The Parish Catalyst Project

In “A New Model for Catholic Parishes” at First Things, William Simon talks about the “Parish Catalyst” project.

Many Catholic parishes are in effect becoming “mega-churches,” what with a growing flock and declining numbers of priests.

In 1985, over 55,000 priests served a Catholic population of nearly 55,000,000. Today, fewer than 40,000 priests serve over 65,000,000 Catholics. …T he U.S. Catholic population, which is projected to grow to nearly 80,000,000 by 2038, will be served by only 25,000 priests. Over a fifty year period, the American Catholic Church will see a 50 percent increase in members and a 60 percent decline in the number of priests to serve them.

But in these settings it can be difficult to attend to the spiritual needs of worshippers and give them a sense of Christian community. And even those who do attend seem not to have a strong sense of discipleship and evangelization. Much of the work of the parish is done by a rather small group of volunteers.

As Simon reports,

Parish Catalyst is indebted to Leadership Network, an organization that has provided innovative support to Protestant Evangelical churches in the U.S. for over thirty years. … Peter Drucker and Bob Buford saw parallels between the leadership needs of the business world and the leadership needs of the church world. On numerous occasions he and his staff have trained, mentored, and supported the efforts of Parish Catalyst to translate their methodology to a Catholic environment.

Here is a brief description of part of the program:

Parish Catalyst recently invited twelve pastors and members of their pastoral team to form a Parish Catalyst Community around the topic of Dynamic Discipleship. A Parish Catalyst Community meets four times over a two year period. Each team will develop staff and parish goals. They will be pushed to dream bigger and to achieve beyond their immediate expectations. Their success will be measured and applauded by their peers and by the Parish Catalyst facilitation team.

This will be worth watching. Catholics need more initiatives like this.



  1. Mr. Simon seems to assume that being an “evangelical” necessarily involves a large organization of like minded people, sort of like a business corporation. There is even training in the organizational theory of Peter Drucker.

    I say we haven’t looked at what evangelization is and how it differs from merchandizing. Yes, in some cases there might be similarities and Drucker might be quite relevant, but in others, who knows? My fear is that Simon et al are looking for what is quantifiable, or at least countable, and somehow that is not very relevant.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #1:

      Thank you Ann for your incisive points.

      Ann: I say we haven’t looked at what evangelization is and how it differs from merchandizing.

      One might also ask if evangelical Christian megachurch evangelization develops first into a personality cult of the pastor and then into a merchandizing opportunity. I cringe a small bit when I see an evangelical megachurch pastor’s latest devotional book at my local pharmacy. It’s as if devotional or meditative prayer cannot be separated from a preacher and his or her personality. American evangelical worship, with its marked de-emphasis of almost all rubrical and liturgical liturgy in favor of the sermon and theatrical presentation, necessarily tempts a marketing of a pastor as synonymous with his or her church, and not as a servant of the church. bone pastor … “The Good Shepherd”: would the historical Jesus have authored a Times bestseller instead, should broadsheets and codices have existed in his day?

      Ann: My fear is that Simon et al are looking for what is quantifiable, or at least countable, and somehow that is not very relevant.

      Mass cannot be quantified, marketed, or trademarked. Mass is the unbloody sacrifice which perpetuates itself eternally through daily celebration of the Mass. I realize that I live in a location where I have the luxury of choosing between multiple daily Masses every morning, sometimes in either Roman form. Still, the substitution of small groups for daily Mass or adoration strikes me as a great impoverishment. Where is the supersubstantial food in “sharing”, even though the latter is emotionally and socially important? Mass should never become a “special presentation” just for Sunday morning (if that!).

