Parish leadership program turns ideas into actions

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"

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Parish Catalyst wants to help the best Catholic parishes get better.

That is the guiding philosophy behind the Los Angeles-based organization, which sponsors management education for pastors and parish teams.

Why start with the best, when there are so many Catholic parishes struggling to maintain footing in difficult times?

The answer lies in "diffusion innovation theory," said Claire Henning, executive director of Parish Catalyst, who has worked in church ministry since 1993.

"We shoot elephants, not squirrels," she told NCR in a recent phone interview. The idea is that by spreading the best ideas on parish management and outreach to the most active, lively parishes, those ideas will spread beyond, influencing parish life throughout the country.

It means working with what she describes as "early adopters," those pastors who are willing to try innovative ideas. "We are looking for systemic change in Catholic parishes."

The Parish Catalyst model relies on a mixture of the best ideas gleaned from evangelical megachurches and U.S. business organizational management. It began four years ago, growing out of a book called Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation written by founder William Simon, a California investor and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, and theologian Michael Novak.

"I began to realize that the parish is the place where an awful lot of the church is manifest," said Simon. Drawing on the best ideas of business and evangelical groups, particularly a pastor-support group called the Leadership Network, Simon developed a plan to bring Catholic parish leaders together on a regular basis.

Parish Catalyst invites pastors, who fill out a form about their ministry, to a series of four meetings over 18 months. Pastors are asked to reflect upon such questions as "What keeps you up at night?" Also invited are two to five members of each parish leadership team. The seminars are divided into theme topics: Recent themes have included discussions of ministry to millennials, discipleship development and stewardship.

Along with plane fare and lodging, each parish contributes $5,500, which Parish Catalyst says is about a quarter of the actual cost. The remainder is paid by Parish Catalyst benefactors. The organization maintains a non-profit status.

Participants are encouraged to come up with strategic plans for their parishes over a six-month period and beyond. "This is a process that takes you from an idea to real implementation," said Henning.

Fr. Michael Saporito, pastor of St. Helen's Church in Westfield, N.J., said his participation in Parish Catalyst reinforced that parishes need to intentionally plan, that cultural Catholicism no longer effectively brings Catholics into active participation.

"The times have changed and people's churchgoing patterns have changed along with it. As a result, we have do a much better job at planning. We have to be intentional in all we do. We have to have goal statements that we really use. We have to make plans that we really keep ourselves accountable," he said.

One concrete result of Parish Catalyst: St. Helen's has implemented small faith sharing groups reflecting upon the papal Year of Mercy. The 50 groups have attracted 500 parishioners.

"If we are going to be successful in being faithful to the missionary mandate of Jesus to go and make disciples, we cannot leave that process to chance. We have to do more than just sow some seeds and hope some will take," noted Saporito.

Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, pastor of St. Monica's Church in Santa Monica, Calif., said that Parish Catalyst is most helpful in providing opportunities to talk with creative pastors from around the country. St. Monica's, for example, has developed a bond with Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago, another parish with a reputation for creative outreach.

"We don't do enough as pastors to talk with each other," said Torgerson. Parish Catalyst can help change that via sessions with evangelical megachurch leaders, such as Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., who offer tips from another Christian view about growing congregations.

Henning said that the seminars offer parish leaders a "learning community." The goal is to encourage pastors who have already proven they are willing to try new approaches.

"They are seekers. They are good leaders and they want to hang out with good leaders," said Simon. Getting together innovative pastoral thinkers is a model borrowed from the evangelical megachurch community.

Seminar participants, said Simon, are asked to drop their theological and ideological biases at the door. Seminars include parishes from the most traditional to the most liberal. But all involved, he said, share a willingness to evangelize and expand their witness, and are open to new ways of doing so.

Parish Catalyst is putting together another book, what Simon described as a landmark study of 244 pastors, based on more than 3,600 pages of transcript interviews. Great Catholic Parishes will be an effort to share some of the insights gleaned from the Parish Catalyst seminars and available later this year.

(Have you attended seminars sponsored by Parish Catalyst? Did it prove helpful to your work in parish ministry? Or is there another parish ministry support organization you think merits attention? Drop the Field Hospital a line at We are seeking out parish support programs making a difference in contemporary Catholic life.)

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

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