Developing a great parish

What makes a great parish? And what enables a parish to develop itself toward its potential to carry out its mission in a great way? There is no magic formula or single right way. And there is no perfect program that will solve all problems and enable all possibilities for parishes.

Yet, there are proven practices that can be adapted in every parish to help it reach toward its mission potential. Drawing on research and the best practices from within Catholic parishes and beyond, an approach has been developed for parish leaders to share a coherent set of keys built into a framework for developing a dynamic, great parish. On their own these keys may seem rather basic; together, they can lead to a high level of parish vitality. The five keys are: (1) Christ is the Center of Life; (2) People Care for People; (3) Selfless Generosity Rules; (4) Excellence is the Standard; and (5) Members Live Mission.

Christ is the Center of Life

“It is no longer I that live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” For Catholics to live to their potential as faithful disciples, knowing and doing God’s will day-by-day is central. Dedicated time in quiet prayer with Sacred Scriptures is the gateway to experiencing Christ’s loving presence in the life of each Catholic. Great parishes nurture the daily prayer life of their parishioners and they emphasize preparing for each celebration of the Sacraments, especially the gathering of the community for Mass on Sundays. Overnight retreats offer an experience of the love of Christ that can often be life-changing and Parish Missions are another good way to draw parishioners to Christ. Another important way that great parishes help their members keep Christ at the center of their life is through small Christian Communities -- providing an important way for Catholic disciples to strengthen each other on their lifelong faith journey.

People Care for People

“They will know we are Christians by our love.” As basic as this is, it does not come naturally or easily. Parishioners tend to drift into isolated groups where they feel most comfortable within the parish. Great parishes encourage their parishioners to take an active part in raising their parish’s level of warmth and welcome. Connecting people to each other in simple friendship leads to fostering mutual care and further leads people to become Christ to each other. For those called to be sisters and brothers in the family of God, developing meaningful relationships with each other seems basic. Yet, Catholic parishes sometimes feel rather impersonal and cold to newcomers. Studies have shown that the level of drift and disconnect of Catholics from their parishes is high and on the increase. Creating a truly caring community is a foundational building block for great parishes.

Selfless Generosity Rules

“And the greatest of these is love.” Christ is the model of perfect generosity -- completely selfless and profoundly loving. The Scriptures have much to teach on this subject, emphasizing the battle in our hearts between our desire to trust in God and our human tendency to control things ourselves. Great parishes don’t shy away from teaching their parishioners about how to be faithful in their generosity, often guided first by the idea of stewardship. Stewardship shows us that life itself and all we have are God’s pure gift to us during the span of our short lives. Once we understand that truth, we are free to be much more generous and find great joy in our generosity. Great parishes are dedicated to showing their members how to be faithful stewards and how to be generous in their practice of tithing and sacrificial generosity.

Excellence is the Standard

“Good is the enemy of great.” Great parishes assemble and develop excellent staffs and they call and form dedicated lay leaders with whom they collaborate closely. They involve many people in ministry and they set standards for success toward which they continually strive. Whether in celebrating liturgy or conducting ministries such as faith formation, pastoral care, or outreach to the needy, dynamic Catholic parishes find ways to do it very well. This creates a spiral effect upward in the life of the parish -- attracting more parishioners to the parish, resulting in more gifts, enabling even greater ministry, and in turn attracting yet more parishioners. Parishes in a drift or decline mode often experience the exact opposite, resulting in a spiral effect downward. Parishes that seek excellence are organized for success. They establish ways to discern their most important priorities, develop plans, execute them, and evaluate their progress.

Members Live Mission

“Each Christian in the community of the People of God builds up the Body of Christ. Indeed, in the Church as the community of the People of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’s work, each member has ‘his own special gift’ as Saint Paul teaches.” In his encyclical, ‘‘Redeemer of Man,’’ Pope John Paul II urged the Church to fulfill its mission through the life of every member who is called to carry Christ into his or her home, neighborhood, and workplace. Church isn’t the exclusive work of the priests or staff or even the devoted Church leaders. Each member has a job to do. Great parishes help their parishioners realize who they are. They aren’t consumers who sample the services of Church and then applaud or grumble. As taught in St. John’s Gospel, they are the branches who, connected to the vine, bear great fruit for the glory of God.

Tom Sonni is President of Greater Mission Development Services, which is dedicated to lifting the Church toward its great mission potential. The Catholic Foundation will be sponsoring a Fundraising Forum on January 15, 2009. This workshop entitled “Developing a Mission-Driven Parish” will draw on Mr. Sonni’s extensive experience in strategic pastoral and business planning, comprehensive fund development, and ministry leadership. For more information or to register, please call 617-779-3704 or visit