Anyone reviewing data from the 2014 Religious Landscape Study might find the results sobering, with signs of decreasing church attendance and participation. Great Catholic Parishes (Ave Maria Press, 2016) by William E. Simon Jr., on the other, gives us good cause to have hope for the Catholic parish in America.
The author, William E. Simon Jr., is not your typical advocate for church revitalization. He is a businessman, philanthropist, and former politician who in recent years has experienced a shift in focus: to his faith and the health of Catholic parishes across the country. The founder of Parish Catalyst, an organization dedicated to strengthening the Catholic parish through “Learning Communities,” he has a goal of helping parishes go further and stretch their vision for ministry beyond current strategies.
Great Catholic Parishes takes an approach similar to the one used by Paul Wilkes, author of Excellent Catholic Parishes (Paulist Press, 2001) and co-editor (together with Marty Minchin) of Best Practices from America’s Best Churches (Paulist Press, 2003). By surveying dioceses and pastoral leaders across the country, his research team identified outstanding parishes and their leaders. After interviewing their pastors, Mr. Simon compiled and analyzed the data to identify four key practices that characterized these thriving parishes: (1) shared leadership, (2) fostering spiritual maturity and discipleship, (3) an emphasis on the Sunday experience, and (4) intentional and structured evangelization. The book dedicates two chapters to each of these four practices, discussing both the strengths of current practice and future challenges and opportunities. These pastors are candid about their experiences, identifying both successes and struggles.
This book offers a treasure of valuable information for parish leaders. First, it gives a “snapshot” of the leading edge of pastoral ministry in Catholic parishes today. It summarizes current “best practices,” which can offer some direction to leadership teams who are struggling, as well as to those on the cutting edge and look to take the next step. Pastors will appreciate insights from their brother pastors, but lay leaders and interested parishioners will benefit as well. The book is well-written, easy to read, balanced in perspective, proactive in outlook, and seeks to stay grounded in practical advice. As a bonus, Great Catholic Parishes also identifies excellent parishes one can turn to for advice and collaboration.
The methodology does have some inherent weaknesses. While we get the perspective of pastors, we don’t have an opportunity to hear from the laity. The parishes represented in this study tend to be large (median size just under 2000 households) and well-funded (median annual offertory $1,000,000). Smaller parishes might struggle to pursue some of the suggested goals. While soliciting input from these parishes might help identify practices promoting excellence, the attempt to consolidate approaches may also lead the reader to a kind of groupthink. Finally, while receiving a substantial amount of insight into building spiritual maturity and improving the Sunday experience, less material is available on collaboration and evangelization. That is no fault of the author or his research team, but only highlights the challenges facing the Church in today’s culture, especially with evangelization.
I am appreciative of the effort Mr. Simon and his team applied in creating this book. It fills a gap in our understanding of the parish and points us toward pathways to improvement. I highly recommend Great Catholic Parishes for pastors and any parish leader looking to take their parish to “the next level.”