In 2019, the Catholic Sisters Initiative supported a research study conducted by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) to identify the primary characteristics shared by “vital and thriving” Catholic parishes across the United States. The report, entitled “Open Wide the Doors to Christ: A Study of Catholic Social Innovation for Parish Vitality” describes how Catholic social innovation can be put into practice to bolster parish membership and sustainability.

The study involved a survey of more than 200 programs, websites and books, plus interviews with more than 65 pastoral leaders and innovators from across the country. The study offers a working definition of “parish vitality,” which remains a subjective term used in a variety of ways across the Church today. As one interviewee noted, “I know a parish has vitality when I can feel it, see it, and experience it. You just know.”

Results indicate that parish vitality is based on a combination of factors that include the kind of leadership present, as well as a good mix and balance between word, worship and service in the life of the parish. Ultimately, those parish communities that continue to grow and demonstrate high levels of “vitality” were found to share eight common characteristics:

  1. Innovative leaders: Vital parishes have leaders that use creative processes to address difficult challenges and exhibit a style that is open, adaptable and clearly seeks out new ways to listen, work with diverse groups, lead and respond.
  2. Excellent pastors: Vital parishes have pastors with the skills needed to work collaboratively and co-responsibly with staff and parish leaders, and know how to be servant leaders, recruiting, affirming and empowering people. They have the relationship skills and emotional intelligence needed to listen, communicate and respond pastorally.
  3. Active leadership teams: Vital parishes have leaders that recognize the critical contribution of the laity to the ongoing life of the church, with staff and parishioners that step up to share responsibility for the life of the parish with the pastor. This group often does creative brainstorming, can engage in difficult conversations, provide timely and frank feedback, and assist the pastor in making difficult decisions. The best leadership teams have members that represent the various cultures of the neighborhood, including women and men, young and old.
  4. A holistic, compelling vision: Parish leaders have a vision that includes engaging in relational ministry; fostering authentic relationships within the parish community; ensuring formation in the Word; worship that nurtures one’s relationship with God; and service that reaches both parishioners and the community it serves.
  5. Prioritize the Sunday experience: Pastoral leaders in vital parishes emphasize the gathering of the community on Sunday to hear God’s word, celebrate and share the Eucharist, and be inspired for service. The “felt experience” of actively making sure everyone feels welcome and valued, and a sense of hospitality, is one of the most important benchmarks for parish vitality.
  6. Foster spiritual growth and maturity: Vital parishes recognize that there are many different ways in which people journey to, and build their relationship with, a church. This means they must actively provide a variety of entry points for new members.
  7. Live the faith through service: Vital parishes reach out to the community beyond the four walls of the parish to meet the spiritual, human and emotional needs of those who are marginalized, hungry, homeless, hurting or otherwise in need on the local, national and international levels.
  8. Utilize online communications tools: The parish website is the first place that people “check out” the parish. People seek good, interactive and culturally sensitive websites (providing content in multiple languages, as well as creative use of social media). What has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic is that parishes and dioceses that offer short, daily video blogs or podcasts have been most successful at engaging members from a distance.

In addition, three groups are identified as ‘critical’ for building and sustaining a vital parish:

  • Religious Women: The study notes that women hold the majority of the more than 40,000 full and half-time paid staff positions and are the backbone of parish life. At the same time, the presence of women is not always promoted nor welcomed. The study suggests actions to address this.
  • Young Adults: To address the steady decline in new young members to the Church, the study notes that pastoral leaders in vital parishes should proactively reach out to young adults.
  • Hispanic/Latino/a members: Nearly 40 percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic/Latino/a, and 10 percent are African-American, Asian-American or Native American. Among millennial Catholics, 52 percent are Hispanic/Latino/a. This study underlines the need to significantly increase the number of programs that welcome these communities.

Above all else, results suggest that parishes must have an inclusive environment with welcoming, engaged pastoral leaders who are willing to “Open the Doors to Christ,” literally and figuratively, in order to sustain themselves into the future. The study recommends practicing creativity, intentional hospitality, catering to diversity in communities, and creating spaces for innovative problem-solving to develop new responses to the challenges facing the Church.

The final report became available this summer and has been shared by FADICA with its members and through its website. The Catholic Sisters Initiative hopes that these findings will inspire Church leaders in the U.S. to reflect on the changing national context and assist them in making decisions that help to grow and sustain more vital parishes across the country.