  2. Share both of your concerns about *marketing* and pastor worship especially masquerading as *evangelization*.
    But, when I read the complete article by Wm. Simon in First Things, what strikes me are not *warnings* or *negative connections*. Rather, Simon seems to start with Francis – a parish can’t be self-reverential; can’t be self-absorbed…it grows only be going out on mission. His points are well made:
    1) The size and wealth of the parish does not determine whether it thrives. Rather, it is empowered and engaged laity, working with highly committed pastors who are open, warm, and welcoming that leads to growth and stability. (culture warrior pastors; introverts that stay at home; sacramental dispensers only are not what the church needs today)
    2) Successful pastors immerse their parishes in the local community. They immerse the parish in the local cultural life. (parish as separate catholic country club no longer appeals to younger folks)
    3) Pastors look beyond their own church for inspiration (e.g. ecumenical involvement and shared projects; same with social agencies, etc.)
    4) These pastors have the imagination and leadership skills to move beyond what bogs down other pastors. (constant blaming the bishop or the powers to be doesn’t help a parish to grow)
    5) Despite the daily challenges and pressures they encounter leading complex parishes, these pastors report that they generally sleep well at night (again, it is a *joyful* spirit rather than pastors who focus solely on fundraising or complain about decreased collections, etc.)
    6) These pastors work very hard—but they take care of themselves.
    7) ….need support from other like-minded pastors. They are very interested in getting together with other highly effective pastors to share ideas and experiences. (how often do we see this happen among our catholic pastors?)

    Just saying!

  3. If you want to go the peripheries, evangelize and service the community, look to your pastoral council not to your pastor or your pastoral staff.

    In case people have not noticed, Francis seems to value pastoral councils, (both parish and diocesan) highly and has begun to include them in events like Assisi and his parish visits in Rome.

    Recently I spent four years as a member of a parish pastoral council of a mega parish, one of the ten largest in the diocese. Officially according to the Diocesan Norms it was supposed to be the planning body of the parish. In practice planning was all in the hands of the pastoral staff. While I was on Pastoral Council major decisions like creating positions and programs were made without benefit of the Pastoral Council.

    The pastoral council, and I suspect most around the country, in fact functioned very much like most boards of trustees of non- profit corporations such as those in the mental health system where I worked for decades. Although these boards hire and can fire their CEO in fact they are largely composed of people in the community who basically see their job is to support the CEO and the staff with their time and talent and sometimes money.

    John Carver has developed a model of non-profit board governance that basically says that you can have both a strong CEO leading the staff and the programs, and a strong Board that stays out of the internal management of the organization but rather focuses upon the needs of the community.

    This model with some major modifications(e.g. the non-profits Board authority to hire and fire the pastor and set his and the staff’s priorities) seems ideally suited to large Catholic parishes . We have certain internal tasks such as worship and faith formation that are largely the direct responsibility of the pastor and pastoral staff.

    But the parish members have very large tasks, evangelizing and serving their families, their work places, their communities. These are the area that should be the focus of the pastoral council but not pastoral staff. Francis wants us to love everyone not make the parish a huge non -profit corporation to serve families, work environments and the community. Francis does not like the NGO model.

    We do not want pastors to become CEOs of ever larger organizations much like our bishops have become. Rather we want the pastor to focus upon the essential internal aspects of the parish like the liturgy and the homily and do a better job there (Like Francis is doing with his morning homilies). While pastors need to inspire laity in their families, their work lives and in the community they certainly should not try to manage their evangelization of these areas.

    The role of the pastoral council should be as a meeting place (an ecclesia) where we Catholics can discuss our Catholic lives outside the parish structures. It needs to be volunteer led and entirely volunteer staffed and relatively un-chaperoned by pastoral staff so that it absorbs very little of their time. Of course if people want the endorsement of the pastor he will have to become more involved. However many things could be accomplished without that. In fact in many cases founding a ecumenical or community group might be the better way to go. In that case the parish might just provide meeting space without an endorsement.

    In a study of community empowerment of minorities it was actually found that Catholic pastors empowered Hispanics more than Protestant Pastors empowered Blacks. The priests had far less to lose than the pastors; their jobs and identity were far more secure.

    I think we could have both very strong pastors focused upon liturgy and scripture while at the same time have very strong pastoral council members doing all sorts of things in the community.

  4. I think we’re focusing not on individuals but on communities, viz., the parish, the parish council, the parish board, the parish as a community. But I don’t think that evangelization should focus primarily on communities of any sort. Communities are not converted en masse — except in primitive monarchies where the monarchs brought their nations with them to convert. It’s *individuals* who are converted, so they need to be the focus.

