I’m waiting. My back pockets are parked firmly in a seat they’ve occupied weekly for 25 years. It’s a place as comfortable and familiar as I figure we get in this life.
“If you would please join us in singing Psalm 27.”
The music starts. It’s not the traditional choral music I heard as a boy. It’s digitized, multi-instrumental, and layered. The voice of the cantor sounds at once full and intimate.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?”
I crane my neck to look upward. It’s Lent, and the limestone roof is illuminated in a distilled purple hue emanating from rows of LED bulbs and is cut with the amber shades of early evening’s natural light pouring through the windows as the sun readies to retire below the Pacific Ocean after a long Sunday.
“The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?”
Inside this Catholic church at Seventh and California Streets in Santa Monica, California, I’m joined by all kinds of people. It’s now Communion time. Some of them process forward slowly. Many sing along. My gaze settles on the best sight of my week: the two-thousand-year-old line of the faithful. I watch the communicants return to their seats after receiving the Eucharist.
The first person I see is a short woman wearing a bright pink dress. Her features are firm but soft. The corners of her mouth are curled into a slight smile as she holds her hands in prayer and looks straight ahead. When she passes, a wave of floral perfume hits me just as the next person in line comes into view.
It’s a mother, followed by her son. A pair of basketball shoes hangs over his shoulder. One sneaker narrowly misses the head of the person sitting in front of me. He does not, I should add, smell at all floral.
Next, a woman bolstering her sleeping toddler against her shoulder creaks open the side door near to me and slides outside. Her exit sends a ribbon of bronze sunlight across my pew.
People return from Communion at a speed that allows me to catch only brief details. From my seat up at the front on the left side of the church, I glimpse eyes cast down, eyes looking forward, a cradled baby, hands folded in prayer, a red polo shirt, flip-flops. People continue passing by, one by one, until it’s finally my turn. I stand up. The guy in front of me has a waxed mustache, and the girl in front of him has tattoos on her forearms.
For a guy originally from New Jersey, where attending Mass used to mean suits and ties, it’s a long way from home, but I feel comfortable with this crew. Most of them haven’t had a “white light” experience. They get mad, fall short of their own expectations, and struggle with their vices. These people are my community — and I’m grateful to be in communion with them. The lady in pink, the basketball shoes, the tattoos and toddlers, myself and my family — we are a living mosaic. Our collage of experiences, aspirations, triumphs, and troubles forms the image of the Body of Christ in our time and place. It’s my Catholic parish. It’s an art form that the Holy Spirit has been assembling over and over again for nearly 2,000 years.
Millions of Americans are members of Catholic parishes right now—but they won’t always be. Current trends suggest they’ll depart in moderate but consistent numbers in the coming decades. They’ll stay only if given reason to, only if there is something vibrant and life-giving in their parish, something that focuses their attention on the living Christ with such power that they cannot look away.
I know from personal experience how important a truly dynamic Catholic parish community can be to a person’s life of faith. I was drawn to working with other Catholic pastors like my own, pastors who are skilled at leading and growing vibrant parishes. These religious innovators are beacons. They shed light on ways to address people who are still in the pews but may have an eye on the exit, and they continuously seek new ways to reach the growing numbers of unchurched people living within their parish boundaries. By supporting talented pastors in growing their gifts and leadership skills, we increase the chances that their parishes will continue to thrive and exert a healthy influence on other parish communities. I cannot imagine a worthier subject for exploration and investment than the American Catholic parish.
In 2011, I published my first book, “Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation,” coauthored with theologian Michael Novak. The book focused on the increasingly significant role of the laity in parish life. Shortly after its publication, I received a phone call from an erudite and faith-filled Texan named Bob Buford. Bob’s legacy in the evangelical tradition is well known. He was a successful cable television entrepreneur until he sold his business in 1996 to devote himself and his resources to what he refers to as “kingdom work.” Previously, in 1984, he had founded and funded a small nonprofit called Leadership Network. By 2014 — only three decades later—Leadership Network had grown to serve more than 200,000 church leaders all over the world. The organization’s underlying strategy is essentially the same now as it was at the start — connect Church innovators to one another to fuel further innovation. Bob had read my book and said to me, “I want you to consider taking Leadership Network’s model to the Catholic tradition.”
