What Catholics Can Learn from Protestants About Making Churches Great Again

"The local church is the greatest engine for good in human history," says William E. Simon Jr., founder and chairman of Parish Catalyst and author of "Great Catholic Parishes."

By Mitch Boersma Published on January 24, 2017

When it comes to taking care of the underprivileged among us — things like organizing soup kitchens, staffing homeless shelters, and running crisis pregnancy centers — few organizations can match the tremendous efforts of the Catholic Church as a whole in America and around the world.

But zoom in on any particular diocese and you’ll find that one parish is vibrant with full pews and lively choirs and active small group communities, while the parish down the street sits with empty shelves in its food bank and struggles to bring in enough from the weekly offering to keep the doors open. Why do some Catholic parishes flourish today while others wilt?

Enter William E. Simon, philanthropist, financier, and former federal prosecutor who has now turned his efforts towards strengthening parish life in the American Catholic Church with his new book Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.

The Stream recently had the chance to sit down with Simon and ask him a few questions, including the origin story of Great Catholic Parishes, his take on the “Pope Francis Effect,” and how Catholic parishes can learn from the most vibrant evangelical and protestant congregations. 

The Stream: How did a businessman and philanthropist end up writing a book about improving parish life?

Bill Simon: If anyone had told me 35 years ago that I would write this book, I would have insisted there was a better chance of my winning the Powerball lottery! But through the twists and turns of my own faith journey, I came to appreciate how critically important a truly dynamic parish can be to a person’s life of faith. I decided I wanted to do something to strengthen Catholic parishes, and that I would start by learning what makes flourishing parishes so successful.

So our team at Parish Catalyst, the organization I founded four years ago, interviewed pastoral leaders of 244 parishes nationwide inviting discussion through an in-depth, semi-structured interview protocol about their leadership styles, their staffs, what gets them up in the morning and keeps them awake at night, and where they look for new ideas and inspiration. We also asked them to reflect on their parishes’ greatest strengths, most exciting opportunities, and most pressing challenges. We ended up with 3600 pages of transcripts which we subjected to a year of intensive analysis, and the result is my book, Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.

Stream: How did your experience in business and finance help shape your approach to this study?

Simon: Well, for one thing I’ve learned to recognize an undervalued asset. So when we discovered that various surveys indicated only about 18 percent of Catholics are truly engaged in the life of their parishes, I could see a great opportunity for improvement. I am convinced there are plenty of Catholics who, in their hearts, want to grow spiritually and become more involved in their church communities, but have not been helped to make that next step in their spiritual journey. So the undervalued asset I see here is the next 18 percent. In our investment business, we call it “a chance to double,” and with a concerted effort at outreach to these parishioners we can surely increase engagement to 36 percent or more.

Stream: So, what makes a great Catholic parish?

Simon: While there was no single thread by which our research connected all 244 parishes, each with unique challenges and concerns, we did make 49 findings which we distilled into four foundational practices these parishes follow.

  • Shared leadership — practiced in various ways — is the optimal model of parish leadership today. Vibrant parishes take pride in their strong, professional staffs and volunteers and they are intentional and creative about sharing leadership.
  • Vibrant parishes engage parishioners in ways that foster spiritual maturity. The spiritual growth of a faith community is a flexible, ongoing dynamic that needs to be continually reevaluated, updated, and altered in order to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the people.
  • Great parishes excel in the worship experiences they provide on Sundays, which requires careful planning all week long. They welcome all comers warmly, pay attention to the needs of children, provide uplifting liturgical music, offer excellent homilies, and ensure the physical plant is well maintained.
  • Flourishing parishes seek opportunities to evangelize their own congregations as well as outsiders in structured, intentional ways. They create an attractive culture of invitation and community using service programs, social events, celebration of the sacraments, and missions work.

Stream: What does the Catholic Church have to learn from thriving Protestant and Evangelical congregations?

Simon: I think we can learn how to be better evangelists, how to reach out and share our faith. Unfortunately, historically, Catholics have been terrible at evangelization, at least in this country. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I think all Catholics can agree that we were not raised to wear our faith on our sleeves. Yet evangelization has always been an explicitly stated goal of the Catholic church, and happily we are getting better at it. Again, this is an area with a lot of potential. One of our pastors put it this way: “We can no longer leave the light on for people; we now have to bring the light to them.” Pastors, senior staff, and key members of the parishes we looked at are getting more comfortable and more open to talking about how they can evangelize — whether in their parishes, their local communities, or globally.

