President John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” The popular enthusiasm surrounding the papacy of Pope Francis is, in part, a testament to his highly collaborative leadership style and inclusive tone. This “Francis Effect” is exerting a powerful influence in the American Catholic church, particularly at the local level, amplifying unprecedented changes already underway.
This capacity for genuine inclusivity and authenticity is something I have experienced in my own parish. After twenty-five years at St. Monica’s in Santa Monica, California, I can attest Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson has a tremendous ability to make people feel at home. He tends his sheep while also forging ties in the broader communities of faith. I have met people active in the local Jewish community who have said to me, “That monsignor over there, he’s incredible. He goes all over; the guy is unstoppable.” And he was almost solely responsible for converting my wife to the Catholic faith. At the time she told me, “Honey, I want you to know one thing: it had nothing to do with you.” It surely was God and Monsignor Torgerson.
Through the research undertaken by Parish Catalyst, an organization I founded four years ago to strengthen Catholic parishes, we found there are many Monsignor Torgersons out there. In 2013, we conducted 244 ground-breaking interviews with pastoral leaders of flourishing parish communities across the United States. We then spent a year analyzing this interview data. Based on the thoughtful, candid responses to our open-ended questions, we were able to ascertain the most prevalent strengths and persistent challenges pastors experienced in their parishes. From this research, I wrote a book, published this week, Great Catholic Parishes.
While there is no “silver bullet” for doing great parish ministry in the Catholic church today, our study revealed that vibrant Catholic parishes have four essential practices in common:
- Shared leadership: Their pastors understand that by deploying all the human resources available to the parish they are better equipped for the complex realities of parish life today. Practicing various forms of shared leadership, they take pride in their strong professional staffs and volunteers.
- Spiritual growth: Vibrant parishes don’t take the spiritual development of parishioners for granted. They understand that spiritual growth is an ongoing dynamic that needs to be continually reevaluated and updated to satisfy the spiritual hunger living in all of us.
- The Sunday experience: Great parishes understand that for the person in the pew, their Sunday experience is the key driver of spiritual growth and engagement. These parishes excel at it, which requires careful planning of hospitality for adults and children alike, the best music they can afford, a commitment to excellent homilies, and a physical environment that speaks of warmth and community.
- Facing outward: Thriving parishes understand that their community must go beyond itself. They are intentional about inspiring, training and providing opportunities for people to serve.
At first glance these practices appear deceptively simple. But these particular parishes are thriving at a time when many people no longer find value in organized religion, and we wanted to know how and why.
The responsibilities resting on lay shoulders have grown considerably, and will likely increase as the number of priests continues to decline. The layperson’s historic script -- “pray, pay and obey” -- has altered radically in recent decades, and the doors have swung open to lay leadership. Today, many of the roles that used to be performed exclusively by priests are the work of highly-trained lay professionals and volunteers: parish administration, sacramental preparation, liturgical planning, spiritual direction, faith formation, catechesis, even limited preaching.
Listening to advice from lay leaders means making communication a two-way street, which helps pastors maintain a balanced vision of parish life. Moreover, many pastors rely on parishioners for expertise they may lack. No pastor is good at everything, and in healthy parishes the strengths of the leadership team complement each other.
Pope Francis’ admonition that his priests should “be shepherds with the smell of sheep” on them has inspired pastors to lead from the middle. Although we asked no questions about the Pope in our research protocol, one third of our pastors brought his name up spontaneously, and their remarks were uniformly positive. They welcomed the Pope’s less hierarchical leadership style, and encourage parishioners to consider leadership roles as part of their spiritual development.
Helping people discover and use their strengths can produce a profound impact on parish life, especially at a time when the “Francis Effect” is having a symbiotic influence on the Catholic community as well as resonating with people who are not Catholic or even religious. His openness to conversations about tough topics offers many Catholics a route to freedom from shame in the wake of scandals from which the church is still healing.
Pope Francis is nourishing spiritual hunger, and his paradigm shift—from welcoming seekers and new believers as they trickle in to pursuing them more actively—resonates at a time when parish affiliation and Mass attendance cannot be taken for granted. So there is much to celebrate as parishes seek to address the needs of today’s world. Leadership opportunities abound for those who want them, and important and meaningful work is being done every single day in American parishes by pastors and lay leaders alike.
William E. Simon, Jr. is the author of Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive (Ave Maria Press, 2016).