I soon learned that Leadership Network’s first step was to seek out those pastors who have earned reputations as innovators — as pioneers or early adopters who create, test and implement models of ministry that will shape the future of the Church. The next step was to bring them together with members of their leadership teams in small learning communities to pursue new ideas together — original thinking in parish ministry.
Because of my providential telephone conversation with Bob Buford and my introduction to the work of his Leadership Network, Parish Catalyst was born.
In 2013, Parish Catalyst reached out to diocesan offices, ministry leaders and pastoral professionals across the country, asking them to name healthy, vibrant parishes and the pastors who lead them. This process generated an initial sample of more than 100 exceptional pastors and parishes in the United States and one in Canada whom we then contacted and interviewed. The group grew from that point through “snowball sampling.” This respondent recruitment technique, used widely in qualitative social research within the fields of anthropology and sociology, involves expanding a sample by asking respondents to suggest additional prospective participants. In our case, this meant inviting our original group of interviewees to recommend other pastors and parishes they admired for their energy, spirit and accomplishments.
Behind the 244 pastors we interviewed, there are 244 parish communities — each with its typical shares of challenges and concerns but each also with its own wonderful story of vibrancy and engagement. There is no single thread by which we can connect all these parishes; there is no “silver bullet” for doing great parish ministry in the Catholic Church today. However, our research uncovered four essential qualities that these communities have in common.
Our study revealed that great Catholic parishes:
Share leadership: Most of the pastors we interviewed (80.3 percent) said that the leadership models used in their parishes is one of their greatest strengths. Eighty percent of our pastors also said they had some form of shared leadership structure in place. Although, canonically, pastors are held responsible for all decisions made in a parish, these pastors were quick to admit that they do not lead their vibrant parishes on their own.
Foster spiritual maturity and plan for discipleship: One of the more inspirational findings of our study was that a full 90.4 percent of our pastors consider the spiritual growth of their people to be the strongest characteristic of their communities. Pastors spoke fondly of long-term parishioners being reawakened to the desire and thirst for a deeper relationship with Christ and a greater understanding of what it means to be a disciple.
Excel on Sundays: [By contrast] 76 percent of the pastors whose interviews provide the data and insights for this book mentioned the Sunday liturgy as one of their parish’s greatest assets. They spoke of how important the focus on and preparation of the various aspects of each Sunday’s experience is for their parish communities.
Evangelize in intentional, structured ways: Catholics are known for many things, such as our devotion to the Blessed Mother, ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and our understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. One thing that generally does not come to mind when you hear the work Catholic is evangelization. The[se] pastors clearly have a desire to rise to the challenge. They are committed to welcoming the unaffiliated, inviting the neighbor and finding the Catholics we have lost; they seek to “bring people back to the message of the Gospel: and “evangelize the inactives.”
There is nothing revolutionary about these four practices. In fact, at first glance they can appear deceptively simple. But these particular parishes are thriving in a time and climate when many people no longer find value in organized religion. These pastors, parish leadership teams, and parishioners have developed a clarity of vision. With a deepened understanding of just how critical the eucharistic celebration is to the mission of the Church, they have become strategic about advancing the discipleship of their own people and the Gospel mandate to evangelize. The common attributes apparent in these pastors and woven through these parish communities are collaborative, intentional and joyful.
Ultimately, this book is also about good news — about the places in the Catholic Church where creativity, vision, and devotion have the traction to move the mission of Jesus Christ forward. Despite the sensational headlines, there is great cause for hope in the Church and I believe it is our calling as disciples of Jesus to point toward that hope whenever and wherever we see it.
If you are a pastor, parochial vicar, deacon, religious or lay ecclesial minister, staff member, or committed volunteer working in the Church, this book is intended to offer many practical ideas and more than a little encouragement. If you are a Catholic, anywhere from committed to indifferent, or from another faith tradition, I hope you find within these pages a renewed sense of commitment and energy for your own faith journey.
If you have distanced yourself from the Church or have never been affiliated at all, I’m thrilled to find you reading this. I welcome you to the conversation and hope that the faith stories and findings presented here help you better understand what Church-done-well has to offer the individual seeker, the community it gathers and the world it goes out to serve.
As the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A pile of rocks ceases to be rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.” More than a few cathedrals are sketched out on the pages of this book. Consider them well.
This excerpt from “Great Catholic Parishes” is reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.