How’s the parish doing? Depends on who you ask.

OSV reported the other week on CARA’s most recent survey of parish leaders.  The money quote:

The latest survey shows that parish ministry leaders, for the most part, are satisfied with their work, which they see as a calling, and believe that their individual parishes are meeting their communities’ spiritual needs.

And this is what you’d hope. I’ve never met someone in ministry who was going at it indifferently.  Church staff work hard and give it their best.  Volunteers pour out their time and energy, a free gift, given in love. They can see that what they do matters.

When I teach religious ed, I’m encouraged by the number of students who think my classes are fantabulous.  But then there’s the other ones.  The kid who quietly disappears mid-year.  The mom that told me this summer, “My daughter dreaded your class.”  (It was an easily fixable problem — nervousness about the test — but one I could not know about, until someone told me.  I’m glad Mom told me, however belatedly.)

The parish leadership survey unwittingly uncovers a terrible problem, though: Most parish leaders think they’re doing just fine.

Well, we aren’t.

It’s easy to dismiss the person who pew who “won’t get involved”.  Those types must not care about their faith, we say.  They just want to complain. They don’t want to be part of the solution.  Hmmn.  Maybe.

But really?  Do people come to Mass each week, hoping to avoid the community of the faithful the other six days?  “Lord, I got up early on my day off to come to this place,  please don’t get me interested in learning about You, or serving You, the other hours of the week.”  Is someone kneeling in the pew before Mass, praying, “Dear Jesus,  I sit every week next to these other Christians . . . please keep me from becoming friends with any of them.  I already have all the friends I can stand.”


Lapsed Catholics are a thornier situation yet.  A vast and complicated problem, with no single answer.  But I know Catholics — earnest, lifelong, pious Catholics — who leave the Church.  Because it stinks.  Because they were in a crisis and nobody noticed, let alone cared.  Because the Church-ocracy demon is out of control, creating a thousand bureaucratic hurdles in the name of “efficiency” or “thoroughness”.  Because the liturgy makes them want to hide under the pew until it’s over — or as happened once years ago when Jon and I were on vacation, my then-protestant husband turned to me and asked, “Are you sure this is a Catholic church?”

Are these good reasons to leave the Church?  They are understandable reasons.

We have the Eucharist, that’s reason to stay.  Have that, all the rest is details.   But goodness, the details.  We kid ourselves if we count only the satisfied customers.

13 thoughts on “How’s the parish doing? Depends on who you ask.

  1. “Lord, I got up early on my day off to come to this place, please don’t get me interested in learning about You, or serving You, the other hours of the week.”

    That describes me pretty well until I was about 40 years old. I was a cantor for years before 40, and Parish staff did what they could to engage me, but I just wasn’t open to more.

  2. “Parish staff did what they could to engage me, but I just wasn’t open to more.”

    That I can buy. Maybe. [And you come from a parish with a good reputation, so that’s heartening to hear.] Though I’ll say that over and again I’ve seen initiatives (church and secular, including a few of my own) that flopped, and the leaders thought, “People just don’t care”, but if you looked closely, there were fatal flaws in the program.

    Meanwhile, I think off the top of my head of the difficulty of finding a spiritual director, or some similar source of reliable, regular spiritual accountability. We’re deceiving ourselves if we say people’s spiritual needs are being met. Not even close.

    –> None of that is a criticism of the work that’s being done. The work is good, the people are good. I’m only saying that if I think my efforts are sufficient . . . no, they aren’t. If someone asked me, “are you meeting the religious-ed needs of your students,” the answer would have to be, “I try, but I can’t possibly. The need is too great. I do what I can.”

  3. Competitive organizations benchmark themselves so that they can identify and correct deficiencies. Monopolies might be forgiven for thinking they are doing the best possible job under the circumstances–it’s human nature. But, their customers/constituencies often have a different view. Even when our intentions are good, it is easy to miss the mark. If we aren’t actively seeking (and receptive to) constructive feedback, we probably have an unrealistic view of how well we are doing.

    1. Funny you should put it in terms of monopolies and competitiveness. One of the things that sticks in my head from business school is the estimated statistic about how few complaints ever reach the company’s ears. Sorta like what exterminators say about insects — what you see is way less than what you’ve got.

  4. It can be no accident that you post this and I read it right before we have our parish staff retreat/all-day meeting next week.

    SOOOOO true the things you point out. You got my tired brain rolling (and groaning).

    Thanks for that.

    1. We most definitely are. I haven’t read her book, but some years ago, Mark Shea summed it up on his blog — the experience that formed them in that respect. I keep reminding myself I ought to read the book, and not just be content with one very good post and a giant AMEN from me. :-).

  5. Jennifer, thank you for your post. But, you neglected to mention one thing that the OSV story notes, that the average salary for a lay parish employee is $31K. As a college grad, I was very excited to be working as a director of religious education, but when I became a father, I started looking elsewhere. The survey stated that 57% of parish employees are female. I wonder what the percentage is for DRE’s and Youth Ministers? I bet it is even higher. Combine this with the crisis of fatherhood in our culture and what you get is teenage boys in youth ministry programs because their mothers want them there, being lead by other mother-like figures. It is awfully hard for a teenage boy to become zealous for something they only see women do. Yes, there are some young male youth ministers, but they seem to be the exception rather than the norm. And we wonder why vocations to the priesthood have been down the past 25 years.

    I think it is true that a very strong, masculine pastor can provide that exemplar of what it means to follow Christ as a man. Yet, we must also think creatively about getting more men on staff at the parish, or at least bring in male speakers to reach out to this subset. I once gave a lecture on the Rite of Exorcism, which is, in my humble opinion, a very masculine liturgical act, and the place was packed with men, both young and old.

    1. CS,

      You bring up some important points. [I can point to many good things my parish does towards that end — very encouraging]. But living out the Church’s social teaching on wages is definitely a concern, because the low pay does limit the field of applicants significantly.

      But I think my concern was not in the particulars of efforts, but in our mindset: If I think my classes [insert your ministry here] are good enough, I’m kinda wrong. They may be the best I can give (mine generally are). But the US is spiritually what a country like Haiti is economically — we are spiritually destitute. If you asked someone in poverty-relieving missions, “Are you meeting the economic needs of your community?”, the answer would be, “Well, I’ve served 10/50/20,000 people, but no, the need is greater than that. I’ve done all I can, and there’s still much more to do.”

      And that’s my point. Not that we are doing bad work. But that we shouldn’t rest content. As you observe, there are many more needs to be addressed.

  6. Wow, if I had written this…of which I have to some degree on my blog, I’d be and was called in for it by the pastor and youth minister. Never mind that the youth program, Life Teen at this parish doesn’t reach the kids and is in place of confirmation preparation.

    Blessings to you and your bravery. The Catholic Church will survive this as well, but she needs some help!!

    1. I suppose if someone wants to call me out on the carpet for admitting my own ministry has its limits, they can do that. I’m trying to imagine the brow-beating. “Jennifer! How dare you say your class doesn’t satisfy the RE needs of every child who comes your way! How dare you say we need to think about the needs that aren’t being met!”

      Yeah. That’s fine. I’ve gotten in trouble for worse.

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