Stream: What role does the liturgy play in making a great Catholic parish?

Simon: It plays an incredibly important role because it’s the liturgy that points us to the deeper reality and beauty of our faith. It’s a kind of sacred space that leads us into the divine presence. Any great Catholic parish works hard on its liturgy, but a vibrant liturgy doesn’t happen without significant planning to make it engaging, dynamic and spiritually uplifting. There are many aspects to this preparation ranging from a pastor’s setting aside time to write a compelling homily to making sure all the technology works correctly, and flourishing parishes pour a lot of effort into this. Music is also very important to a vibrant liturgy, and nearly half the pastors we interviewed said music was one of their parish’s greatest strengths.

Stream: From what you can tell from your study, how has the hotly debated “Pope Francis Effect” influenced the American Catholic Church?

Simon: This was one of the things that really struck me in our research. Although we did not ask any questions about the Pope in our interview protocol, one third of the pastors we spoke with brought his name up spontaneously, and their remarks were uniformly positive. Pope Francis’ admonition to his priests that they should “be shepherds with the smell of sheep” has inspired pastors to interact more with their communities and to pursue new disciples more actively. This is critically important at a time when Mass attendance cannot be taken for granted, even in historic strongholds of Catholicism. In addition, Pope Francis’ emphasis on openness, inclusivity and compassion, as well as the simplicity of his daily life, are giving Catholics a sense of renewed pride in their church in the aftermath of recent scandal.

Stream: What would you say to those who claim that women are marginalized in the Catholic Church since they can’t be priests?

Simon: Women have always played a hugely important role in the Catholic church, albeit a different role from priests. In recent years lay women, many with advanced degrees in ministry and theology, have taken on significant pastoral and administrative functions in their parishes, and both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have repeatedly stated how important it is that women become decision makers in the Catholic Church. Last August, Pope Francis created a commission to study female deacons, which underscores his seriousness about expanding the role of women in church leadership. There is no question that women do critically important work for the church. Indeed, the executive director of Parish Catalyst, Claire Henning, has a doctorate and was deeply involved in parish ministry for many years, taking on leadership roles in liturgical planning, counseling, marriage and baptismal preparation, funeral ministry, and parish administration.

Stream: What’s the best thing the average man or woman in the pew can do to make an impact in their parish?

Simon: Get involved! The opportunities have never been greater to serve, and there is a role for everyone. In fact, my first book, Living the Call, was all about the lay vocation and the myriad ways there are to live out your faith in parish ministry. Think about your gifts and explore how they can be put to use in your parish, perhaps in a way that is totally different from what you do in your professional life. And make time to pray for your parish on a regular basis.

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  • John Ingram

    Sorry, but this is a wrong-headed (though well-intentioned) secular solution to a spiritual problem, which is that the Catholic Church Protestantized itself because of Vatican II. Mass, for example, is not a “worship experience” – it is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, whose true nature and purpose is almost completely obscured by the Modernist Novus Ordo Mass, which promotes exactly the sort of false democracy and people-oriented disorientation that this solution builds upon. A vibrant parish requires the restoration of Tradition through a holy priest and a good bishop to support him…not endless committees to promote false “active participation.”

  • Jennifer Hartline

    A dynamic Catholic parish is centered around the sacraments. Eucharistic Adoration. Frequent confession. Daily Mass.
    Yes, we need great priests who also know how to preach well, and yes, we need effective parish leadership. We need better Scripture study programs within our parishes. We need more active involvement from lay people who are well-catechized. Yet, the heart of it all is the person of Christ, Whom we encounter in the Eucharist, and the grace of all the sacraments. That’s the well from which we draw Life.

  • I understand the first, third, and fourth bullets. But what exactly do you mean by this: “Vibrant parishes engage parishioners in ways that foster spiritual maturity.”

    (A) The term “spiritual maturity” is vague and (B) and example or two might illustrate what is meant.

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