunity to double these numbers is ripe. “The New Evangelization is an awakening within the church to the need to disciple our own.” The author’s willingness to realistically name this challenge was encouraging.
This one may sound like a no-brainer, but the extensive pastor feedback here lends weight to the importance of planning, welcoming, preaching, and music. Sometimes I hear Catholics criticize attempts to make liturgies more dynamic as “Protestantizing.” This chapter, to the contrary, was brimming with insights from faithful pastors on the disciplines that really make for joyful Sunday celebrations. Unsurprisingly, a LOT of importance was placed on good preaching. “The pastors we interviewed tend to be voracious readers with eclectic tastes,” notes Simon, adding that about a third of them regularly find inspiration from non-Catholic sources.
The Sunday experience can only uplift and inspire people if they come; and that is the challenge. The busy lives of Catholics and their divided priorities was a crucial challenge cited. “What can parishes do to cut through the busyness and lift Mass above the many competing options on a Sunday morning?” Rather than just criticize the laziness of non-churchgoers, the pastors were willing to take responsibility and change the question to “Are we providing what people need from church?” Especially sobering was a Pew study statistic showing that half of those who left Catholic churches for Protestant did so “because they find their spiritual needs better met elsewhere.”
The leadership witness of Pope Francis is opening new avenues for parish-level evangelization. However, even the pastors experiencing some success in this area admitted that it is extraordinarily difficult to advance an evangelistic agenda if only a few scattered individuals are on board. “The ‘end’ that a pastor and staff look for is no less than a community-wide conversion of heart, which is elusive at best.” Evangelizing parishes are those that find a way to shift the parish mindset from an insular “mirror” approach to an outreaching “window” approach. This starts with leadership but must extend to a parish-wide commitment to “open doors” to the community.
Hesitant individuals, insular communities, and a general reluctance to evangelize are particular challenges facing Catholic parishes. “Through the years Catholics have traditionally viewed their relationship with God as a highly personal matter and believed that overt evangelizing comes dangerously close to imposing one’s religious beliefs on others.” Some pastors, notes Simon, struggled with their parish’s inability to focus on anything that does not directly affect the parish. Attrition, especially amongst millennials, was a chief focus, and some proposed ideas included honest dialogue, mentoring relationships, and leadership opportunities.
I am so grateful to William Simon for the rigorous labor that went into this book. “Great Catholic Parishes” provides a data-driven, readable starting point for pastors and parish staff seeking to bear more fruit and partner with God towards the renewal of parish life. His four categories, culled from extensive anecdotal witness from on-the-ground practicing pastors, provide a path forward that is guided by experience-driven realism rather than ideology. I look forward to sharing this book and its helpful insights within my own sphere of pastoral influence.