“Supersizing” Parishes

A new report from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate shows some interesting, though perhaps unsurprising, data. Parishes in the U.S. are getting larger and fewer, with more attendance, collections and masses at each parish. This take on it raises the possibility that migration is causing the well-known parish closures in areas people are moving away from, but may not be causing enough parish openings in areas they’re moving to.

One liturgical effect of this trend: more masses in each parish per weekend, averaging four. The ancient ideal of “one liturgy at one altar in one day” has long been a distant memory for Roman Catholics, but we seem to be moving away from the ideal, rather than moving toward it (I wonder if RCs would even buy into the ideal anyway, or any reasoning for it).

The full report is here.


  1. 4 Masses a weekend? That would be a dream job…

    We are, of course, in one of those areas where all of the people are moving to, and we have had several new parishes open in the diocese over the past few years. Most of the parishes here (SW Florida) are what would be considered large parishes. We have a 7 Mass schedule on the weekend, and this is pretty typical for the Diocese, although my former parish (Marco Island , FL) managed a 9 Mass schedule by fitting 3 Masses in on Saturday afternoon!

    We are also (apparently) blessed with a large number of Priests as most parishes have at least three + perhaps two Deacons… necessary given the Mass schedule and the rather busy hospital and nursing home visitation duties. It is, admittedly a different world down here.

    1. I am under the impression (possibly incorrect) that many bishops vacation in Florida, see the huge churches, and return home thinking they are wonderful. Those who belong to smaller parishes now being closed and combined would disagree.

      1. Well, we do get a LOT of visting (and retired) Bishops down here, particularly in Sarasota, Naples and the Islands. I feel blessed to be able to meet personally a good number of Bishops from across the country who come here to visit, as well as some from other countries as well.

        There are certainly some attractive aspects of big parishes (not actual Mega-Churches since that implies membership in the many 10’s of thousands) such as more efficient use of resources and finances and less duplication of staff. These are the kinds of things that Bishops think of in terms of how to rescue parishes that are floundering.

    2. When are you going to modify this blog so that we can be notified when there are responses to comments? I don’t have time to keep checking in.

  2. I would love to see recovery of the ideal, or at least something very close to it. The unity of a parish coming together as a single parish family in a single liturgical action is a powerful statement and is spiritually beneficial.

    1. JP, I think it is a helpful cause and a beneficial effect that for this to work, the institutional building has to be smaller, simpler, less of an investment.

      I do not see it happening, as highly desirable as it is, so long as the present rules for ordination remain.

      The RCC needs to recall the basic needs of communities for priests and reconsider what specific skills and virtues should be sought in candidates for ordination.

      We need to get away from the monastic patterned seminaries needed to reform clergy preparation in light of the problems surfaced at the time of the Reformation.

      We need to get away from the idea that every priest should be a theologian and apologist for Catholicism.

      We need to select and train priests as presiders and preachers and let the local communities take care of their properties through NFP corporations administered by people trained for that. This includes excluding clergy from fund raising.

      We need to select mature people to be priests, rather than youths whom the church hopes it can train to be priests without even knowing what talents they will grow into.

      All of this would be easier if there were not the irrelevant celibacy requirement for diocesan clergy [and does not even touch on the issue of eliminating half the talent pool based on gender.]

    2. I would love to have the ideal–but in some areas of the country like the metro centers of the Northeast that is simply not possible due to population density. If I were to have my whole parish (at least the ones who comes to Mass most “normal” Sundays) I would need a new building that holds at least 2500 people. Trust me, I would love to build it if someone gives me a blank check! If we were to design a church as we should around the major feasts, that number jumps to between 3 and 4 thousand–a pretty big building. And we are just an average size parish in the diocese.

      The other solution would be to split the parish–say 5 separate parishes that would get about 500 people each on Sunday. The problem here is now I have just created 5 territorial parishes that each cover less than one square mile. That is if everyone is spaced out evenly. But as would be the case the concentration of active Catholics is higher in some areas than others. So this creates the possibility of a territorial parish perhaps a half mile in size. Now each parish needs a building, a staff, record keeping, etc—not to mention clergy! We would have to build four new buildings, along with the zoning and other problems.

      Or perhaps each of the new parishes could take turns using the existing building–which brings up back to where we are now.

      We are just an average sized parish in the diocese with around 5000 families. There are some almost twice the size and some perhaps a fifth the size. That is the reality around here. During most of the 20th century in Brooklyn parishes only covered a few blocks and still had many Masses for all the faithful. What may be an easy solution in the midwest somewhere is different in this region.

