The research presented below is based on a content analysis by CARA student researcher Michael Budzinski (Georgetown Class of 2014).
What is your pastor worried about? CARA recently asked a random sample of pastors in our National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP), "What is the greatest challenge facing your parish in the next five years?" Each pastor could respond in their own words. These were then examined for common themes and content.
First among their worries is finances. Twenty-one percent mentioned a financial issue as their top challenge. This strongly correlates with the 25% of parishes nationally that ran a budget deficit last year as estimated by the NSCP. This is also strongly related to the demographic changes described in our recent "Tale of Two Churches" post with parishes in the Northeast (32%) most likely to run a deficit and those in the South least likely to face this challenge (15%).
Some of the representative "financial issues" comments from Northeastern and Midwestern pastors are shown below.
- Increasing costs of running a parish. Concerns about offertory and fundraising ability.
- We are struggling to survive financially. We are encouraging people to contribute more to the collection and examining the possibility of merging with another parish.
- Planning to get rid of a few old buildings and start new stewardship programs.
- The local economy, no jobs, high school and college graduates are not returning to the area.
- Declining numbers. Loss of young people. Number of aging parishioners. We are looking at how we can tighten budget due to the 'givers' declining in years.
- Fundraising. We will need to go to foundations. Parishioners are generous but limited in resources.
- Old facility needs some major repairs. Pray to find ways to bring in more revenue and save it for the future needs.
- Largest challenge is dealing with rising expenses and fewer parishioners.
- Finances. We are cutting staff.
At the same time, many in the South and West raised a primary challenge related to their property and need for facility improvement or expansion. This was noted by 13% of pastors overall. It is most common among pastors in the West who have the largest numbers of parishioners, on average (about 4,000 including registered and the unregistered who regularly attend Masses). Representative comments include:
- The building of a new and larger worship space.
- Parish growth is the problem. We plan to secure more land across the street for parking so we can build a larger church on our current lot.
- Our parish is a growing parish with many young persons. We are building a larger church and are currently in the middle of a capital campaign that has been very successful.
- Need more space. We are in the process of planning for the future. We are doing a pastoral plan that includes the need for more staffing in the parish and a multifunctional building or hall.
- Growth. Good problem! Building accommodations for classes, meetings, etc. Of course with that comes financial needs, building campaigns, etc.
- Increasing growth. More than a thousand houses are scheduled to be constructed in the area around the parish in the next few years. We need an addition to our church, doubling its capacity.
- Not enough space to continue to grow. We are raising funds to be able to buy more land.
- Limited parking and our solution would be to partner with nearby agencies to share parking on Sundays to take of our 'virtual members' of the parish who are worried about driving and not finding parking.
- We are in capital campaign to build a K-8 school, a 2,000 seat church, a 300 seat chapel, and administrative offices.
There are some parishes in the Northeast and Midwest that are also dealing with similar needs but for very different reasons. When a parish closes another nearby parish becomes the new home to more parishioners. In areas where a closure does not occur but parishes instead share a pastor, ministers, and/or ministries (i.e., multi-parish ministry) a larger community is created and served by fewer parish leaders. The NSCP estimates that 19% of parishes have started using multi-parish ministry in the last five years and 6% have been affected by a parish closure during that time. Multi-parish ministry has most often been adopted in the Midwest (33%) and parishes have been affected by closures most often in the Northeast (12%). Seven percent of pastors cited their biggest challenge is merging and/or the creation of "mega-parishes." Representative comments from the Midwest and Northeast include:
- Developing a partnership between three parishes. Overcoming fear that a parish will be closed. Being open to a decision which parish will be the center parish. The challenge of making partnerships.
- Because of the priest shortage we were forced into clusters but it was up to each cluster to determine how to function. Too often the cluster is looked at as a merge and the small parishes are getting gobbled up by the larger who believe they are entitled to all the best Mass times, staffing, preferences, etc. Also, comfort parishioners who are afraid that we will be closed. Sadly some have said they will simply move next door to the Lutheran Church where they have friends rather than travel 20 miles to the next Catholic church.
- We are clustered with four other parishes. The challenges facing us are the shortage of priests which comes the clustering/linking of parishes or closure.
- The challenge facing our parish in the next five years is the possible merger with two other churches. The office for these churches has merged and the bulletin has merged. We are proceeding with a unified approach, in hopes to unite the people of each church.
- Currently in the middle of the consolidation of six parishes into two, and eventually one. That is enough of a challenge for anyone; e.g. worship schedule too many buildings, real estate.
- Merging four parishes into a new parish having two worship sites. The parish covers two cities with very different demographics and economies. We engage people in listening sessions striving to provide good liturgies and activities bringing people together.
- Clustered with three other parishes. One of them has been closed. The number of priests is still shrinking in the diocese. There is anxiety about future leadership and configuration as some rearrangement has been happening each year somewhere in the diocese. Mostly we are in denial.
Many other challenges do not have the regional divides evident in the responses noted above. Following financial issues are three semi-related concerns common throughout the country: evangelization, parishioner apathy, and engaging young people. Representative comments include:
- People who are no longer practicing their faith regularly. We have established an Evangelization Team to work on the helping all to grow in their relationship to Christ and to invite back those who no longer actively worship with us.
