The July of 2020 document from the Congregation for Clergy in Rome which issued a new instruction on parish reform refers to the current model of parish as “no longer measuring up to most people’s expectations” and “outdated.” To become a more missionary and evangelizing parish, the document states, will involve restructuring. The new model is that of a missionary parish. Rather than remaining focused on preserving the existing community, the missionary parish is “called to reach out to everyone, without exception, particularly the poor.” Think of the Gospel story of the Good Shepherd.
Most energy in a parish today is focused on self-preservation. Parishes in demographically changing areas work to keep the people they have registered rather than reaching out to those who are moving into the area. Parishes with declining memberships and revenues cut staff and ministries in order to keep the doors open for those who remain. Parishes struggle to reach young adults because they are designed to serve and communicate with older populations. As long as the budget balances, parishes have a tendency to feel they are doing what a non-profit organization should be doing. In reality, the current parish model emphasizes people “joining” rather than the parish community “reaching out.” If someone does not join the parish, there is little interest in him or her.
Any restructuring of parishes should not focus on self-preservation. For that reason, the document recommends that, rather than closing parishes, groups of parishes should be organized under a single pastor. Parishes should cooperate on mission rather than compete in a form of ecclesiastical “survival of the fittest.” Some parishes have simply become too small and too financially challenged to carry out mission effectively by themselves.
In the vision from the document, a missionary parish is likely to have a number of church sites. This will allow the parish to witness not to the uniformity of Catholicism but to the diversity and universality of the faith. Parishes can become more culturally and age specific in worship and ministry. In most dioceses, suburban parishes were built with greater territory to serve and so may not be impacted as much, although demographics are indicating that poverty levels in the suburbs are on the rise.
Restructuring is not just about the way parishes are organized. Ministries themselves will need to be rethought and restructured for a new model. In these key areas of ministry, here are a few ideas.
- Evangelization – the emphasis has been on discipleship formation and has resulted in a stronger faith commitment for a few but has brought in few new believers.
- Faith formation -in no other area of ministry do more Catholics fall away. Parishes and dioceses need to take a closer look at how we relate to and engage families over the years and study content and methodology of our transmission of the faith to younger generations.
- Worship and Liturgy – “one-size-fits-all” liturgies or poor-quality preaching and music have negatively impacted Mass attendance. Worship and liturgy need to reflect the diversity of the missionary Church and become more of a sign that everyone is welcome.
- Stewardship and Community Building – Parishes must place a greater amount of attention on welcoming, orienting, and engaging parishioners in the community. People no longer join or engage in a parish automatically. Methods of communicating with parishioners which may have worked in the past are not likely to reach younger parishioners.
- Outreach – Concern for and action on behalf of the poor in our midst, the area and the world must become a greater focus in most parishes. A good way to assess how active your parish is in outreach ministries would be to count the actual number of volunteers who work in these ministries. A number of parishes have fewer than ten people who organize and conduct their outreach ministries while others count on St. Vincent De Paul Societies to do it all. Read Matthew 25 and let that become a guide for preaching and action in every parish.
Right now, what can be said about the parish of the future is that it is still under construction or, perhaps, restructure. What can be safely said is that parishes will look differently than they do now and will not revert back to the way they once were. Dream for a while about the future parish and then roll up your sleeves and get to work on bringing about the missionary parish.
If you have ideas about or successes in restructuring, let us know. We would love to hear from you and give you a forum to share your good news to people around the country.