No single thread connects the Catholic parishes that are vibrant and thriving in the 21st century.
“There is no ‘silver bullet’ for doing
great parish ministry in the Catholic Church today,” writes William E.
Still, the research that prompted him to write “Great Catholic
Parishes” revealed four important characteristics of these parishes,
namely that they “(1) share leadership, (2) foster spiritual maturity
and plan for discipleship, (3) excel on Sundays, and (4) evangelize in
intentional, structured ways.”
In 2012 the book’s well-known businessman author, who ran for
governor of California in 2002, founded an organization called Parish
Catalyst, “devoted to supporting the health and development of Catholic
This book demonstrates that Simon’s interests stretch well
beyond the fields of politics or financial investing.
The book “contains some of the first fruits” of Parish Catalyst’s
work by sharing “the self-reported best practices, opportunities and
challenges of more than 200 excellent parishes.”
Ultimately, this is a book of good news about “places in the Catholic
Church where creativity, vision and devotion have the traction to move
the mission of Jesus Christ forward,” Simon writes. He wants it to
convey “a message of hope and optimism, grounded in realism” - a message
about American parishes “where important and meaningful work is being
done every single day and quantifiable progress is being achieved.
A note of caution is attached to this message, however. Current
trends indicate Catholics will leave their parishes “in moderate but
consistent numbers in the coming decades” and will remain in them only
if “given reason to, only if there is something vibrant and life-giving
in their parishes,” according to Simon.
He addresses his book to parish priests, deacons, lay and religious
order ministers, parish staff and committed volunteers. The book intends
to offer “practical ideas and more than a little encouragement” to
readers like these.
Parish leadership is among Simon’s main topics of interest here.
“There are many different leadership styles,” he observes. However, “one
commonality is that good leaders are skilled communicators -
individuals who are verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to
others on a deeper level. They articulate a compelling vision and arouse
strong emotional support in those they lead.”
There is a shift today toward shared leadership in parishes, and this
“represents a marked change from the traditional lone-ranger model of
pastoring,” Simon writes. Parish Catalyst researchers, he notes,
“identified three different styles of leadership sharing: the
collaborators, the delegators and the consultors.”
Highlighting the importance of lay leadership in the American
Catholic parish, Simon points out that “teamwork and communication have
become essential to decision-making processes.” In fact, he says,
“listening to advice from lay leaders means opening up a lane for
dialogue - making communication a two-way street.”
Simon is convinced there are “creative, talented and energetic
individuals” in our parish pews. “Helping people discover their
strengths and how to use them,” he says, “can have a resounding effect
on parish life overall.”
The Parish Catalyst team “conducted a total of 244 interviews with
pastors from every state in the United States,” Simon explains. The team
asked pastors “to reflect on their major challenges and near-term
goals, and to share their greatest successes.” Pastors were asked, as
well, “about their leadership styles, their staffs, what gets them up in
the morning and where they look for inspiration.”
Not only did the researchers learn what gets pastors up in the
morning, however. They also learned what keeps them awake at night -
what worries them most, which issues they find difficult.
“Great Catholic Parishes,” while fairly brief and easy to read,
covers a wide range of issues involved in the creation of parishes that
thrive. Most parish leaders should find something in the book that
relates directly to their work.
Parish personnel issues and tensions, the hiring of talented
ministers, making hospitality a parish reality, parish websites, the
challenges of bilingual and multicultural parishes, young-adult
ministries, financial matters and the transition surrounding a new
pastor’s arrival - all these and many other challenging factors in
contemporary parish life are addressed.
The findings of the Parish Catalyst researchers “fit comfortably into
four themes: sharing leadership, growing spiritually, worshipping and
reaching out,” Simon observes. “To us,” he adds, “these four areas
neatly encompass the principal aspects of parish life.”
I suspect Simon’s book soon will appear on reading lists for pastors,
parish staffs, parish councils, pastoral planners and, indeed, anyone
interested in what it takes to create a great Catholic parish in our