      1. You mean if your parish was split into 5 new parishes, everyone would be in walking distance to the church? Like it was for 2000 years before everyone had a car?

        It would be interesting to count the number of fast food franchises or gas stations in the area involved. I suspect they are spaced fairly densely.

      2. “Walking distance” certainly has varied over the course of the history of the Church. If one were to go by what was considered “walking distance” through most of the history of the Church than most of my diocese would still be considered that.

  3. Mark Chaves had an article in Christian Century in 2006 on Supersized Protestant Churches in which he challenged some of the conventional wisdom.

    Supersized churches occur in all Protestant denominations. The biggest churches are getting bigger, but yesterdays biggest churches are not today’s biggest churches. In other words a bigger congregation typically does not continue growing bigger.

    The most interesting development he documents is that the percentage of people in the largest 1% of churches in each of 12 denominations has grown since 1970.

    “In every denomination on which we have data, people are increasing concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for growing and declining denominations.”

    Chaves suggests an economic explanation. There is no way for churches to become more efficient other than increasing size. He argues from data that beginning in 1970 church costs began to rise more than income. The net result is that small churches have to close because they cannot maintain the plants and programs, driving more people into larger churches.

    The Christian Century article is available to those who have a subscription. But you may be able to find it in your local public library, or through electronic databases at your local community college, or other academic institution.


    1. One way around the economics is for (horror of horrors!) different congregations/ different denominations actually sharing a building.

      Consider the possibilities: A communal gathering space focused on an altar would be acceptable to most Christian denominations. The Catholics could dedicate a separate, smaller room for the tabernacle and decorate it like the interior of a jewel box.

      There are other possibilities as well. By sharing the site, congregations would find it easier to share talents. Imagine the possibilities for volunteer pantries, vacation Bible School, prayer chains, etc.

    1. Michelle;

      There are so many different factors that could be causing the stats to appear the way that they do. Without seeing some critical details in the statistics, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

      For instance, a parish has a “core population” of 7 thousand parishioners, and of those, the attendance percentage is probably fairly high. However, there could be maybe a few thousand additional and more occasional attendees who are either part time residents or who come from other area parishes for various reasons. The attendance rate among THAT GROUP is probably much lower than for that core group, bringing the overall attendance rate down. A smaller parish would probably consist more of just core group parishioners and have fewer part-time, drifter and visitor parishioners than a large parish. Sometimes statistics can appear to be showing the same thing but in several different ways. There’s no reason to suppose that all attendees of larger parishes have lower rates of attendance than those in smaller parishes.

    2. The finding that smaller parishes and congregations have higher participation rates (e.g. attendance, financial giving) is rather consistent across studies.

      The explanation probably lies in economics. Smaller congregations have more limited resources, therefore everyone’s participation is more critical. You are more likely to be missed at Mass. People will inquire about your health. You are more likely to be asked to help. You are more likely to be thanked for your help. Your donation is more likely to be noticed.

      Of course as Chaves points out in my comment above, these smaller congregations with fewer total resources are the ones that are not surviving as the cost of everything goes up. They just cannot come up with enough resources despite the fact that as individuals they may be trying harder and doing better.

      So when many parishes are closed because they don’t have sufficient resources (i.e. money and people) the parish members often can make a good case that (per parish member) they are doing a much better job of participation than the big, affluent parishes in the suburbs.

    3. The other Jack hits the nail right on the head, IMO. We belonged to a really small rural parish when I was in Jr High School, and more people did more and it was noticed when you didn’t come for a while.

      My experience with larger parishes is that people don’t notice when you are gone – at best they assume you’ve been going to an earlier or later Mass than they do.

  4. I worked at a big parish (12 masses per weekend) for a number of years, and we were warned of a phenomenon which I think should be mentioned here. Namely, leaders can mistake the level of participation because programs fill up when even a small percentage of the people respond. It can keep us feeling very happy and extremely successful, while in reality we are only reaching a small percentage of our people. Such a false consciousness is one of the dangers for the leadership of supersized parishes.

  5. I feel like a bigger parish would be extremely tricky to manage. Now I lived in North Dakota before I went to St. John’s so a big parish is not really that big in comparison. However, I feel like a lot of this discussion depends on how well people adapt to new parish settings and this determines their viability. Reaching people is important and I see advantages to big and small parishes if staff and leadership are resourceful in serving others.

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