- We are evaluating many initiatives to reach out to the "unchurched" and fallen away Catholics.
- Awakening the faith of the parishioners and those who do not join us on a regular basis. Continue to evangelize and spread the word. Growing Mass attendance and expand our volunteer base.
- Evangelizing parents. Many of our 30 to 45-year-olds don't know their faith.
- Retaining and attracting participants (especially on the younger end of the age spectrum).
- Reaching out to the 70% of registered parishioners who are not attending Mass regularly.
- No one is locked in to church. While we can count on some Catholics to be faithful no matter what, a growing portion of parishioners is fickle and choosy. Every weekend is an audition.
- Keeping young adults close to the church.
- Encourage young families to come to church and bring their children. Sports programs have become the churches for this group.
Other issues of concern across the country include a lack of priests and a lack of staff or resources. Representative comments include:
- Priest shortage. Pastor with multiple parishes.
- I expect that this parish will be closed when the diocese finalizes a plan to deal with declining priest population.
- Declining number of priests and deacons, especially those who can serve Hispanics and minorities.
- Priest shortage may cause combining of parishes.
- There is no longer a resident pastor and a handful of devoted parishioners are keeping the Catholic identity alive.
- Staff is part time and turns back half their salary in order to keep the place operational.
- Recruiting and training competent, capable parish volunteers.
- Not having a resident pastor or sharing one and having fewer liturgies.
- The need for someone other than the pastor to provide for adult formation and catechist training and liturgical music. We need professionally trained and salaried Adult Formation Director and Liturgical Musician.
A variety of other challenges were noted by pastors as shown in the graph above. Some were rather unique and were unnamed by others (i.e. "other" comments). A sampling of all these other challenges includes:
- In the process of a complete merger. The primary challenge will be retaining the cultural/ethnic identities and the historical traditions moving forward, as well as redefining what it means for us to be parish.
- Bringing three diverse communities together in one parish: Anglo, Hispanic, and Vietnamese. They have evolved into three distinct communities which share very little in common.
- Aging congregation. Nothing I can do about it. Young people must leave for employment.
- Keep the school open. Our families are old. We have to find kids outside the parish.
- Our parish is changing due to an influx of immigrants. The older parishioners are not ready for the change because they see what is familiar changing fast. I basically have two parishes. One Anglo and the other Hispanic. Very difficult to merge the two. We have opportunities for the two communities to come together, but we don't have good participation.
- Demographics indicate that after high school, young people get as far away from this area as possible. It an old steel town that has not retooled itself and so they are few jobs and basically nothing to do around here.
- The consumer culture is a huge challenge to us. Young adults are too busy for church at this point in their lives. They look for more exciting places. Many of our families are 'transit' Catholics who go where it is convenient either because Mass is quicker or times are more convenient. They aren't engaged or attached to a parish until they want something.
- Maintaining Catholic identity in culture that rejects and openly mocks religion. The secular influence by schools and sport teams and other social events have made the Church far less than third class.
- Parishioners do not know each other.
- Dealing with people polarized on different church and political issues.
- We need to find and encourage people who have a preference for the 1962 Mass to come and join us.
- Keeping up with the integration of technology in the life of the parish.
The NSCP included a series of questions, commissioned by St. John’s School of Theology Seminary, about the recently revised English-language Roman Missal. Results from the responses to these questions have gained some media attention. It is important to note that none of the NSCP respondents mentioned the revised Missal as a major challenge facing their parish in the responses to the open-ended question analyzed above. Thus, even though about half of priests say they don't like the revisions, few apparently see this as their most pressing problem. This could be because, as other CARA research has shown, an overwhelming majority of those in the pews agree that the revisions were good.
Look for more results from the NSCP to be released by CARA soon. Also be sure to visit the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership research archive where you will find an enormous amount of related research on parish life in the United States.
About the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP)
The research was made possible through funding provided by SC Ministry Foundation and St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC. In October 2013, CARA began sending invitations to 6,000 randomly selected parishes (5,000 by email and 1,000 mail) to take part in the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP). Stratification was used. The total number of parishes randomly selected in each diocese was determined by weighting the diocesan averages of the percentage of the Catholic population and the percentage of Catholic parishes in the United States in each diocese as reported in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). This stratification ensures that parishes representing the full Catholic population were included rather than a sample more dominated by areas where there are many small parishes with comparatively small Catholic populations. A total of 486 email addresses were not valid and 68 of the mailed invitations were returned as bad addresses or as being closed parishes. Thus, the survey likely reached 5,446 parishes. The survey remained in the field as periodic reminders by email and mail were made until February 2014. Reminders were halted during Advent and the survey closed before Lent in 2014. A total of 539 responses to the survey were returned to CARA for a response rate of 10%. This number of responses results in a margin of sampling error of ±4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. Respondents include those returning a survey by mail or answering online. The survey consisted of 169 questions and spanned eight printed pages. A slightly smaller national CARA parish survey, including 141 questions from 2010, obtained a 15% response rate. Response rates for CARA parish surveys are correlated with the length of the questionnaire. Responding parishes match closely to the known distribution of parishes by region. Data for sacraments celebrated also match the OCD closely.
Parish image courtesy of Ryan Basilio. The addition of the thought bubble wordle is based on all of the responses to the challenge question.