Wisdom from Top Parish Leaders

Top Thought Leaders Gather to Share Parish Perspectives and Experiences


Dear Friends,

September is often a month full of transition. For some of us, it’s the transition from spending the summer at the beach to spending crisp fall nights around a campfire. For others, it may be the transition from spending every day with your children at home to sending them back to school. With each September, it’s a moment for us to reflect on the summer’s activities and start anew as we move into the fall.

For Catholic parishes across the country, fall ushers in a new chapter for parish life. This fall, pastors and lay leaders are hoping to renew the life of their parishes. They are working tirelessly to usher in a new year of programming to reach those who haven’t seen the inside of their churches for the past 18 months.

Throughout the last 30 years, Catholic Leadership Institute has been honored to serve bishops, priests, and lay leaders across the country by equipping them with the essential skills to strategically move their parishes in a forward direction. This year, we decided to gather key thought leaders throughout the country to develop more insight into what could make parishes successful. Due to a generous investment from the Porticus Foundation, we hosted our first of three virtual symposiums in May 2021. Over 55 participants of the top thought leaders, both clergy and laity, from the United States and Western Europe, shared their perspectives and experiences. They brought wisdom from the parish, diocesan, academic, philanthropic, apostolates and movement context, as well as the perspectives of various ethnic communities.

Our focus is what makes a parish great. For many Catholics, the answer lies in a series of anecdotal, nostalgic, or highly consumeristic statements that speak to what a parishioner might receive or experience. Oftentimes these descriptions are incomplete and can include defensive rationalizations that seek to explain the current state, versus what could or should be. Given the breadth of the Church’s reach and history, the “official” definition of a parish and the standards of what constitute a fruitful one, are likewise broad and abstract. In a relatively stable landscape where resources are abundant, a broad and vague understanding of parish vitality does not present an issue. Unfortunately, the landscape of the last three decades has been anything but stable, which has significant implications on how we understand and support parishes both now and in the future.

Our work during this first symposium was to establish a framework of clear and objective metrics. Such metrics can validate or challenge deeply-held beliefs about some of the entrenched narratives that are part of our lived experiences. Metrics can help to show what we believe does and does not work. Clarifying and prioritizing the most relevant metrics of parish vitality is not at odds with our call to be relational or with the human experience, nor do metrics limit or seek to replace the work of the Holy Spirit in our parishes. They do, however, create a heightened sense of accountability which Catholic Leadership Institute believes to be essential, though some parishes and parish leadership might object. If we can come to a shared understanding of what can and should be measured in terms of parish vitality, then we can do a better job of discerning how the Spirit is animating us in our proclamation of the Gospel.

The framework that was developed and reflected upon enabled metrics to be created that could assess foundational parish ministries including sacraments & worship, the universal call to holiness, evangelization, relationship building, education & formation, service & outreach, and governance & administration. The collective wisdom of those gathered discerned that while parishes may look at themselves in light of these foundational ministries, they didn’t necessarily tell the full story. This led the planning committee to ask the question, “If there is general agreement about what a parish needs to do, what is missing?” As the planning committee looked to the examples of parishes displaying vitality in a multitude of contexts, it was not primarily the presence or absence of a foundational ministry that determined vitality but rather the presence or absence of certain behaviors or attributes that defined how these parishes fulfilled those ministries. For example, there was little disagreement that one of a parish’s primary functions is the celebration of the Eucharist. However, a greater determinant of vitality is not simply whether or not the parish celebrates the Eucharist but how the community engages in that worship. Is the worship intentional? Do the lay faithful fully and actively contribute to their responsibility? How well does the parish equip and form those called to lead worship? The old adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” seems to apply in the framework regarding which metrics are most relevant for looking at parish vitality.

Throughout the two-day symposium, there were many fruitful discussions that included multiple perspectives from various church and thought leaders. These discussions highlighted the need for metrics that could be accessible for dioceses and parishes to easily adopt into their everyday rhythm of parish life. They also highlighted the importance of understating the context of each metrics. Data in and of itself doesn’t tell the full story, but rather the context provides the necessary detail to begin to move the needle in our parish communities.

This first symposium provided a basis for the work that Catholic Leadership Institute will embark upon over the next several years. We believe that these conversations can greatly contribute to developing a roadmap for the Church as she moves into a new chapter of her God-given mission of evangelization.

We look forward to our next conversation with thought leaders in December 2021 which will focus on diocesan central administrations. Bishops from across the Church are looking for ways to reshape their curia or chancery staffs to be more responsive to the needs of the clergy and laity in today’s climate. In some cases, this means radically shedding the old and complex structures in favor of more agile and cross-functional structures. Our hope is that these conversations will lead to several options that bishops could employ to help them be responsive to the environments and contexts in which they now find themselves.

At Catholic Leadership Institute, we continue to be grateful for the opportunity to serve the Church in these moments. Thank you for your continued prayers and support as we seek to find ways to equip our Church’s leaders with tools and resources that will help them faithfully navigate this next chapter.

by Mike School

Sep 17, 2021

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