    Yes, the organization of evangelists can be a good thing, at least to some extent, but their programs need to be directed to the needs of individual people. So far, whether here or in the general press, I’ve seen no mention of how to go about doing that. Have we ever asked converts what led them to finally make their conversion decisions? Before all those evangelizing groups start making plans, I think they need to ask the converts what it is that they need. And the answers will no doubt be many different things.

    I suspect that most evangelization succeeds because of one-on-one interaction. Yes, seekers-after-God are often impressed by the good works of groups (e.g., of groups of nuns who run hospitals or schools). Even the vibrant singing of a choir can be helpful. But just seeing the virtues and tenthusiams of holy people is obviously is not enough for most seekers to be converted. (In the first place, they can find holy people and great art in other religions.)

    There must also be a change of *fundamental beliefs*, from the seeker’s old beliefs to the Faith, and this requires some sort of teaching. But for the most part teaching is ultimately one-on-one, not group on group. A corporation just isn’t a very good model of an evangelizer.

    Sorry to go on at such great length, but I think the topic is much more complex than initially meets the eye.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #5:
      I’ve been away from the parish for three months and taught our RCIA class this past Thursday for the first time. We have about 35 in process at this point. I asked them to introduce themselves to me, tell me their religious background and how they became interested in the Catholic Church. Each one of them without exception said it was because of a Catholic they knew and encouraged them to consider becoming Catholic.
      None of them said it was because of the pastoral council and its members, or the finance council and its members and how well Catholics plan things out. It didn’t have anything to do with lectors or communion ministers or altar servers and what gender they are or how empowered they are. It didn’t have anything to do with music and its types, cantors or choirs or leaders in the parish. It had to do with rank and file Catholics in the world, at their schools, in their families and their places of work!

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #10:

        and taught our RCIA class this past Thursday for the first time.

        (1) It’s not a class. If you need a name for it, call it a session.

        (2) Those running it should not be in the business of “teaching”. The whole point of the RCIA process is that it is not a program or a series of doctrine classes where input is delivered and those on the receiving end are passive recipients. It is a process whereby inquirers and catechumens learn about Catholic faith (and doctrine) at their own speed (not shoehorned into a September to Easter program) by reflection and sharing, along with the RCIA team members, ideally on the scriptures (Lectionary-based catechesis). Input is given in a context of reflection and sharing, not a classroom-type situation. The object is to uncover gradually the riches of Catholic faith, not to inject packets of doctrine into people, in a way that is an apprenticeship into Christian living rather than getting through a syllabus. The team members are not teachers but friends who accompany inquirers and catechumens on their journey of discovery, walking alongside them as fellow disciples.

        People often comment that the newly-baptized who enter the Church via RCIA soon fall away. I am convinced that this is precisely because of the “classes” mentality that many practitioners are following. If, instead, inquirers, catechumens and neophytes were encouraged to grow in faith and learn how to live their faith as Catholics by experience and osmosis, things would be rather different.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #12:
        Paul I can see clearly the influence and inspiration of Christiane Brusselmans in your reply. She would go charmingly ballistic when anyone referred to the RCIA as a “program.” “It’s a *process!*” And I’m sure you’re right that the fall-away rate would be quite different where the whole vision of the RCIA as a flexible process of well-supported growth in faith and discipleship is implemented.

  5. Jordan —

    Indeed, personality cults are a danger. But the RCC also holds up its holiest members as models. What would the Church be without its saints?

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #6:

      Quite true, Ann. The saints are crucial to the formation and maintenance of personal and corporate faith. Still, the canonization of saints is a process fraught with the tangled mess of human desire, motivation, and piety. St. Vincent Ferrer is celebrated as one who converted many persons to the faith. He is also regarded by many as a reliable intercessor. Yet St. Vincent Ferrer also supported the forced conversions of Jewish persons in Spain. Is it possible to separate St. Vincent Ferrer the gifted evangelist from St. Vincent Ferrer the inquisitor? Should we even attempt to divide the saint into two persons to assuage our consciences? An excessively sanitized hagiography strikes me as an opportunity (but not inevitability) that a saint will be raised up even to the point of a personality cult.

