Since I stopped working in ministry, I’ve been a regular parishioner, just like everyone else. Having seen things from both ends of the pew, in a sense, I remain interested in the state of American parishes and efforts to right the wrongs and fulfill our mission as Christians. So I read a lot of books about parish improvement. My most recent read in that vein is Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive, by William E. Simon Jr. of Parish Catalyst. It’s not my favorite in this niche, but I found some gems nonetheless.
Simon begins with an interesting overview of the history of Catholicism in the U.S. I’d never really thought about it from the perspective of the parish before. In Catholic countries, Simon writes, the parish wasn’t important because the Faith was everywhere. In the New World, however, Catholics clung to their parishes as cultural, social, and religious centers. It wasn’t everywhere anymore. Considering that difference got me to thinking about what the ideal situation would be today: to have the faith “in the water,” or to have it be something you have to choose and fight for. One could make a good argument for either.
Unfortunately, much of the book is given over to diagrams and quotations summarizing the findings of the research team. If it hadn’t been so heavy with anecdotes and religion, I would have thought I was reading a thesis or dissertation. If you’ve read an academic paper, you know they’re not terribly fascinating reads. This book wasn’t either, but it had its high points.
About a third of the way in, things started to get interesting. Simon’s thoughts on how to reach people at various level of spiritual engagement reminded me of my experiences in pedagogy learning to teach to students at various levels of understanding. It also reminded me of my desire, when I worked in campus ministry, to give students something to do after faith-awakening retreats besides just join a group. The two groups Simon defines definitely have different needs.
All parishes likely have at least two sets of people in their pews. First, there are the people who have not as yet shown any outward interest in the spiritual growth opportunities offered by the parish. This group needs relevant, entry-level spiritual development opportunities. Second, there are those who have indeed shown interest and have become involved. Perhaps they are in small faith-sharing groups, do mission work, or are engaged in outreach. This group of parishioners continues to need ongoing spiritual development opportunities, which may look different from opportunities designed for those newly engaged in the parish.
It’s easy to focus on one group to the exclusion of others, but they both need specific support.
For all the burdens I felt reading fact after fact and quotation after quotation, one tidbit left me very surprised:
“Increased participation in church activities does not significantly contribute to an increasing love of God and others,’ [Cally] Parkinson writes. In other words, involvement in a parish program does not guarantee a parishioner’s deepened commitment to Christ.
Wow! I feel like most parish programs are designed with that goal in mind, even the ones for people closer to spiritual maturity. It makes sense that people who are already in love with God and desirous of loving others would want to get involved in activities. It’s startling to find out that people who are still growing don’t necessarily grow by getting involved in activities. Maybe we’re doing this parish thing all wrong.
I was concerned to read that Simon and his researchers didn’t directly ask about small groups or Eucharistic adoration as standard questions. That made me wonder about their background research and preparation. Millennials (such as myself) love those things! I understand not wanting to beg the question, but that seems like a large omission.
I did find it comforting that Simon brought up a second factoid that everyone thinks is true but isn’t: that people leave the Church because they are better entertained elsewhere. When you ask churchgoing Catholics why they think their brethren are leaving for evangelical megachurches, many of them will claim that those who leave are seeking entertainment. But when you actually ask the people who left, it’s because they felt like they found God better elsewhere. “They want to be entertained” is dismissive. “They didn’t meet God here” is genuine cause for alarm.
Overall, I would recommend this book if you like social science research as well as the Faith. The methodology is sound, but it doesn’t always read well. I like stories; there were some here, but not as many as in other “fix the parish” books I’ve read. This book left me wanting more, but not in a good way.
What do you think about the state of the American parish? What have you read that helps you reflect about your own involvement, answer the call to evangelize, or improve your parish?
I received a free copy of Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive from Ave Maria Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!