      The necessity of models of sanctity should not disable a critical appraisal of both the strengths and frailties of saints. Indeed, it is important to identity with sanctity and frailty. An uncritical emulation of a saint or rote prayers for a saint’s intercession is cultic so far as all aspects of belief and faith require cognitive engagement and even some skepticism.

  6. Ann Olivier #1

    I say we haven’t looked at what evangelization is and how it differs from merchandizing

    Ann Olivier #5

    I suspect that most evangelization succeeds because of one-on-one interaction.

    The dynamics of conversion have been very well studied by sociologists, thanks to the interest in “cults.” and Ann has intuited the basic answer that strong loving interpersonal relationships are the basis for religious conversion.

    In studies of “cults” it was shown that potential cult members “hung out” and gradually became friends with cult members. During this phase there was little evidence of “brain washing.” The potential cult members showed little interest in the beliefs and practices of the cult. Only after their pattern of relationships changed so that the potential cult members had more friends within the cult than outside the cult did the “new” members begin to take an interest in the beliefs and practices of the cult.

    In studies of mixed marriages, the partner with less interest in their own religion and a lesser network of co-religionists is very likely to convert to the religion of the partner that has a greater interest in their religion and a larger network of co-religionists. The old Catholic practice of requiring the non-Catholic partner to agree to having the children raised Catholic set up a powerful dynamic for the non-Catholic ‘s conversion as their household filled up with Catholics! Each new Catholic child was a strong incentive to become Catholic.

    Currently I am reading a study of intergeneration faith transmission and here again the principle is very clear. Parents and even grandparents transmit their religious interests to their offspring simply by being loving people who offer but do not coerce their religion on others. A good way NOT to transmit your religion to your offspring is to set up high standards of belief and practice for them and then become judgmental. They may eventually find religion but it will likely be someone else’s religion.

    The “clericalization” of Christianity has set up a huge barrier to the Gospel of loving God and your neighbor. Not only the clergy but many of the laity have seen beliefs and practices as being more fundamental than people and loving relationships. Francis is taking us back to the basics where people and loving relationships (joy and forgiveness) are primary.

  7. In the Bible Belt, it is most common for Catholics to married Protestants. Prior to Vatican II this meant two things, that the couple could not marry in the church proper, but usually in the rectory and that both the Catholic and Protestant had to baptize and rear their children as Catholics. I know of a number of my parishioners born of this period who had non-Catholic mothers rearing them in the practice of the Catholic faith, sending them to Catholic Schools or religious education programs. In fact, post-Vatican II my nephew was brought up a Catholic by his Southern Baptist mother and she saw to it that he became an altar boy and participated in the church and received the other sacraments. Now he has married a Southern Baptist and they have baptized their baby and she is currently in the RCIA and she says becoming a Catholic has changed her life!
    I fear there are too many dichotomies being made about a clerical or lay approach. It isn’t either/or but both/and and the primary evangelizing agent in the Church is the family, the domestic Church. The institutional Church provides for the official Sacramental life and opportunities for service. But that Christian service isn’t tied to the institutional Church but where Catholics find themselves and how they live their Catholic faith.

  8. Paul, thank you for some clarity on evangelization. Too often these discussions start by ignoring the Catholic evangelization groups that are already flourishing in many parishes, known as the RCIA.

    Evangelization is the first step of the RCIA, and should not be separated from it. As a Baptist expressed it to me, many are born again but then are abandoned as orphans in their faith’s infancy. The structure for the RCIA is the Church’s nurturing of the reborn.

    The New Evangelization was originally envisioned as extending this nurture to Christians who have lost faith, or never had it despite their baptism. This calls for some major adaptations, but what we have learned with the RCIA should be the starting point.

  9. Fr. Allan –

    I’m a Southerner too. There have been a number of mixed marriages in my family, and the non-Catholics have converted to Catholicism. The advice to the Catholic marrying a Protestant was, “Don’t push.” This confirms St. Francis’ advice, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words”.

    But, yes, there’s more to proselytizing — oops, evangelizing — than that. Somewhere along the line someone has to teach the Faith. (Hey, what about that word “proselytizing”? I really don’t see the difference.)

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